Due to prior commitments this week, some of my blog posts are going to be a bit on the short side. Today I want to discuss a recent presentation discussing the results of interviews with Flat Earth believers at two conferences in 2017 and 2018. Speaking Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting, researchers who spoke with more thirty attendees placed the blame squarely on YouTube for creating a community of Flat Earth believers and providing the means for Flat Earth leaders to propagandize a credulous audience. An article in the Guardian summarized their findings:
Of the 30, all but one said they had not considered the Earth to be flat two years ago but changed their minds after watching videos promoting conspiracy theories on YouTube. “The only person who didn’t say this was there with his daughter and his son-in-law and they had seen it on YouTube and told him about it,” said Asheley Landrum, who led the research at Texas Tech University.
I would be interested to see the degree to which believers in other conspiracy theories and fringe history themes also found reinforcement of their ideas through YouTube videos. Frankly, these videos don’t receive half the attention and rebuttal that they deserve, though it is difficult to even begin to do so since they multiply faster than bacteria and audience flit from one to the next indiscriminately.
The findings, while not exactly conclusive due to the small sample size, are highly suggestive and reinforce earlier conclusions from other studies that YouTube is a major vector in delivering conspiracy content and creating believers in extremist material. The Flat Earth is hardly the only example of this. Reports last year that viewers can be seduced into ultra-right-wing politics through YouTube’s algorithms serving up increasingly extreme rightist videos to viewers of conservative content, ultimately leading to white nationalist and Nazi content, led the video service to curb its conspiracy content recently, with mixed results.
Landrum, a psychologist who specializes in science communication, takes a surprisingly upbeat view of YouTube and told her audience that the company was doing nothing wrong but might consider tweaks to its algorithm. This is a shockingly blasé attitude toward a major corporation that has knowingly created algorithms that prioritize extremist content in pursuit of increased viewership and therefore advertising revenue. Many people express concern that YouTube shouldn’t “censor” anti-science videos, and that argument is fair to an extent.
But YouTube is not required to promote videos its users post, and it is arguably unethical to promote harmful content. And let’s not pretend that the “Recommend Videos” section of YouTube is some magic list that appears out of nowhere. Those videos aren’t selected because they are good or noble or moral; they are selected to get you to watch more and to watch more ads. To do so, the algorithm selects more extreme content to appeal to viewers’ basest instincts. This is a choice, and it can be unchosen. YouTube has done some good by attempting to limit the worst of conspiracy videos from appearing on the recommendation list. But we can’t naively pretend that media companies’ choices don’t affect the people who consume their content. Even if we assume YouTube’s algorithms only accidentally created a propaganda machine for right wing extremists and science deniers, it is still a moral obligation to dismantle that pipeline with the same fervor with which they viciously eliminate every boob and butt cheek in service of puritanical moral purity.
Speaking of puritanical purification, earlier this month Google ordered Ancient Origins to remove hundreds of images of ancient art and historical artifacts for violating its blanket prohibition on images depicting nudity, violence, or human waste on any page participating in the Google Ad Sense program. The utter ridiculousness of the suppression of images of famous paintings and statues, as well as historical images of mummies and archaeological digs, was entirely the result of the effort by Google to avoid even a hint of upset from those easily offended by the human body. However, the result was the opposite of what Google intended, since it just made conservatives angry and crying out about censorship. The conservative Times of London and the radical right-wing Breitbart both ran articles this week decrying what they and Ancient Origins called the censorship of Ancient Origins, a site that has carried right-wing interpretations of history in its mix of fringe claims and recycled content. As much as I would like to take pleasure in Ancient Origins losing a major revenue stream and being de-listed from Google News, where its stories have frequently appeared, it is upsetting that this positive outcome is the result not of recognizing that Ancient Origins is third-rate fringe crap but rather because of the blind application of puritanical rules about boobs.
In both cases, though, Alphabet, the parent of Google and YouTube, is simply following the money. It pays to appease the extremists, since those who aren’t on the extreme aren’t loud enough to cause problems and will simply accept whatever the company does anyway. Occasionally, someone gets upset, but, for the most part, content creators either conform or go bust. “There is no negotiating with Google,” Joanna Gillan wrote. And that is not really a good thing.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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