Opinion | YouTube’s long shadow is eclipsing democracy
December 7, 2020
Hosting 2 billion users worldwide and 79% of Internet users possessing their own YouTube account, YouTube reigns enormous influence and attention across the connected globe. Haphazardly though, the company as of late disregards this immense liabilities and continues on as a station for misinformation to spread like wildfire.
While other major social media platforms this year incorporated new procedures — albeit too little too late — to combat misinformation running up to the election, notably it has been YouTube in the election’s aftermath who has failed to dampen the dissemination of its democratically damaging broadcasts.
On Nov. 17, the captains of these dystopian industries Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee: a hearing intended to expand the conversation on what regulations will be needed to reign these platforms in. Prominently missing from this hearing was Susan Wojcicki: the central CEO who failed in preventing the current election misinformation campaigns.
Although Google — and parent company — CEO Sundar Pichai has testified multiple times, the topic of YouTube and the targeted threat it symbolizes is often overlooked due to Google’s other worries. Nonetheless, YouTube has evaded all responsibilities in safeguarding the integrity of American institutions and general societal well-being — both by gross negligence on part of the government and their hesitant leadership.
Evelyn Douk, in “Why Isn’t Susan Wojcicki Getting Grilled by Congress?” outlines that YouTube’s public relations strategy the last few years “has been to be more opaque, keep its head down, keep quiet, and let the other platforms take the heat.”
This ambiguity by YouTube has led to immense complicity for the company, where today, channels like OAN can publish unequivocally false videos such as “Trump Won” and have no fear of YouTube removing the misinformation.
In response to reporters pointing out this, YouTube tweeted its reply claiming, “we’re allowing these videos because discussion of election results & the process of counting votes is allowed on YT [YouTube].” However, it is crucial to recognize these videos contesting the free and fair election are not mere “discussion of election results & the process of counting votes,” these videos are weapons of disinformation against American democracy.
YouTube’s extensive failure in addressing and consolidating its disinformation-sins are not recent to this election. Preluding the polarizing 2020 election, YouTube had its own culture of fringe outlets and personalities making broader names for themselves: Alex Jones (banned in 2018, but recently appeared on a Joe Rogan episode currently with over 14 million views), Stefan Molyneux and Steven Crowder to name a few.
Including implicating those running the YouTube train, it is also valuable to note YouTube’s engine and bread and butter exists in its alarming algorithm.
YouTube’s algorithm is designed to retain viewers on the site and for targeted ads to be observed. This capitalistic pursuit is not the crime YouTube faces, but rather it is the algorithm’s desperate quest to increase video watch time; recommending and radicalizing videos centered around hate speech and conspiracy based on previously watched videos.
In June 2019, Kevin Roose of the New York Times published a provocative piece titled “The Making of a YouTube Radical.” In it, Roose dissects the case of Caleb Cain: a man who realizes he “fell down the alt-right rabbit hole” on YouTube. Additionally, Roose interviews Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube engineer who acknowledges YouTube’s algorithm above all else is intended to “increase the time people spend online, because it leads to more ads.”
Caleb Cain’s experience with the YouTube algorithm showcases YouTube as a force of radicalization and alienation.
The saddest marker of this story is how little affection YouTube gives to these tragic accounts of an individual losing humanity; as long as YouTube’s watch time and ad revenues meet their goals, YouTube need not break a sweat over their civil undoing.
It was not until YouTube’s algorithm pushed Caleb out of his far-right rabbit hole and into a subsequent far-left journey that Caleb realized “you can’t go to YouTube and think that you’re getting some kind of education, because you’re not.”
This original sin of YouTube to prioritize watch time and ad revenue over simple notions as caring about moderation and societal civility bleeds into another daunting battle of Vox journalist Carlos Maza and YouTube’s conservative star Steven Crowder.
Preceding the recent days of vehemently false “Plandemic” and election misinformation videos on the platform, YouTube’s previous calamity stood in its harassment concession following Crowder harassing and hurling homophobic slurs at Maza.
Maza, citing YouTube’s own harassment policy, implicated YouTube on the basis of Crowder creating content “deliberately posted to humiliate someone,” and making “hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person.”
Despite the monstrous evidence of intended hate, YouTube stood on the side of Crowder asserting, “while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies.”
In a statement responding to overwhelming criticism, Wojcicki invoked the word “community” 10 times in addition to claiming YouTube is “the world’s largest classroom;” a failed attempt to rectify the mountain of wrongs YouTube has fostered.
Before any meaningful reform is made, YouTube must testify to their collective crimes: prioritizing watch time for ad revenue and complicity in unwinding civility. A statement “promising” change does not even reach the level of basic competency to begin recognizing YouTube’s complications.
YouTube in its core is an entertainment platform. A platform for sharing amusing videos should not transgress to being a final thread in society’s patchwork. Going forward, it will require bureaucratic regulation and sincere accountability for YouTube to escape its long, intolerable shadow.
Nathaniel is a sophomore in LAS.