The Guardian has published a very illuminating article on YouTube and the secret algorithms that impact viewer searches. They interviewed Guillaume Chaslot, a French computer programmer with a PhD in artificial intelligence, who was one of the engineers creating the algorithms. “YouTube is something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online,” he said. “The recommendation algorithm is not optimizing for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy.”
Chaslot created a program to search bias on YouTube. When his program found a seed video by searching the query “who is Michelle Obama?” and then followed the chain of “up next” suggestions, for example, most of the recommended videos said she “is a man”.
More than 80% of the YouTube-recommended videos about the Pope detected by his program described the Catholic leader as “evil”, “satanic”, or “the anti-Christ”. There were literally millions of videos uploaded to YouTube to satiate the algorithm’s appetite for content claiming the earth is flat.
“On YouTube, fiction is outperforming reality,” Chaslot says.
He believes one of the most shocking examples was detected by his program in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. As he observed in a short, largely unnoticed blogpost published after Donald Trump was elected, the impact of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm was not neutral during the presidential race: it was pushing videos that were, in the main, helpful to Trump and damaging to Hillary Clinton.
“It was strange,” he explained. “Wherever you started, whether it was from a Trump search or a Clinton search, the recommendation algorithm was much more likely to push you in a pro-Trump direction.”
Chaslot sent the Guardian reporter a database of more YouTube-recommended videos his program identified in the three months leading up to the presidential election. “I spent weeks watching, sorting and categorising the trove of videos with Erin McCormick, an investigative reporter and expert in database analysis. From the start, we were stunned by how many extreme and conspiratorial videos had been recommended, and the fact that almost all of them appeared to be directed against Clinton.
One video that Chaslot’s data indicated was pushed particularly hard by YouTube’s algorithm was a bizarre, one-hour film claiming Trump’s rise was predicted in Isaiah 45.
The sample we had looked at suggested Chaslot’s conclusion was correct: YouTube was six times more likely to recommend videos that aided Trump than his adversary.
About half the videos Chaslot’s program detected being recommended during the election have now vanished from YouTube – many of them taken down by their creators. Chaslot has always thought this suspicious. These were videos with titles such as “Must Watch!! Hillary Clinton tried to ban this video”, watched millions of times before they disappeared. “Why would someone take down a video that has been viewed millions of times?” he asks.
“I shared the entire database of 8,000 YouTube-recommended videos with John Kelly, the chief executive of the commercial analytics firm Graphika, which has been tracking political disinformation campaigns.
He ran the list against his own database of Twitter accounts active during the election, and concluded many of the videos appeared to have been pushed by networks of Twitter sock puppets and bots controlled by pro-Trump digital consultants with “a presumably unsolicited assist” from Russia.