I have a friend who thinks whatever appears on YouTube must be true. Though a sensible woman in all other respects, she thrives on conspiracy theories, and YouTube abounds in them. There, she can find fake news on the cabal to poison our water systems; a threat to destroy organic food producers; and our government’s military collaboration with aliens. No matter how bizarre, she and others like her can find enough fake news to satisfy an enquiring mind. How could it be otherwise? With 450 hours of programming uploaded per minute only God could effectively screen content. (“Anever- expanding, never-ending, time-sucking rabbithole of a problem that starts with You,” by Luca Shaw and Mark Bergen, Bloomberg Businessweek, April 30, 2018, 48.)
YouTube took a wrong turn in 2008. That’s when Google tightened the budget and decided to favor entertainment that attracted eyeballs above quality content. As humans tend to be fascinated with the bizarre, the bizarre thrived in this freewheeling environment. Or, as programmer, Guillaume Chaslot, describes it, “Garbage often floated to the top,” and “rants by flat-Earthers and Holocaust deniers did well.” (Ibid pg. 48) Chaslot should know. He’s one of the programmers who created algorithms to encourage junk content cravings. Landing on one site, a viewer gets enticed to another and another until, over time, the gullible are trapped in a bubble and the world looks one-sided and strange. (Ibid pg. 48.)
Fake news flourishes on YouTube because, unlike traditional media, where wary lawyers monitor for liability, YouTube doesn’t consider itself a news outlet. It’s a platform that allows others to launch content. As such, YouTube has little incentive to weed out fake news. (Ibid, pg. 48.) Facebook once defended itself with this same argument, but it failed in the court of public opinion and with the Congress. Regulation is on the way.
Aware of the climate change, YouTube has made a token effort to police subject matter, spurred on by advertisers who complained when they found products featured in strange places. Even so, the few monitors they’ve employed stand “no chance of meeting the challenges of the Trump era.” (Ibid pg. 48.) Calling YouTube the net’s wild west is a euphemism. My friend who is addicted to fake news will brook none of this, of course. Her bubble is too far down the rabbit hole.