Authors: Annais Hillbrick, Vasilisa Grišina, Laura Vezyte and Violeta Dauksta Amsterdam 8. April 2020
From ‘secret labs’ and ‘magic cures’, to ‘government plots’ — as the coronavirus has rapidly spread across the world, so too has the massive wave of misinformation surrounding it. Currently, all big social media companies, be it Facebook or YouTube, are showing a great deal of effort to remove any traces of potential misinformation about the pandemic from the public’s line of vision. Although this begs the question, at what price does this come to democratic media?
More than 1,446,896 cases and nearly 83,087 deaths have been reported worldwide since the coronavirus pandemic erupted in the Chinese province of Hubei in late 2019 . The devastating and quickly growing effect of the virus has frankly left no business or person unaffected, causing people to take to the internet in search of prevention strategies, self-diagnoses and possible predictions of further developments.
The virus has clearly proven itself to be a global health concern, with multiple countries now moving far beyond measures such as ‘social distancing’, and closing down their borders with other countries who are considered to be current pandemic epicentres. Even international travel on multiple continents has been temporarily halted, as well as the movement within countries being brought down to a very minimum. As the latest reports state, “at least 7.2 billion people live in countries with travel restrictions as the novel coronavirus pandemic spreads”.
With nearly all governments officially advising their citizens to stay home as much as possible, increasingly, more and more people are working from home and practicing social distancing. As a result, the usage and embrace of social media all over the world is only growing stronger. The major social media and video platform, Youtube, has surfaced in this pandemic as a critical information ‘provider’, playing a very significant role in influencing people’s opinions and actions during this ever-expanding crisis.
Such a heavy responsibility is definitely a reason for all to worry, so much so that the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially states that it is, in fact, fighting an “infodemic” — the spreading of false and misleading information about the COVID-19. Yet, Youtube has stated that the company is working closely with WHO, as well as other mainstream media outlets and governmental organisations to ensure that populations are receiving only accurate information.
Over the years, Youtube has been involved in many issues over a variety of topics dealing with abuse of information, which, at times, has spread much faster than the tech company was able to tackle. Youtube — now considered a news source by many— seems to have been forced to leave its content moderation in the hands of their recommendation algorithm.
The in-famous system of content recommendation has been proven to have a tendency to push forward videos on the basis of their titles, the information provided in the subscription box, and the gathered number of views, which ultimately plays in favor of those YouTube channels that opt to frame the coronavirus in a controversial way. What’s worse is that, despite claiming that they are removing videos filled with harmful conspiracies, YouTube does not have an open blocking policy that could play the role of solid fact-checking. This lack of a proper control system has ultimately contributed to the unnecessary spreading of panic.
However, as the rise of new videos surrounding the coronavirus pandemic has only been picking up the pace, and the volume of news covering the topic has been intensifying, Youtube seems to have employed a surprisingly aggressive strategy to combat misinformation. This new ‘strategy’ basically involves simple deleting/demonetising of all videos dealing with the subject of the coronavirus pandemic, including videos that are of ‘educational’ purpose, whereas content published by mainstream media, such as CNN, NBC or BBC, is accepted.
While these major news providers are uploading multiple videos daily, receiving over a million views on each, independent creators — YouTube’s ‘pride and joy’ since the very beginning, who are, in fact, considered as the prime source of news by many YouTube users are not allowed to publish content on the issue whatsoever. This is the point where it must be acknowledged that, yes, there is evidence of YouTube taking a serious responsibility of combating misinformation, however, are they doing it the right way, and does it actually work? Are mainstream news channels building their own type of ‘monopoly’ on the virus pandemic coverage now, as a result of YouTube’s drastic measures?
From the amount of the media’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic constantly circulating all around us it feels as if this has been ever-present. Due to the coronavirus being a current issue, statistics are being updated constantly, as there is a cumulative impact of statistics which tell various stories both through official statistics and models of possible predictions. Yet, sensational headlines in different forms of media across the field, in particular Youtube, have grabbed attention in a frightening and unnecessary way.
