Report: YouTube’s algorithm pushes hateful content and misinformation

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Violent videos and misinformation are amplified by YouTube's algorithm, despite the company's rules meant to limit their spread, according to a Mozilla Foundation report published July 7.

The foundation — a nonprofit that advocates on privacy issues — found 71 percent of all videos that volunteers reported as disturbing were recommended by the video-sharing platform's algorithm. They included conspiracies about 9/11 and the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the promotion of white supremacy.

Researchers also found that people in non-English speaking countries were more likely to encounter videos they considered disturbing, indicating that YouTube's efforts to better police its platforms have been uneven.

“YouTube’s algorithm is working in amplifying some really harmful content and is putting people down disturbing pathways,” said Brandi Geurkink, the foundation's senior manager of advocacy. “It really shows that its recommendation algorithm is not even functioning to support its own platform policies, it's actually going off the rails.”

A YouTube spokesperson said: “The goal of our recommendation system is to connect viewers with content they love and on any given day, more than 200 million videos are recommended on the homepage alone.”

The spokesperson said YouTube “constantly” works to improve users' experience and has launched 30 different changes to reduce recommendations of harmful content in the last year.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, and other platforms like it have long resisted sharing information about their algorithms, claiming it violates business secrets and user privacy. 

But a growing body of evidence implicates social media's recommendation algorithms in the spread of misinformation and violent content. Researchers have coined the concept of “algorithmic radicalization” to describe how recommendation algorithms drive users toward more extreme content. The studies have convinced lawmakers to come up with new rules to pry open tech platforms’ opaque algorithms, known as “black boxes.” Governments are also pushing new laws to force social media to better police their platforms, and not simply rely on their own content policies.

YouTube is the most visited website in the world after Google, with users watching around one billion hours of videos on its platform every day.

Mozilla's investigation is based on a browser extension, which let more than 37,000 users from 91 countries report “regrettable recommendations,” and allowed them to donate data about how they spent their time on YouTube over 10 months. Mozilla described it as the largest-ever crowdsourced investigation into YouTube’s algorithm.

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