CRF Blog

The Making of a YouTube Radical

by Bill Hayes

In The Making of a YouTube Radical, a graphic-laden article for the New York Times, Kevin Roose looks at how YouTube inadvertently can provide a means to convert young men to far-right racist beliefs.

Over years of reporting on internet culture, I’ve heard countless versions of [this] story: an aimless young man — usually white, frequently interested in video games — visits YouTube looking for direction or distraction and is seduced by a community of far-right creators.

Some young men discover far-right videos by accident, while others seek them out. Some travel all the way to neo-Nazism, while others stop at milder forms of bigotry.

The common thread in many of these stories is YouTube and its recommendation algorithm, the software that determines which videos appear on users’ home pages and inside the “Up Next” sidebar next to a video that is playing. The algorithm is responsible for more than 70 percent of all time spent on the site.

The radicalization of young men is driven by a complex stew of emotional, economic and political elements, many having nothing to do with social media. But critics and independent researchers say YouTube has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism by combining two things: a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens.

“There’s a spectrum on YouTube between the calm section — the Walter Cronkite, Carl Sagan part — and Crazytown, where the extreme stuff is,” said Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, YouTube’s parent company. “If I’m YouTube and I want you to watch more, I’m always going to steer you toward Crazytown.”

In recent years, social media platforms have grappled with the growth of extremism on their services. Many platforms have barred a handful of far-right influencers and conspiracy theorists, including Alex Jones of Infowars, and tech companies have taken steps to limit the spread of political misinformation.

YouTube, whose rules prohibit hate speech and harassment, took a more laissez-faire approach to enforcement for years…. [Recently] the company announced that it was updating its policy to ban videos espousing neo-Nazism, white supremacy and other bigoted views. The company also said it was changing its recommendation algorithm to reduce the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

With two billion monthly active users uploading more than 500 hours of video every minute, YouTube’s traffic is estimated to be the second highest of any website, behind only Google.com. According to the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 use YouTube, a higher percentage than for any other online service. [more]