Down the YouTube Rabbit Hole (Attention Economy – Part II)

Ding. Ding. Ding. You’ve just picked today’s Jeopardy Daily Double. How much would you like to wager? . . . And here is your clue: Hannah Weinhold’s TV viewing habits and Jair Bolsonaro’s election as president of Brazil. And the question is . . . “What are two widely disparate phenomena that have both been powered by YouTube’s recommendation engine?” Amazing! Right again.

When my youngest daughter was in late high school, and then college, I was puzzled by her ‘TV watching’ habits. First off, it rarely involved a TV — most of the video content she consumed was on her computer or her phone. More surprisingly, it rarely involved TV shows. Instead, she mainly watched YouTube. Why, I wondered? Why should a bunch of user-uploaded (i.e., often amateurish) videos be more interesting, or entertaining, than highly-produced mainstream TV? Sure, I get the appeal of an occasional dog or cat video. But against Game of Thrones, or Saturday Night Live, or 24, or even watching Casablanca yet again — no contest, at least in my mind.

So without thinking much about it, I simply added my daughter’s preoccupation with YouTube to the list of things I clearly didn’t understand about young people. Turns out, I should have been deeply worried. But that was before I knew about Brazil’s new president.

Jair Bolsonaro

On January 1st of this year, Jair Bolsonaro became the 38th president of Brazil. Previously, he had been in the military and, subsequently, had been a far-right politician of little note. Now, though, the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ is almost as famous as The Donald. The two share much in common. Trump parlayed reality TV stardom into the US presidency. Bolsonaro parlayed his staring role in YouTube conspiracy videos into Brazil’s highest office.

Bolsonaro is viewed by many as deeply unfit for the presidency. Britain’s Economist referred to him as “a menace to Brazil and to Latin America.” He has a decided affinity for autocrats and dictators. He has praised the Chilean dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, saying that the Pinochet regime, which killed over 3000 Chileans, “should have killed more people.” He also praised Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori as a role model for his use of the military against the judiciary and legislature.

He once said to congresswoman Maria do Rosario, “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it.” He doubled down in a subsequent interview, saying “Rosario was “not worth raping; she is very ugly.” Regarding immigrants, Bolsonaro has said, “The scum of the earth is showing up in Brazil, as if we didn’t have enough problems of our own to sort out.” And he has reportedly referred to black activists as “animals” who should “go back to the zoo.”

All of which raises two questions, both of which have the same answer. How did someone like Bolsonaro go from the fringes of Brazilian politics to president? And what explains my daughter’s ability to spend untold hours watching YouTube videos? Answer: it’s the artificial intelligence powering YouTube’s recommendation engine.

AI Recommendations

First, my daughter. In any particular instance, my daughter may intend to watch just one YouTube video. Maybe it’s the archetypal puppy video or, knowing her, maybe its about the preparation of a vegan dinner dish, or a tutorial on how to change one’s own oil. It turns out, though, that watching just one YouTube video is about as easy as eating just one potato chip.

Why? Because YouTube (Google) has pitted one of the world’s most powerful AI’s ‘against’ my daughter — and every other viewer. Once Hannah selects the video she wants to watch, the AI’s job is to determine, from the billions of available videos, precisely which ones are most likely to keep her onsite. In fact, the video it believes to be the most engaging will autoplay as soon as the first one finishes.

How good is YouTube’s AI? Pretty darn good: 70 percent of all the videos people watch on YouTube are follow-on videos recommended by the AI. And its getting better: the average mobile viewing session lasts over 60 minutes — up more than 50 percent year-over-year. In fact, total watch time is a staggering one billion hours per day. No wonder Hannah spent so much time on YouTube.

But however one feels about the ethics of using an extraordinarily powerful AI to hijack the attention of viewers for profit (especially when some of those viewers are children and teens), the Bolsonaro story goes to a much darker place. In a recent investigative report entitled, “How YouTube Radicalized Brazil,” The New York Times found that the company’s “recommendation system appears to have systematically diverted users to far-right and conspiracy channels in Brazil.”

Social Disorder

The actual dynamics are both less, and more, nefarious than that sounds. YouTube never decided to upend Brazilian politics by promoting far-right videos. And they didn’t decide to help Jair Bolsonaro win the presidency, and help many of his followers into office as well. No, they did all that without thinking about it at all. They simply deployed an AI designed to maximize viewer engagement and corporate revenue. It just happens that the emotions that especially draw and hold viewers — fear, doubt, anger, outrage — are staples of right-wing extremism. So that’s what their AI algorithm served up.

The result, according to the NY Times investigation:

Members of the nation’s newly empowered far right — from grass-roots organizers to federal lawmakers — say their movement would not have risen so far, so fast, without YouTube’s recommendation engine . . . Zeynep Tufekci, a social media scholar, has called it “one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.”

“YouTube became the social media platform of the Brazilian right,” says Matheus Dominguez, who personifies the radicalizing power of YouTube. Last year, Matheus was a 16-year-old learning guitar from YouTube tutorials. Then YouTube recommended videos from Nando Moura, an amateur guitar teacher whose videos included political rants accusing feminists, teachers, and mainstream politicians of waging vast conspiracies.

Matheus was hooked. As his time on the site grew, YouTube’s AI recommended videos from other right-wing extremists. One was Jair Bolsonaro, still a marginal figure in national politics but a star of YouTube’s far-right community. Before long, though, Jair leveraged his YouTube success into Brazil’s highest office. Now Matheus says that he, too, wants to follow Jair into politics.

Politics, though, is not the only casualty. Harvard researchers found that YouTube’s recommendations frequently “directed users who searched for information on Zika, or even those who watched a reputable video on health issues, toward conspiracy channels.” In turn, YouTube’s anti-vax videos have led to a Brazilian public health crisis, with frightened patients refusing vaccines and anti-Zika insecticides.

Dr. Auriene Oliviera, an infectious disease specialist, says medical providers are competing every day against “Dr. Google and Dr. YouTube” — and are losing. Brazil’s teachers are also victims. They describe unruly classrooms in which students quote from YouTube conspiracy videos or, encouraged by right-wing YouTube stars, secretly record their instructors.

Unfortunately, Brazil is hardly alone. YouTube is available in 80 different languages and more than 90 countries. It is the world’s second largest search engine and second most visited website after Google. Behind Facebook, it is also the second most popular social media platform with close to 2 billion users.

In the attention economy, YouTube is an 800 pound gorilla. It may not intend to reinvigorate the spread of infectious diseases. It may not intend to install nightmare candidates as president. It may not intend to turn societies upside down. But that’s why gorillas are so dangerous — great power and no regard for humans.

Many thought we’d have to get to AGI (artificial general intelligence) before AI started to wreak havoc on humans. Nope, that day came sooner than anyone imagined.

NOTE: the name of Tim Weinhold’s youngest daughter was changed to protect her confidentiality.

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