YouTube’s recommendation algorithm is guiding users into an “alt-right rabbit hole” of conspiracy theories, hate groups and misogyny, according to a story in the Sunday New York Times.
“The Making of a YouTube radical,” by Kevin Roose, begins with photos lined up six across on a web page. Many of the faces are familiar – Ben Shapiro, Gavin McInnis, Milo Yiannapolous, Alex Jones, even Milton Friedman.
“Caleb Cain was a college dropout looking for direction,” text imposed on the photos reads. “He turned to YouTube. Soon, he was pulled into a far-right universe, watching thousands of videos filled with conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism.”
A final section of text appears. “’I was brainwashed,’” it reads.
The story opens with Cain, 26, who lives in West Virginia, brandishing a Glock he had bought recently “’the day after I got death threats,’” he said, according to Roose, made by “right-wing trolls in response to a video he had posted on YouTube a few days earlier. In the video, he told the story of how, as a liberal college dropout struggling to find his place in the world, he had gotten sucked into a vortex of far-right politics on YouTube.
“’I fell down the alt-right rabbit hole,’ he said in the video.”
Roose the tells us Cain is “scarred” by his five-year “experience being radicalized by what he calls a ‘decentralized cult’ of far-right YouTube personalities, who convinced him that Western civilization was under threat from Muslim immigrants and cultural Marxists, that innate IQ differences explained racial disparities and that feminism was a dangerous ideology.”
Cain is typical of people who fall into this right-wing trap, Roose writes – “an aimless young man – usually white, frequently interested in video games – [who] visits YouTube looking for direction or distraction and is seduced by a community of far-right creators.”
Cain’s viewing habits and conversations “form a picture of a disillusioned young man, an internet-savvy group of right-wing reactionaries and a powerful algorithm that learns to connect the two.”
The problem, Roose writes, is that YouTube’s algorithm “has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism.” There’s a section on YouTube they call the calm section – “the Walter Conkrite, Carl Sagan part – and Crazytown, where the extreme stuff is,” Roose writes, quoting a “former design ethicist at Google,” YouTube’s parent company. “’If I’m YouTube and I want you to watch more, I’m always going to steer you toward Crazytown.’”
And who is in Crazytown? YouTube, Roose writes, “has also been a useful recruiting tool for far-right extremist groups” and, according to a woman he interviewed who “studies online extremism” for a non-profit, has “’been able to fly under the radar’” because “’no one thought of it as a place where radicalization is happening.’”
Cain got into Stefan Molyneaux, a Canadian creator of conservative commentary, but as he got deeper into YouTube, “he discovered an entire universe of right-wing creators,” including Steven Crowder, the conservative comedian, and Paul Joseph Watson, “a prominent right-wing conspiracy theorist who was barred by Facebook this year.”
YouTube made two changes that increased radicalization, Roose writes. It changed the algorithm to reward videos that people watched to the finish and it allowed ads to be sold with all content, not just that from pre-approved creators. This meant popular conservatives could earn money for their shows.
The “far right” was “well positioned to capitalize on these changes,” Roose writes. “Many right-wing creators already made long video essays or posted video versions of their podcasts. Their inflammatory messages were more engaging than milder fare. And now that they could earn money from their videos, they had a financial incentive to churn out as much material as possible.”
Cain was rescued from the alt-right rabbit hole in part by Natalie Wynn, who produces left-wing videos in which she does “drag-style performances” to explain “why Western culture wasn’t under attack from immigrants.”
The difference? “Her videos used research and citations to rebut the right-wing talking points he had absorbed,” Roose writes.