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YouTube finally fights back against conspiracy theories

Each time a new national calamity occurs — which is to say, every few days for the past couple years
July 9 · Issue #160 · View online
The Interface
Each time a new national calamity occurs — which is to say, every few days for the past couple years — a peculiar playbook begins to unfold. In the absence of hard details about the event, trolls and political operatives flood social platforms with misinformation. Algorithms float some of this misinformation to the top of search results, or push it directly to users via recommendations. The press highlights the platforms’ failures in real time, wondering out loud how the world’s richest companies can’t figure out a better solution.
Today, YouTube — one of the worst offenders at pushing misinformation during crises — offered an encouraging set of new approaches. This is an unusually meaty corporate blog post, with nearly a dozen announcements packed inside. YouTube’s big idea is to add lots more contextual information about current events, while also funding more high-quality journalism.
Here are the three most important changes, as I see them:
  • “After a breaking news event, it takes time to verify, produce and publish high-quality videos. Journalists often write articles first to break the news rather than produce videos. In the coming weeks in the U.S. we will start providing a short preview of news articles in search results on YouTube that link to the full article during the initial hours of a major news event, along with a reminder that breaking and developing news can rapidly change.”
  • “Starting today, users will begin seeing information from third parties, including Wikipedia and Encyclopædia Britannica, alongside videos on a small number of well-established historical and scientific topics that have often been subject to misinformation, like the moon landing and the Oklahoma City Bombing.”
  • “We will provide funding across approximately 20 global markets to support news organizations in building sustainable video operations. Provided on an application basis to news organizations of all types, these grants will enable our partners to build key capabilities, train staff on video best practices, enhance production facilities and develop formats optimized for online video.”
These changes are encouraging because they acknowledge the realities of the modern media environment better than YouTube ever has to date. The first change acknowledges that video lags text in the wake of catastrophes, and so offers text a privileged place on a video platform. The second change acknowledges that settled historical events are often the subject of insane conspiracies, and so it surrounds those conspiracies with facts. The third change, which comes with $25 million in grants, acknowledges that video creation is expensive and difficult, and publishers need help not just in video creation but in creating sustainable businesses.
“We’re doing this because while we see the news industry changing, the importance of news is not,” Robert Kyncl, YouTube’s chief business officer, told Issie Lapowsky.
In part, what YouTube’s changes do is address what the researcher Renee DiResta calls “asymmetries of passion.” She wrote about the phenomenon last week in the context of vitamin K shots, which are crucial to infant health but have been the subject of potentially life-threatening conspiracy theories that have found a home on Google.
This is what Michael Golebiewski at Bing calls a “data void,” or search void: a situation where searching for answers about a keyword returns content produced by a niche group with a particular agenda. It isn’t just Google results—keyword voids are happening on social too. The most shared articles about vitamin K on Facebook are anti-vax, and the CrowdTangle analytics platform shows those articles are reaching an audience of millions. YouTube results are no better; several of the top 10 results feature notable immunology expert Alex Jones.
There’s an asymmetry of passion at work. Which is to say, there’s very little counter-content to surface because it simply doesn’t occur to regular people (or, in this case, actual medical experts) that there’s a need to produce counter-content. Instead, engaging blogs by real moms with adorable children living authentic natural lives rise to the top, stating that doctors are bought by pharma, or simply misinformed, and that the shot is risky and unnecessary. The persuasive writing sounds reasonable, worthy of a second look. And since so much of the information on the first few pages of search results repeats these claims, the message looks like it represents a widely-held point of view. But it doesn’t. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s potentially deadly.
YouTube’s announcements today will begin to plug those data voids, and I’m optimistic that they will meaningfully improve its performance. Mostly I’m just heartened that the company seems to be belatedly coming to grips with the realities of the modern media sphere. It’s not nearly enough — but it’s a start.

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Anti-Defamation League report: White supremacist propaganda is inundating college campuses
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Twitter Plunges on Traders’ Fear That User Activity May Slow
Time capsule app Timehop suffered a July 4th data breach that affected 21 million users
Oprah, Is That You? On Social Media, the Answer Is Often No.
Snapchat code reveals team-up with Amazon for ‘Camera Search’
We need a publicly funded rival to Facebook and Google
Addressing WhatsApp's Fake News problems
And finally ...
Facebook’s program thinks Declaration of Independence is hate speech
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