YOUTUBE IS BUILDING A BETTER RABBIT HOLE…

February 2nd, 2018

I watch YouTube. A lot. And I’ve been sucked down the rabbit hole more than a few times, but I’ve always been able to grab hold of a bit of reality and drag myself out again. I know from listening to my students that they often aren’t quiet so lucky. One of my 17-year-old students, fully believing that what he saw was real, brought these videos to my attention.

Increasingly I believe that Bruce Bartlett’s handy little book: The Truth Matters: A Citizen’s Guide To Separating Facts From Lies And Stopping Fake News In Its Tracks ought to be given, and taught, to every sixth grader in the nation.

So, what brought the attention of The Guardian’s Paul Lewis in ‘Fiction is outperforming reality’: how YouTube’s algorithm distorts truth?

It was one of January’s most viral videos. Logan Paul, a YouTube celebrity, stumbles across a dead man hanging from a tree. The 22-year-old, who is in a Japanese forest famous as a suicide spot, is visibly shocked, then amused. “Dude, his hands are purple,” he says, before turning to his friends and giggling. “You never stand next to a dead guy?”

Paul, who has 16 million mostly teen subscribers to his YouTube channel, removed the video from YouTube 24 hours later amid a furious backlash. It was still long enough for the footage to receive 6m views and a spot on YouTube’s coveted list of trending videos.

The next day, I watched a copy of the video on YouTube. Then I clicked on the “Up next” thumbnails of recommended videos that YouTube showcases on the right-hand side of the video player. This conveyor belt of clips, which auto-play by default, are designed to seduce us spending more time on Google’s video broadcasting platform. I was curious where they might lead.

The answer was a slew of videos of men mocking distraught teenage fans of Logan Paul, followed by CCTV footage of children stealing things and, a few clicks later, a video of children having their teeth pulled out with bizarre, homemade contraptions.

I had cleared my history, deleted my cookies, and opened a private browser to be sure YouTube was not personalising recommendations. This was the algorithm taking me on a journey of is own volition, and it culminated with a video of two boys, aged about five or six, punching and kicking one another.

And that’s just the mild stuff. Lewis continues:

Lewd and violent videos have been algorithmically served up to toddlers watching YouTube Kids, a dedicated app for children. One YouTube creator who was banned from making advertising revenues from his strange videos—which featured his children receiving flu shots, removing earwax, and crying over dead pets—told a reporter he had only been responding to the demands of Google’s algorithm. “That’s what got us out there and popular,” he said. “We learned to fuel it and do whatever it took to please the algorithm.”

All hail the algorithm, our new Moloch

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