To gain insight into the global worldview and trends of the coronavirus on Youtube, Google Trends is a good way of looking into this. These statistics are based on Google users’ search behavior, more specifically, Google Trends offers to look at the development of the overall search interest on the issue over time as well as it gives the option to look at the interest rate of the Google searches depending on specific geographical locations and specific websites, such as Youtube.
On March 3rd, the data overview on Google Trends showcases the region interest to be the highest in Italy (100), followed by Singapore (80). Considering that both South Korea and Italy had been the primary locations of “recent spikes in the number of infections” on March 3rd. Since the last data search query coronavirus has increased by 68 interest points worldwide and hit its search peak on Youtube between March 15-21st (Figure 6). Those days correlate with the start of major lockdowns throughout Europe, as well as the highest death case rate in Italy.
Search query “coronavirus” popularity on Youtube according to Google Trends, 2020
Respectively, the search interest by country data collected on April 2nd demonstrates that interest by region is still highest in Italy (100), followed by Spain, Ireland, France and UK – demonstrating that European countries seem to be the most concerned about this pandemic, or, are more likely to turn to Youtube for information about the virus. Meanwhile, interest in Singapore has dropped by 43 points, as the peak of the virus has passed the country. Interestingly, in US, which is currently the centre of the epidemic, the interest rate is only 47, which should be expected to rise as the pandemic continues.
The approach to our investigation was a combination of video network analysis and content analysis – this mixed method enables the study of large scale digital networks, such as Youtube’s recommendation system. Using network analysis we investigate the patterns and relationships of the social environment surrounding videos related to Coronavirus.
In order to view what kind of content is being recommended based on the query ‘coronavirus’, we used YouTube Data Tools — a handy open-source tool that basically does all the work for the user. It collects data from YouTube and generates the results in a GDF-file containing all the connected videos based on chosen options. The data was captured several times over a period of time in order to track any changes: the 17th of February, 12th and 21st of March and the 2nd of April, 2020.
GDF file containing YouTube Data Tools output
As you can see, it is hardly possible to draw any useful information from it. To make sense of it and track the most recommended videos, we ran those data sets through Gephi (another useful tool) to reflect the pattern of audience viewing preferences. It resulted in these ‘virus’ looking networks that represent recommended videos (nodes) and the connections between them (edges). The size of a node indicates how many times it has been recommended.
Figure 2-5: Each network contains around 1000 videos (nodes) and an average of over 30.000 connections (edges). In order to view each graph closer, click here for figure 2, figure 3, figure 4 and figure 5. To show the most recommended videos, click on ‘size’ in the left bar menu and select size by ‘indegree’, then move the cursor to adjust the size.
What did we find?
Our study was originally focused on whether YouTube contributes to panic spreading and conspiracies rather than educational content surrounding the pandemic. However, after studying the networks, it revealed so much more…
What did we find? First of all, we expected to see much more conspiracy – related content, but it seems like YouTube has done a good job combating it. Despite this, based on the generated networks, the video-sharing platform is favoring mainstream news channels above other independent news sources.
Videos recommended in mid-February (the time when almost everyone was in denial) have a clear trend: they all contain intimidating and ‘breaking-news’ like titles: “New Research suggests The Coronavirus May be Far Worse Than We Thought” and “Is The Coronavirus Now Unstoppable? New Data Suggests So.” The authors of such videos are mostly dogmatic and commentary – like, resulting in unreliable and fallacious information, and lack of scientific evidence. A channel called PeakProsperity, previously focusing on finance and crash courses, has produced over 12 videos covering the coronavirus, containing various conspiracies and ‘updates’ on the virus, generating over 200.000 views each.
