YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which decides which videos users watch next, has been responsible for 70% of the one billion hours per day people spent on the platform, according to YouTube. When it became abundantly clear, specifically after the 2016 presidential election, that this algorithm subsequently led users to fringe videos that were partisan, misleading, false and divisive, fueling and amplifying a seething underground of radical conservatives, YouTube attempted to put a stop to it.
Last year, the platform finally stopped recommending conspiracy theory videos, and YouTube has been more or less successful keeping the fringe channels off the mainstream, thus reducing the spread of disinformation, according to research by Guillaume Chaslot, a former Google engineer who helped build the algorithm in question. However, new data reveals a troubling side effect: The promotion of Fox News.
“The channel most recommended in our data set in 2016 was Alex Jones,” the notorious internet conspiracy theorist, who has since been barred from YouTube, Chaslot told The New York Times. “Now it’s Fox News.”
Republicans have long been accusing major social media platforms of stifling conservative voices, and social media companies are trying to play the game of appeasing politicians while combating misinformation.
Just six days before the 2020 election, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing to explore Section 230, the law that protects social media platforms from liability for content on their sites and gives them discretion over content moderation. The CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter testified and defended themselves against allegations of anti-conservative bias from Republican senators. Democratic senators accused their colleagues across the aisle of attempting to bully the CEOs into doing the president’s bidding and allowing for more misinformation to spread.
The data, collected by Chaslot and Marc Faddoul, a research at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that a video of Tucker Carlson accusing Google, which owns YouTube, of subverting democracy in its attempts to improve its search results has been recommended by YouTube’s algorithm more than almost any other news-related video in recent weeks.
It goes further than that. The data showed that YouTube most frequently recommended Fox News clips from its pro-Trump prime-time shows, which are known to spread unreliable information about voter fraud and coronavirus while unashamedly bashing Democrats. The data also shows that Fox News was consistently the most recommended channel, often by a wide margin.
According to data from an analysis that analyzed 300,000 recommendations on videos posted by 800 of YouTube’s most popular news-related channels between October 6 to October 27, Fox News accounted for more than 3% of the recommendations, compared to 1% for CNN and MSNBC. When only looking at election videos from the same channels, Fox News accounted for a whopping 10% of all recommendations, nearly three times the rate of MSNBC.
Views of Fox News on YouTube have more than doubled over the past year, surpassing six billion on Monday, ahead of every other major American news network aside from NBCNews, according to Social Blade, a social media analytics firm.
Fox News knows how to play the game. YouTube labels certain accounts, like the network, as authoritative sources, which tells the algorithm to boost content from those sites. And if there’s one thing conservative talk shows know how to do, it’s hook Americans with click-baitey, emotionally charged headlines. The algorithm is designed to recognize a headline’s effectiveness at drawing clicks and amplify it.
Fox News has been working hard to boost its presence on YouTube, a spokesperson for Fox told NYT. The network has a dedicated team that posts videos it knows will do well with YouTube’s algorithms. This begs the question of how many of the network’s headlines are framed to please the algorithm, rather than to tell the news as it should be told.