Today, in her quarterly letter to YouTubers
, CEO Susan Wojcicki took the occasion to defend the idea of a website that lets almost anyone upload a video — even offensive ones. She writes:
A commitment to openness is not easy. It sometimes means leaving up content that is outside the mainstream, controversial or even offensive. But I believe that hearing a broad range of perspectives ultimately makes us a stronger and more informed society, even if we disagree with some of those views. A large part of how we protect this openness is not just guidelines
that allow for diversity of speech, but the steps that we’re taking to ensure a responsible community. I’ve said a number of times
this year that this is my number one priority. A responsible approach toward managing what’s on our platform protects our users and creators like you. It also means we can continue to foster all the good that comes from an open platform.
The letter is full of links to the good YouTubers — the ones who make silly, educational, kind-hearted videos for their rabid fan bases. All of this is well and good, even if seems to me to sidestep the central issue at the heart of the debate, which was — what counts as harassment?
To my mind, the YouTube debate we should be having isn’t one about open platforms versus closed ones. Rather, it’s about the policies a company advertises versus the ones they enforce.
Meanwhile, here’s an intriguing paper from researchers
at Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne that documents another aspect of YouTube’s openness: the way it has attracted a large audience for conservative thinkers. The paper, “Auditing Radicalization Pathways on YouTube,” attempts to measure the site’s ability to nurture extremism by tracking commenters over 11 years. (Note that the paper has not yet been peer-reviewed.)
Researchers grouped conservative YouTubers into three admittedly fuzzy categories of escalating polarity: the “intellectual dark web,” the “alt-lite,” and the “alt-right.” (They built the categories using information from the Anti-Defamation League and Data & Society as well as their own research.) They found that people who began their time on YouTube by commenting on less extreme channels come to comment on more extreme channels over time — evidence, they say, of a “radicalization pipeline.” Here’s some of their data:
Consider, for example, users who in 2006 − 2012 commented only on I.D.W. or Alt-lite content (227, 945 users), as shown in the subplot in the first column and the first row. By 2018, around 10% were lightly infected, and roughly 4% severely or mildly so —which amounts to more than 9k users in total. From the ones who in 2017 commented only in Alt-lite or I.D.W. videos (1, 253, 751 users), as shown in the last column of the first row, approximately 12% of them became infected —more than 60k users altogether.
There are some obvious limits here, as the authors acknowledge. The fact that someone comments on a set of extremist videos does not necessarily tell us that he himself has become an extremist. And yet the data does seem to suggest that YouTube’s open platform is nudging thousands of people rightward over time — a notable fact in a time of rising extremist violence
. (Obligatory disclaimer here that there are many other media forces pushing people to the right, including conservative talk radio and cable news, and some of them are likely more effective in this regard than YouTube.)
In her letter, Wojcicki pledges to remove extremist content more effectively over time. She also reiterates a pledge to update the site’s policy for creator-on-creator harassment. In the meantime, I couldn’t help but notice the No.1 creator in the Brazilian researchers’ taxonomy of “alt-light” creators. At 727 million views, he dwarfed the subscriber count of his closest competitor. It was Steven Crowder, of course, and I couldn’t help but wonder how far his malign influence had spread beyond Carlos Maza.