Moreover, one of the most recommended videos is called “Pangolin facing greater threat of extinction during coronavirus outbreak” by CBS Evening News (interesting take, isn’t it?). It is further connected to content relating to Trump’s impeachment and numerous conspiracies involving it. Other recommendations are solely based on conspiracies about patients breaking out of the quarantine and China losing control over the virus.
A few weeks later (March 12th), the recommended content had a few minor changes: it now focused on the economic consequences of the pandemic. The most recommended videos were about stocks plummet: “NYSE big board: Stocks plummet after Trump suspends travel from Europe to U.S.” by Global News. Further, speculative content is also prominent with videos like: “ Why new diseases keep appearing in China” by Vox, or “Alex Azar says coronavirus cases may rise throughout the year” by CBS this Morning. Interestingly enough, videos like “How to avoid catching and spreading the virus” by The Telegraph and explanatory/informative content about symptoms and vaccine status (by MedCram) are the least recommended.
The same trend is prominent over a week later (March 21st) where educational content is the least recommended. Mainstream media outlets constitute over 70% of the recommended content, and do not exactly come off as informative: “Coronavirus: How bad is the situation in Europe” (BBC News), “Coronavirus: UK restrictions could last a year” (BBC News), “Not racist at all : Donald Trump defends calling coronavirus the Chinese virus” (Guardian News). Even when the conventional media comes out with semi-educational videos, they are not prioritized.
A week later (April 2nd), the mainstream media channels covered over 80% of the recommended content. The nature of the videos presented was even more alarming: “Coronavirus: ‘biggest threat in decades’ as deaths rise and worse to come”(BBC News), “U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Is Now Higher Than 9/11 Terror Attacks” (MSNBC), “White House warns 100 000 to 240 000 Americans could die in coronavirus pandemic” (CBS News). Of course, President Trump is also high on the list: “Pelosi responds to claim that impeachment distracted Trump from virus” (CNN). On the bright side, it finally included one educational video: “COVID-19 Animation: What Happens If You Get Coronavirus?” by Nucleus Medical Media.
What does it mean?
Our findings suggest that Youtube has taken an extremely biased approach in fighting misinformation surrounding the pandemic, favouring mainstream media like CNN, NBC, BBC, FOX and others, over Youtube creators. It seems that Youtube’s algorithm has simply either deleted or demonetised all videos except for the mainstream media outlets on the platform, who are uploading multiple videos daily, thereby accumulating millions of views and pleasing advertisers. “The recommendation system Youtube uses, however, has been shown to have substantial problems, primarily in the fact that it cannot distinguish between ’supportive’ views and just ‘random’ views,” said Giulia Ranzini, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Vrije University Amsterdam.
When asked about how the coronavirus pandemic could be correctly reported on, Ranzini stated that “a balance between reporting an objectively challenging reality and generating panic in the audience is not easy to do”. In spite of this, even mainstream media have at this point taken advantage of heightened emotions and, as a result, a video showing a CNN anchor ‘crying’ because of his colleague having been diagnosed with the virus became one of the most recommended videos on YouTube. When analyzing the comment section it was discovered that many thought the anchor was pretending and that his colleague was likely to get proper treatment unlike the rest of the US population.
It is clear that Youtube’s recommendation algorithm has always had the potential to shape the very fabric of which videos are recommended, setting the tone of the environment. However, Youtube’s newly ‘upgraded’ algorithm has had an even bigger social impact by directly hurting independent media and small YouTube creators. Initially, Youtube was an independent platform in which individuals could make a career of their creativity and thrive freely of the grip of corporate media gatekeepers.
However, our investigation has revealed that the pandemic has caused Youtube to become an environment more suitable for corporate media. YouTube content creators are now subject to the whims of the recommendation algorithm. Yes, we acknowledge that YouTube’s aggressive strategy is most likely protecting individual users from misinformation and harmful conspiracy theories about the virus, however, this shift has also punished those YouTube creators who bear no connection to harmful, panic spreading videos. For example, YouTube creators such as Philip De Franco, who runs a news commentary show centered around current events in politics and pop culture, are now being recommended less than normal; it is a notion that could be ultimately viewed as a suppression of political satire.
