The Invisible Walls of YouTube

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Photo by: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

November 2019 was a watershed month for American politics. It marked the beginning of the formal impeachment inquiry of the President of the United States, Donald Trump, only the third time an American president was to be impeached. Public hearings were held, investigations were made, and American news was abuzz with objective discussions, opposing arguments and rancorous accusations.

Politics can be controversial, with largely divided opinions along partisan lines. The party division is marked by differences in principles of government, and religious and secular world views. This is further complicated by each individual having their opinions and beliefs based on their own experiences, principles and values. In a democracy, some would argue that it is important that the public remain actively engaged in the activities and conduct of their government. It is especially easy in this day and age to do so. Social media and digital platforms have become the cornerstone of modern society, with a plethora of content at each individual’s fingertips.

YouTube is a large player in this global phenomenon, having grown from 2005 into the second largest social network in the world today. With 73% of US adults reportedly frequenting the video media platform, it can be said that YouTube is as influential as televised news channels. The platform has even hosted livestreams of debates during US presidential elections, giving American citizens real time access to information which may ultimately influence their vote in a US election.

Given the power it wields over such a massive number of American viewers, one might assume YouTube would capably present videos involving Trump’s impeachment without bias, apart from political alignment. A quick use of its search engine will reveal it hosts news organizations with different political stances, posting through their own official channels their respective interpretation of stories as events unfold. On the surface, this seems fine. Nothing wrong with a platform that presents both sides of a story along with different points of view. If anything, this makes YouTube an objective place to learn about news surrounding the impeachment, right?

Wrong, for a number of reasons. Studies indicate that social media usage has given rise to ‘echo chambers’. Echo chambers describe the mental concept of restricting one’s media consumption from opposing views. From videos to online forums, this isolation from other perspectives of an issue causes the reinforcement of the individual’s point of view, believing it to be more true or right than others. This bias can grow to the point of taking priority over facts and logic. In short, echo chambers are real, dangerous and EVERYWHERE in the digital space.

And what better way to observe the potency of this effect than searching for video coverage of the historical third impeachment of a US President on YouTube. Using a neutral browser (a browser without search history, a digital footprint, or geographic preferences), three different news channels were looked up, each with their own political stances as presented in the Media Bias Chart: Buzzfeed, Fox News and NBC.

The Media Bias Chart. Image By: Ad Fontes Media

One random video was then pulled from each channel with the word ‘impeachment’ in the title, all uploaded within November 2019, when the impeachment process began. These videos are:

Buzzfeed News – Let’s Hear It For The Whistleblower – Impeachment Today Podcast

Fox News – Tucker’s big takeaways from the Trump impeachment saga

NBC News – Highlights: Fiona Hill And David Holmes’ Impeachment Hearing Testimony

Next, the YouTube Data Tool was used to scrape each video for their recommended video section. This data was then processed by the network analysis program, Gephi, to visualize the networks within which these three videos reside.

Visualization of Video Recommendation by News Channel. Image by: Author

Lo and behold, it appears that overlaps in recommended videos among these three channels are rare. Between the left leaning NBC and the conservative Fox News, a mere 5 videos out of a cumulative 171 video recommendations could possibly lead to the network of videos of the other news channel. This means that a user has only a 3% chance of being exposed to any content representing the opposing political stance of both NBC and Fox News, regardless of which channel they had started with. The echo chamber looks even stronger for Buzzfeed, with its network of recommended videos sharing absolutely no overlap of recommended videos with other news channels. This means that if you start looking up ‘impeachment’ through Buzzfeed in November 2019, you would have no exposure to any politically opposing content featured in other news channels.

As borne out in the above exercise, exposure to opposing political viewpoints is rare for a YouTube user. It is therefore likely that an individual will maintain his or her political viewpoints. This is simply the result of YouTube’s algorithm following its programming and doing its job. Engineers at Google released a paper in 2016, explaining how YouTube has used algorithms for years. A complex machine learning process gathers and analyses data down to each specific user. The result is an adaptive program that presents videos personalized to individual viewing patterns and preferences. This may be fine if you are looking to kill time watching meme videos, but it restricts users from a more expansive world view.

“It isn’t inherently awful that YouTube uses AI to recommend video for you, because if the AI is well tuned it can help you get what you want.” – AlgoTransparency Founder, Guillaume Chaslot

The former algorithm developer for Google and YouTube, Guillaume Chaslot, pointed out the flaws in the video recommendation algorithm. He stated that the primary purpose of YouTube’s algorithm is not to inform or educate viewers, but to capture their attention and keep them on the platform. This encourages the existence of echo chambers within digital communities, continually reinforcing pre-existing views. We’ve got to realize that YouTube recommendations are toxic and it perverts civic discussion,” said the algorithmic transparency advocate, Chaslot at a recent tech conference.

The issue of algorithms enabling echo chambers raises questions about YouTube being an objective platform for political media distribution. We cannot deny the data showing how popular YouTube is. It would be foolish for news organizations to not reach out to a large segment of Americans through this video platform. But with analysis proving the effectiveness of the algorithm and developers acknowledging civic concerns, what is recommended to you will not always be what is best for you. If individuals wish to break through these invisible walls, it would be wise to make a deliberate effort to look beyond them.