Are Online Video Algorithms Tearing Us Apart?

Are you in control of the entertainment and content you consume?

Most of us would likely suggest that we are. We choose what to watch. With so many services, purveyors and delivery mechanisms today, we have unprecedented choice, and we exercise it on a frequent basis.

Is the content you consume determined by your attitudes and perspectives, or are your attitudes and perspectives influenced and informed by the content you consume?

What if you were being programmed by the programming that you are exposed to? And what if you had less control over your selection process than you might have thought?

A recent New York Times article entitled “Youtube, the Great Radicalizer” by Zeynep Tufekci provides evidence suggesting that our society is being shaped by our web content, and that we are manipulated by algorithms that are more concerned with ad revenue than social well-being.

It is not revelatory to posit that networks and content creators are generally more interested in profit than in the public good. That is old news which is as applicable to old media as it is to new. But what is novel and disturbing is Tufekci’s findings that Google’s Youtube algorithm “seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with.”

The longer viewers spend on Youtube, the more ad revenue the company garners. Therefore, according to a former Google engineer named Guillaume Chaslot, Youtube has developed a recommender algorithm that introduces content that is increasingly inflammatory and controversial.

In a Wall Street Journal study conducted with the assistance of Chaslot, investigators concluded that YouTube often “fed far-right or far-left videos to users who watched relatively mainstream news sources.” Tufekci found that when she searched for videos of Trump rallies, she was subsequently suggested white supremacist content; when she watched videos that were pro-Hillary or Sanders, they were followed by videos on conspiracy theories and secret government activities.

“What we are witnessing,” Tufekci writes, “is the computational exploitation of a natural human desire: to look ‘behind the curtain,’ to dig deeper into something that engages us. As we click and click, we are carried along by the exciting sensation of uncovering more secrets and deeper truths. YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales.”

If Tufekci is right, then the polarization and radicalization which is increasingly prevalent in America is attributable, at least in part, to the new media that we are exposing ourselves and our children to in ever greater doses.

We have developed platforms that theoretically democratize content production and distribution, but in fact these very mechanisms may be posing a threat to our democracy.

The takeaway for all Americans, regardless of where we stand on the social and political spectrum, is that we must be vigilant and suspect of the influences that are drawing us ever further apart.

There are plenty of issues that need to be debated and negotiated to improve our society for all of its members. To do that effectively, the radicalization that is filling the coffers of private interests must be exposed and countered in order to create a more objective and productive environment for collaboration and progress.

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