Brendan Nyhan for WaPo:
YouTube is overshadowed by Facebook and Twitter in the debate over the harms of social media, but the site has massive reach — 3 in 4 Americans report using it. This growth has been driven by YouTube’s use of algorithms to recommend more videos to watch, a feature that critics warn can lead people down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories and racism.
In 2018, for example, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci described how YouTube started suggesting she check out “white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content” after she started watching videos of Donald Trump rallies in 2016, prompting her to warn about the site “potentially helping to radicalize billions of people.”
Google — YouTube’s parent company — has sought to address these concerns. In 2019, for instance, it announced new efforts to remove objectionable content and reduce recommendations to “borderline” content that raises concerns without violating site policies.
Has YouTube done enough to curb harmful material on the platform? In a new report published by the Anti-Defamation League, my co-authors and I find that alarming levels of exposure to potentially harmful content continue. When we directly measured the browsing habits of a diverse national sample of 915 participants, we found that more than 9 percent viewed at least one YouTube video from a channel that has been identified as extremist or white supremacist; meanwhile, 22 percent viewed one or more videos from “alternative” channels, defined as non-extremist channels that serve as possible gateways to fringe ideas.
My academic co-authors Annie Y. Chen, Jason Reifler, Ronald E. Robertson, Christo Wilson and I collected this data from April to October 2020 via a browser extension that respondents installed voluntarily to help us track their YouTube habits.
The study revealed that Google’s takedowns have not addressed many channels of potential concern. By combining lists compiled by academic researchers and subject matter experts at groups like the ADL and the Southern Poverty Law Center, we identified 290 channels that could be categorized as extremist or white supremacist and 322 in the “alternative” category. Of these, 515 channels were still active as of January. We found that participants visited 265 of them during the study, including more than 50 of the extremist channels.
Viewership of these channels was highly concentrated. Among the 1 in 10 participants overall who watched at least one extremist video, for instance, many watched considerably more. Mean viewership of videos from extremist channels among those who saw at least one was 11.5. In total, 6 percent of participants in the study were responsible for 80 percent of consumption of videos from these channels. Similarly, the mean number of videos from alternative channels watched by the 22 percent of participants who watched at least one such video was 64.2.