A new study authored by Australian software engineer Mark Ledwich takes a detailed look at the political commentary on YouTube and what sort of effects YouTube's recommendation feature has on content crossover and political radicalization.
The study, which Ledwich wrote extensively about in a blog post here, uses publicly available data made neutral (not affected by user history) through YouTube’s Application Programming Interface (API).
Inspired by the Data and Society report from Rebecca Lewis entitled “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube”, Ledwich explored the data to see if the conclusion of Lewis’s report, that YouTube fosters right-wing radicalization, is indeed true.
Grouping and collecting the data
Qualifying the data using various lists of channels that have over 10k subscribers and focus 30% or more of their commentary on U.S. political or cultural news, Ledwich was able to build an interactive graphic which shows the amount of recommendations flowing in and out of every qualified channel.
The channels are grouped into the three traditional boxes of political thought, right-wing, center/heterodox, and left wing politics. Ledwich categorized channels based upon their self identified labels, clear support for Democrats or Republicans, one sided coverage on divided political events like the Kavanaugh appointment or the Migrant Caravan, and clear matches on issues using the ISideWith website.
YouTube's neutral recommendations
The results from this detailed study run counter to the narrative put forward by the Data and Society report and actually show that the recommendations YouTube provides on the sidebar of every video are politically neutral and correspond to the size of their respective political group on YouTube.
What is also apparent when looking at this graphic is that the Left, not the Right, is actually the dominant force on YouTube, at least in terms of total recommendations. However, as Ledwich also shows, the Right has far more pure ‘YouTuber’s’ than the Left or Center, despite the Left dominance in total views.
The reason for the Left’s success in terms of views is largely thanks to many of the late night comedians such as Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel who upload their TV content onto YouTube.
Predictably, in today’s polarized political climate, the centrist audience is the smallest of the three.
The path of recommendations
Returning to the central contention of the Data and Society report, we can observe that supposed turning of young viewers towards “extremist political positions” on the Right is not happening at all.
In fact, as the graphic shows, the path of political content via recommendations on YouTube actually leads away from the Right and towards the Left.
Of course, regardless of what content you start out watching, you are most likely to be recommended content within that political sphere, albeit less so with Center/Heterodox content.
However, if you were to start watching right-wing content, you would be twice as likely to be recommended content from left-wing channels than you would be if you started watching left-wing channels and were recommended right-wing content.
The effect of viewing history
The obvious caveat to these conclusions is that they do not take into consideration the viewing history of the user. However, it is not clear that this history would substantially change the results of Ledwich’s study.
When YouTube populates the recommendation tab on the side of the video being viewed, it recommends videos that are popular, recent and have a high chance of being watched based on the users viewing history.
This means that unless the user has already watched more extreme content, there is not much of a chance it would appear in the suggested feed. In fact, what would appear would be more popular content, leading the user to engage with more mainstream creators and pushing them towards the political center.
If the user has already discovered extreme or radical content, however that is defined, there is a higher chance that this will appear in their suggested feed. However, even then, the YouTube algorithm will still favour popular videos, which tend to not be from the site’s more fringe creators.
The false narrative of the Data and Society report
Ultimately, while YouTube, like many social media sites, can function as an echo chamber for any type of political content, it is clear that their algorithm does not push people to the fringe channels but actually guides them towards the more mainstream creators.
Ledwich’s study debunks the false narrative set forth by Rebecca Lewis that YouTube serves as a conduit for right-wing radicalization. In an email to The Post Millennial, the Ledwich said:
"The Data & Society report claims there is a network of reactionary channels that dominate the platform and are united to promote far-right politics. My analysis found that more people are viewing left-leaning content that the Center and Right combined. Also, the recommendation algorithm appears Left/Right neutral, and the channels that the report describes as "pathways to radicalization" (e.g. Dave Rubin) are actually a moderating influence."
Lewis’s study was proven to be faulty in many areas and contained a clear political call for deplatforming, a pattern seen elsewhere on the far-left as groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center launch a campaign dubiously named Change the Terms to shut down healthy debate online.
YouTube's role in political dialogue
While YouTube still has its problems, including demonetization and censorship issues, the platform has served as a great tool for millions of people world-wide to debate and discuss the political, religious and philosophical ideas affecting our world today.
Ledwich’s study clearly shows us that YouTube is not playing an active role in pushing people toward right-wing content and is in fact facilitating crossover views between opposing political viewpoints.
Though not perfect, as shown by their recent questionable three month ban of health blogger Mikhaila Peterson for "spam and deceptive practices" during a live Q and A, YouTube has played an important role in the area of political dialogue and has had a formative effect on the political knowledge and attitudes of the upcoming generation, Generation Z.
The world is better served by a YouTube that allows for free dialogue and debate. Here’s to hoping it can continue to do so.