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YouTube Commenters Shift From 'Intellectual Dark Web' Fans to the Far-Right, Study Shows

New research looked at commenters’ migration from “contrarian” personalities like Jordan Peterson to “alt-right” extremist channels.

by Mack Lamoureux
02 September 2019, 2:02am

White supremacists march with torches in Charlottesville. Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada

There’s a YouTube pipeline that pushes some users to the far-right, a new study looking at the comment section of the video platform giant suggests.

Using 79 million comments on thousands of videos from "contrarian" users, an international group of researchers found that a "significant" number of commenters moved from commenting on more mainstream right-wing YouTube channels to commenting on more extreme content.

“You had other journalists and researchers who had qualitative insights that there was this radicalization going on at YouTube but no one had done quantitative research,” said Manoel Ribeiro, a Ph.D. candidate at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and lead author of the study. “The idea of this study was to see if the radicalization, this migration, happens by looking only at massive amounts of historical data."

Ribeiro and his five co-authors first started their research by identifying YouTubers from across the right-wing spectrum and categorized them into the "alt-right," "alt-lite," and "Intellectual Dark Web."

The team defined the "alt-right" as the loose amalgamation of users who “reject mainstream conservatism in favour of politics that embrace racist, anti-Semitic and white supremacist ideology”—(here you’ll find your Red Ice TVs and Faith Goldys). The "alt-lite" was defined as users who embrace civic nationalism over racial nationalism but still play footsies with the alt-right (think Steven Crowder, Rebel Media, or Paul Joseph Watson). And the "Intellectual Dark Web" are a self-selected group of academics and podcasters who tend to focus on controversial topics (such as Jordan Peterson or Quillette).

Ribeiro told VICE the researchers were conservative in their categorizations and grouped the channels based on their content, not the person's beliefs.

The researchers then went about analyzing 79 million comments from 33,849 videos pulled from 360 channels and found that all of the contrarians experienced massive growth in the past four years.

“We show that the three communities increasingly share the same user base; that users consistently migrate from milder to more extreme content; and that a large percentage of users who consume 'alt-right' content now consumed 'alt-lite' and IDW content in the past,” the researchers explained in the paper.

To see if there was an actual pipeline, Ribeiro and his team looked at where the users were commenting year over year. According to Ribeiro, in 2018 about 40 percent of all commenters in the "alt-right" had in previous years commented exclusively on videos made by the "alt-lite" and "IDW."

“It seems that not only there is this consistent migration movement but that this migration movement is responsible for a considerable (number) of the users who comment in the 'alt-right,'” said Ribeiro.

The team also looked at YouTube's recommendation system, and found that alt-right and alt-lite content was "easily reachable" by consumers of less extreme content, but noted it could not replicate personal recommendations.

In a statement a YouTube spokesperson said they're constantly working to better their "search and discovery algorithms" and "strongly disagree with the methodology, data and, most importantly, the conclusions made in this new research." The spokesperson, as well as the information provided on background, did not address the majority of the study and instead focused solely on the section that touched upon channel recommendations.

“Auditing Radicalization Pathways on YouTube” has not yet been peer reviewed.

In the past few years, there has been a lot of talk about the radicalizing effects of modern social media. There was the comprehensive dive into the connected web of right-wing influencers on YouTube and how they push their followers further to the right in Data and Society by Becca Lewis last year, as well as a plethora of anecdotal evidence, such as a recent story in the New York Times about a young man guided into extremism by the YouTubers he consumed. But quantitative research has been limited.

Ribeiro says it's important to note that while the data was evidence of migration it did not explain why it was happening. The group was only able to glean information from users it could track and Ribeiro thinks there is still a lot more study.

Like pretty much everyone who wades into this avenue of research, Ribeiro is already getting some hell online but believes it's still worth exploring.

“I think it's a part of a bigger debate that we are having in society, on what's happening on YouTube,” said Ribeiro. “And I think that it's a big question of our century: How are we going to handle living with social media?”

This story has been updated with comment from YouTube.

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