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YouTube Waited For a Month After The Election to Crack Down on Election Misinformation

YouTube Waited For a Month After The Election to Crack Down on Election Misinformation
December 16
09:01 2020
Conspiracy theorists and far-right news outlets spent that month using YouTube’s algorithm to massively grow their audiences.
December 10, 2020, 4:30pm
A supporter of President Trump holds a sign at a "Stop The Steal" rally in front of the Georgia State Capitol Building on November 28th, 2020 in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
A SUPPORTER OF PRESIDENT TRUMP HOLDS A SIGN AT A “STOP THE STEAL” RALLY IN FRONT OF THE GEORGIA STATE CAPITOL BUILDING ON NOVEMBER 28TH, 2020 IN ATLANTA, GA. (PHOTO BY RICH VON BIBERSTEIN/ICON SPORTSWIRE) (ICON SPORTSWIRE VIA AP IMAGES)

YouTube announced on Wednesday that it was no longer going to allow channels to post videos claiming widespread voter fraud occurred in the 2020 presidential election.

The move comes more than a month after the presidential election, a month during which right-wing channels spread unsubstantiated misinformation about vote-rigging and electoral fraud — and YouTube’s own algorithm helped channels promoting these lies to significantly boost their subscriber numbers.

As of Wednesday, YouTube said it would begin removing content “that misleads people by alleging that widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election.”

The reason YouTube hasn’t acted sooner, it says, is because it was waiting for the safe harbor deadline to pass on Tuesday, meaning that enough states have certified their election results to determine that Joe Biden is in fact president-elect.

The company said this is what it has done in all previous presidential elections. But the 2020 version has been unlike any in living memory, and in the time it’s taken YouTube to act, multiple right-wing channels have capitalized on YouTube’s lax misinformation policies—with the added help of the platform’s own algorithm.

Both the rabidly pro-Trump channel Newsmax and the Falun Gong-linked channel New Tang Dynasty (NTD) have seen their viewership figures and subscriber bases explode in the last four weeks, according to an analysis by Guillaume Chaslot, who helped build the YouTube algorithm in 2011.

According to Chaslot’s figures, Newsmax saw its viewership go from 3 million a month to 110 million a month, while NTD went from 6 million to 80 million views per month.

The data comes from AlgoTransparency, a tool Chaslot designed to track what channels YouTube’s algorithm promotes to viewers.

One of Newsmax’s live videos has 33 million views and would have been recommended “hundreds of millions” of times, while another one about “hacking the vote” would “probably have got million of recommendations,” Chaslot said.

Newsmax’s YouTube channel ranked 73rd out of 20,657 channels in terms of the number of recommendations it received from YouTube, Chaslot’s figures show, putting it in the top 1 percent.

“YouTube’s algo loves Newsmax,” Chaslot said.

Newsmax is run by Chris Ruddy, a close confidant of Trump who has made no secret of his willingness to exploit the situation to his advantage.

“At the end of the day, it’s great for news, the news cycle is red-hot, and Newsmax is getting one million people per minute […] tuning into Newsmax TV. I think it’s good,” Ruddy told the New Yorker.

NTD is a subsidiary of The Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-funded media group that’s been one of the loudest supporters of the Trump campaign’s “rigged election” misinformation.

Despite being relatively unknown, NDT is being heavily promoted by YouTube, according to Chaslot.

“NTD was one of the most recommended news channels from my dataset from 800-plus channels,” he tweeted. “Only Fox News and NBC scored higher among news channels.”

Despite YouTube’s announcement, NTD posted a video on Wednesday titled “Election Fraud Truth Summit” and it’s racked up almost 900,000 views. So far it hasn’t been taken down.

YouTube strongly disputes Chaslot’s conclusions, calling them “baseless and inaccurate” and pointing out that the four top traditional news networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox News) “were each recommended, on average, more than 110 times more than smaller non-authoritative channels like Newsmax.”

A YouTube spokesperson added that a number of factors can impact viewership figures for channels like Newsmax, including “a sudden increase in media coverage, attention from public figures, or off-platform social sharing.”

But, there is no denying that Newsmax’s and NTD’s YouTube channels have been boosted by the election cycle, despite peddling misinformation.

Figures from social analytics tool SocialBlade show a massive spike in subscriber numbers for both channels over the course of the last month.

SocialBlade

One America News Network, which has enjoyed a lot of public support from Trump while peddling conspiracy theories and misinformation, has seen a similar spike in viewers and subscribers on YouTube.

SocialBlade

Since the election on Nov. 3, these channels have been peddling wild conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud, echoing the Trump administration’s most outlandish claims. And, critically, they all still claim that Trump has a chance of winning the election.

The decision to finally punish channels for publishing election misinformation is likely to have a significant impact on Newsmax, NTD, and OAN, as well as on the right-wing community of commentators and vloggers, where the decision was met with anger and outrage.

One right-wing group, Right Side Broadcasting Network, even announced it was quitting YouTube completely, despite having over 1 million subscribers there, saying it’s looking into launching a channel on Rumble, a right-wing alternative that has a tiny fraction of the users YouTube does.

But despite the threat, RSBN published several videos on Wednesday to its YouTube channel.

And as is always the case when a platform imposes new rules, some users are already looking closely at YouTube’s new restrictions and trying to find ways to circumvent the ban on election misinformation.

“YouTube has done this several times: amplify harmful content, then ban it,” Chaslot told VICE News. “This happened with David Icke, Alex Jones, medical disinformation. The ban will have an impact, but the potentially hundreds of millions of recommendations for baseless voter fraud narratives will leave scars.”

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