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How YouTube's Algorithm Distorts Truth


Writing for The Guardian, Paul Lewis goes deep on YouTube’s secretive recommendation algorithm, trying to determine what role it might have played in shaping public opinion around the 2016 US presidential election. As Lewis notes, much has been made of Facebook and Twitter’s role in the election, but YouTube has been largely ignored. Lewis’s findings are startling. As one former YouTube employee told him, "On YouTube, fiction is outperforming reality,” Here’s an excerpt:

There are 1.5 billion YouTube users in the world, which is more than the number of households that own televisions. What they watch is shaped by this algorithm, which skims and ranks billions of videos to identify 20 “up next” clips that are both relevant to a previous video and most likely, statistically speaking, to keep a person hooked on their screen.

Company insiders tell me the algorithm is the single most important engine of YouTube’s growth. In one of the few public explanations of how the formula works – an academic paper that sketches the algorithm’s deep neural networks, crunching a vast pool of data about videos and the people who watch them – YouTube engineers describe it as one of the “largest scale and most sophisticated industrial recommendation systems in existence” …

Yet one stone has so far been largely unturned. Much has been written about Facebook and Twitter’s impact on politics, but in recent months academics have speculated that YouTube’s algorithms may have been instrumental in fuelling disinformation during the 2016 presidential election. “YouTube is the most overlooked story of 2016,” Zeynep Tufekci, a widely respected sociologist and technology critic, tweeted back in October. “Its search and recommender algorithms are misinformation engines.”

If YouTube’s recommendation algorithm really has evolved to promote more disturbing content, how did that happen? And what is it doing to our politics?

Image: Conspiracy theorist and talkshow host Alex Jones. Via The Guardian.