A March 2018 New York Times article by sociologist, Zeynep Tufekci, set out the now widely reported thesis that YouTube is a radicalization engine. While follow up reporting by journalist Kevin Roose told a compelling tale of the personal experience of an individual, Caleb Cain, who described falling down an “alt right rabbit hole”; on YouTube. But researcher Manoel Horta Ribeiro, who was presenting the paper today, said the team wanted to see if they could find auditable evidence to support such anecdotes.
Their paper, called Auditing radicalization pathways on YouTube, details a large scale study of YouTube looking for traces of evidence — in likes, comments and views — that certain right-leaning YouTube communities are acting as gateways to fringe far-right ideologies.
Per the paper, they analyzed 330,925 videos posted on 349 channels — broadly classifying the videos into four types: Media, the Alt-lite, the Intellectual Dark Web (I.D.W.), and the Alt-right — and using user comments as a “good enough”; proxy for radicalization (their data-set included 72 million comments).
The findings suggest a pipeline effect over a number of years where users who started out commenting on alt-lite/IDW YouTube content shifted to commenting on extreme far-right content on the platform over time.
While the rate of overlap between consumers of Media content and the alt-right was found to be far lower.
He agreed it’s difficult to make an absolute claim that YouTube is to blame. But also argued that, as host to these communities, the platform is responsible.
“We do find evident traces of user radicalization, and I guess the question asks why is YouTube responsible for this? And I guess the answer would be because many of these communities they live on YouTube and they have a lot of their content on YouTube and that’s why YouTube is so deeply associated with it,”; he said.
“In a sense I do agree that it’s very hard to make the claim that the radicalization is due to YouTube or due to some recommender system or that the platform is responsible for that. It could be that something else is leading to this radicalization and in that sense I think that the analysis that we make it shows there is this process of users going from milder channels to more extreme ones. And this solid evidence towards radicalization because people that were not exposed to this radical content become exposed. But it’s hard to make strong causal claims — like YouTube is responsible for that.”;