At the end of August, protests broke out in Chemnitz, Germany, with far-right demonstrators expressing their vehement opinions about the presence of asylum seekers and immigrants in the country. According to the New York Times, the protesters’ actions were sparked by claims that a man was attacked and killed by an Iraqi and Syrian asylum seeker on August 26th. More than 8,000 people attended the “mob-like” protest, with known Neo-Nazis present.
After the protests, city officials began receiving phone calls from reporters looking for government comments about the cause of the riots. It quickly became apparent that many of the callers had false information. According to the New York Times, these rumors included claims of a second man being killed by asylum seekers, and the notion that the rioters were not far-right believers at all, but Muslims.
Many city officials believe that the false information was being spread by fringe-group Youtube videos. Though poorly made and full of ranting false claims, many of these videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views in Germany.
As reported by the New York Times, Ray Serrato, a digital researcher, quickly discovered why these videos had so many views. After reviewing Youtube databases, he found that whenever someone went looking for news about the Chemnitz protests, viewers would be directed by video suggestions towards hate-filled, far-right videos delivering false claims about the events.
Essentially, Youtube’s video recommendation technology was pushing viewers towards extremist content. Rather than directing news seekers towards more fact-checked media, according to Serrato, people would quickly end up viewing unreliable, fringe sources. Youtube’s algorithm was making outlier content more mainstream, hence the misinformed phone calls to Chemnitz officials.
Youtube seems to be aware of this trend. The company announced in July that it plans to redesign its system to support more “authoritative” news sources to bring them to the top of viewers’ feeds. However, as opinions in Germany, the United States, and other countries around the world are deeply divided on which news sources are trustworthy, defining “authoritative” has proven quite tricky.
Yet this difficult process is likely essential to bringing more reliable news to the public. The general population, specifically young people, have begun to rely more and more on websites and apps for entertainment and information. In fact, videos on Youtube reach more 18-34 and 18-49 year-olds than any cable network in the United States. As users shift from print and television resources to the internet, new practices surrounding media accountability could come into greater significance.
Ultimately, Youtube and other websites like it are private companies, which means they don’t face the same regulations as public broadcasting entities. For the first time, these technology companies are grappling with the best ways to deliver accurate information instead of sensational, extremist, and ultimately fake news.