Facing criticism over the videos it recommends to users, YouTube seems to have a new favourite talking point, one that might surprise anyone who has spent time online: Extreme content, the company claims, just doesn’t do that well on the site.
The strange assertion came up on Tuesday, when Bloomberg published an investigation alleging that YouTube ignored employees’ warnings about how the platform was promoting toxic videos, with executives prioritising engagement above all other goals. A spokesperson challenged this characterisation and told Bloomberg that “generally extreme content does not perform well on the platform.”
This echoes a statement that YouTube’s chief product officer Neal Mohan gave in a recent New York Times interview about online radicalization.
Asked about whether YouTube recommendations nudge viewers down a “rabbit hole” of extremism, Mohan said the platform’s system is not designed to do that. “It is not the case that ‘extreme’ content drives a higher version of engagement or watch time than content of other types,” Mohan said.
This leads us to believe Mohan hasn’t spent much time on YouTube or has a wildly different definition of “extreme content” than we do. Because even a cursory review of YouTube shows that the most shocking and inflammatory videos are regularly among news outlets’ most viewed content.
Take, for instance, Fox News’ YouTube channel. Some of the most-watched videos are: Man armed with kitchen knives attacks police officers; ‘Shots fired!’ Bodycam video captures attack on deputy; Shocking video shows U.S. soldiers gunned down at Jordan military base; Warning, graphic video: Deadly gun duel in middle of street; and the very racist Watters’ World: Chinatown edition.
But it’s not just conservative-leaning media. CNN’s most-watched YouTube videos include: Alleged ISIS executions in Iraq; Video shows students hiding as shots are fired; Brutal terrorist video borrows techniques from Hollywood; New ISIS battle video released; ISIS militant posts new execution video; and Florida school shooter’s disturbing social media posts.
Do the same search on a far-right channel like Breitbart or a left-leaning channel like The Young Turks, and you’ll find extreme videos are among the most watched there as well. And then there’s the Daily Mail, which exists in its own category of flagrant tabloid sensationalism.
Other platforms more readily admit that the sleaziest and most extreme content is regularly the most popular on social media. In a blog post published in November, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote:
One of the biggest issues social networks face is that, when left unchecked, people will engage disproportionately with more sensationalist and provocative content. This is not a new phenomenon. It is widespread on cable news today and has been a staple of tabloids for more than a century. At scale it can undermine the quality of public discourse and lead to polarization.
His blog went on to explain that Facebook’s research had shown that “no matter where we draw the lines for what is allowed, as a piece of content gets close to that line, people will engage with it more on average — even when they tell us afterwards they don’t like the content.” Zuckerberg illustrated this with a graph:
We’re not sure what YouTube’s definition of “extreme content” is. The company did not respond to a Gizmodo request for comment. It’s possible the company’s recent statements on extreme content were only referring to political extremism. But if virtually every other kind of extreme content does well on virtually every other platform, it’s hard to believe that politically extreme content on YouTube would be the exception.
The Bloomberg story includes a disturbing anecdote from early 2018.
According to the news outlet, a YouTube employee created an internal video category to demonstrate how popular alt-right content was on the site. “Based on engagement, the hypothetical alt-right category sat with music, sports and gaming as the most popular channels at YouTube,” Bloomberg reports.
YouTube is going to have more success addressing the issues of misinformation, toxic content, and radicalization on its platform if it stops ignoring the realities of sensationalism in media. Face it: Shit floats and if it bleeds it leads.