Researchers have tracked conservative YouTube users to measure how the platform can nurture extremism over time.
A research paper from Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais and Switzerland’s École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, titled “Auditing Radicalization Pathways on YouTube,” documented YouTube comments on right-wing videos.
The researchers found that YouTubers who commented on less extreme channels came to comment on more extreme channels over time.
The researchers tracked commenters over 11 years and grouped conservatives into three vague categories: the “intellectual dark web,” the “alt-lite” and the “alt-right.” According to The Verge, the researchers built these categories on data from the Anti-Defamation League and Data & Society, as well as from their own research.
Over the 11 year period, the researchers found that commenters who started in one category moved into more extreme categories over time. The paper points to this as evidence of a “radicalization pipeline.” In other words, YouTube may push users toward more radical, extreme content and views.
At the moment, however, there are some issues and limits to the study. For one, the paper has yet to be peer-reviewed. Further, the authors acknowledge that just because someone comments on a set of extremist videos doesn’t mean that person is an extremist.
It’s also important to note that many other media forces push people towards the right, including conservative talk radio and cable news.
With all that in mind, the data does indicate that YouTube’s platform pushes people toward the right. It’s not clear how YouTube does this, but the paper suggests the company’s algorithms that recommend videos to users based on what they previously watched have a small impact on pushing users towards the right.
The phenomenon likely isn’t restricted just to conservative content either. However, the paper acknowledges that more recommendations seem to point towards alt-right and edgier content than the other way around.