Critics slam YouTube study showing no ties to radicalization

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki speaks during the opening keynote address at the Google I/O 2017 Conference at Shoreline Amphitheater on May 17, 2017 in Mountain View, California.

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A recent study that concluded YouTube‘s algorithm does not direct users toward radical content drew the ire of experts over the weekend.

The researchers claim in the self-published study that, as of late 2019, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm appears to be designed to benefit mainstream and cable news content over independent YouTube creators. The study, which published last week and CNBC previously reported on, also said that YouTube’s algorithm favors left-leaning and politically neutral channels.

However, online radicalization and technology experts over the weekend criticized several shortcomings of the study, which has not been peer-reviewed.

While the co-authors of the study analyzed a large data set of YouTube recommendations, they did so from the perspective of a user who was not logged in. This means that the recommendations were not based on previously viewed videos, and thus, experts say, failed to address the individual experience of the algorithm and the personal nature of online radicalization.

Associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science Zeynep Tufekci pointed out that experts would be able to produce more productive research into the behavior of algorithms if companies opened up the privately held data to researchers.

“Could we do a proper study of, say, the behavior of recommendation algorithms without the participation of the company? Yes,” she wrote on Twitter. “It would need to be a panel study, and it would be expensive and difficult. It’s doable, but like any complex phenomenon not cheap or simple.”

Media manipulation and political digital media researcher at Stanford and Data & Society Becca Lewis emphasized the shortcomings of scientific research into the subject.

One author of the study, independent data scientist Mark Ledwich, claimed in a Medium post last week that the study shows that YouTube’s algorithm de-radicalizes users. However, co-author of the study Anna Zaitsev, a UC Berkeley researcher, says the data does not support that conclusion, according to reporter Chris Stokel-Walker.

Neither Ledwich nor Zaitsev responded to a request for comment from CNBC.

Ledwich also took aim at a series of reports from the New York Times. Reporter Kevin Roose pointed out that since those reports, YouTube has publicly announced many changes to its algorithm. He also defended the reports as a portrayal of the personal experience of online radicalization rather than a quantitative probe of the algorithm.

“Personalized, logged-in, longitudinal data is how radicalization has to be understood, since it’s how it’s experienced on a platform like YouTube,” he wrote on Twitter.

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