Since the beginning of our investigation, YouTube has released a statement concerning the aforementioned issues, stating that smaller creators can monetize their content related to the coronavirus only if they “self-certify”. YouTube has not, however, released any further information about what this self-certification entails in the case of the coronavirus topic, leaving YouTube’s creators to play the guessing game. In order to continue earning an income, creators are trying to avoid mentioning keywords related to the virus — Angelika Oles, running a commentary channel, in one of her videos states: “… he tested positive for the thing we can’t talk about on this platform without getting demonetized.” This showcases the control and censorship that YouTube has established in their own community, as YouTube’s algorithm and monetization system is directly ‘ruling over’ many creators, holding the power of determining their financial income during these uncertain times.
Even though YouTube’s vision statement declares that they believe “the world is a better place when we listen, share and build community”, their reaction to the crisis suggests quite the opposite. The decision to recommend mostly mainstream media content reveals how a platform, which was built upon the idea of an environment for independent creators, doesn’t value their own creators anymore. Such trend of mass demonetization and preference for mainstream content has been YouTube’s approach since the so-called ‘adpocalypse’ in early 2017, when advertisers started boycotting the platform for misplacing their ads on videos, which were deemed controversial.
In the current crisis as well, YouTube continues to strongly favour mainstream news content as it is pre-monitored by TV networks themselves, making the information less-risky and more ‘trust-worthy’ in YouTube’s eyes. Additionally, considering their newly presented policies one can then assume that YouTube seems to clearly praise mainstream news sources over ‘amateur’ content creators for their supposed ‘professionalism’ as well. However, mainstream media sources have been recently showcasing a rather unprofessional tactic of using ‘catchy’ titles, such as ‘biggest threat in decades’, ‘as many as 240 000 Americans could die’ or ‘the death toll is now higher than 9/11 terror attack’, for their videos covering the topic of the coronavirus pandemic. Videos with such titles are, according to our video network analysis from April 2nd, among the most recommended on the platform.
What’s more, with their new policies YouTube is just indirectly pushing forward one straight narrative of the situation, which is something that heavily clashes with the sole philosophy and principles of democratic journalism. On the other hand, as Guilia Ranzini explains, news sources that have proven themselves to be the most democratic and reliable are those that choose to closely operate with their readers, update their information accordingly to the latest developments of the issues, as well as aim to lay down the facts and answers to their audience in an accessible way. Therefore, including these smaller, more independent news companies in the overall debate on the issue of the coronavirus pandemic is essential for preserving the democratic values that journalism should clearly represent.
In addition, as the Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, Ria Reis suggested, opening a more widespread debate between multiple news sources of various sizes and backgrounds would allow for an exchange of valuable opinion on the topic, which is something that would undoubtedly help further attract people’s attention to the true dangers behind this pandemic, and ultimately help them formulate their own, as unbiased as possible opinions.
Considering YouTube’s past issues with showing signs of bias towards mainstream media sources, the drastic nature of the recent measures that the platform has taken in order to fight misinformation on the topic of the current pandemic took many people by surprise. It is clear that the severity of the current situation required YouTube to step-in strongly, however, one would assume that they would, at the very least, maintain transparency (as such an influential platform should), and clearly state what these new measures and changed practices mean for all parties present on the platform.
In conclusion, it is important to acknowledge that YouTube as a platform, used by many, plays a huge part in shaping public’s interaction with the news content covering the current issue. YouTube should thus take actionable steps in order to cut down possible misinformation on their platform, while still not compromising the liberty of YouTube creators that rely on the platform as an environment, where they can share and exchange their opinions, as well as a primary source of income. Most importantly, YouTube should strongly push for maintaining democratic values, since that is what a true journalistic environment, of which the platform is nowadays part of, requires.