Forget Facebook, YouTube is really messing me up

Commentary: A lot's been said about Facebook and Twitter riling us up, but one suspicious Jordan Peterson video made me think YouTube can be as bad -- or worse.

Daniel Van Boom Senior Writer
Daniel Van Boom is an award-winning Senior Writer based in Sydney, Australia. Daniel Van Boom covers cryptocurrency, NFTs, culture and global issues. When not writing, Daniel Van Boom practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reads as much as he can, and speaks about himself in the third person.
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Daniel Van Boom
4 min read

Last week I was perusing YouTube when I came across a dodgy video. It wasn't Logan Paul dodgy, but it was still pretty sketchy.

"ABC Host CLASH With Jordan Peterson in Heated Discussion," read the title. Alongside the words was a thumbnail featuring Peterson and Leigh Sales, a respected TV journalist here in Australia.

Enlarge Image

There was no clash. There wasn't even any heat.

Screenshot by Daniel Van Boom/CNET

Peterson is a professor of psychology from the University of Toronto, but his job, increasingly, is becoming a celebrity smart guy. He's also a polarizing fella. People, mostly those who've never bothered to listen to him, have accused him of sympathising with the "alt-right," a loose collection that includes white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

He's maybe most famous for an interview conducted back in January. Cathy Newman, a Channel 4 News host over in London, did her best to strawman all of Peterson's arguments and imbue them with malice, but he countered her at every corner. It was quite the spectacle.

So, naturally, I was surprised to see this had repeated itself with Australia's own Leigh Sales, as the YouTube video promised. Except that didn't happen at all. Peterson and Sales didn't clash, or even argue. They had a fairly tame chat. I had been duped by the oldest trick in the book.

Misleading YouTube video titles aren't new, but they are a pet peeve of mine. The strategy employed by netizens looking for clicks is obvious: Record a video from a news channel. Upload video to YouTube. Name video something aggressive. ??? Profit. I've noticed more of this on the right aisle, but as the examples below show, it's not just a conservative move.

Tucker Carlson DESTROYS liberal reporter of gender argument

Pres. Obama DESTROYS Protesters

President Trump DESTROYS FAKE MEDIA At Celebrate Freedom Rally

Trevor Noah Destroys Donald Trump and His Supporters On CNN

Whoa, man. Let's all just calm down a second.

Seriously, though. This alarmism clearly isn't what politics need in the US, or any other country. All eyes are on Facebook right now, as they should be, since the Trump campaign managed to access the data of million users to help tailor political ads. Twitter, meanwhile, is often ragged on for allowing hate speech and abuse. YouTube doesn't seem to cop as much scrutiny, despite being equally capable of breeding extremism.


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Sure, you can argue that video titles are harmless. But long-term exposure to invidious titles and headlines can be pernicious, especially if it's part of a backdrop to already heightened emotions. And that's before you factor in YouTube's algorithms.

I brought up the Peterson interview with a colleague, who had also happened to watched the video. We agreed there was a lot of smoke there and no fire

"But still, I don't like watching Jordan Peterson videos too much on YouTube," he said. "You watch one or two and then it starts recommending Ben Shapiro videos." Shapiro is a US political commentator further on the right than Peterson.

"Before long, YouTube is suggesting me freaky men's rights activist videos."

This was recently highlighted by New York Times columnist Zeynep Tufekci, who pointed out that the same thing happens with left-wing videos. Watch a few Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton speeches, and before long YouTube is telling you to watch insane 9/11 conspiracy videos.

You can run this experiment if you hate yourself enough: Sign in to YouTube with a new email account, and watch a few videos with a strong political leaning. Wait to see how long it takes before you're recommended a much more extreme version of that leaning.

None of this is to suggest Peterson (or Shapiro) is a crazy alt-righter, or that Obama or Clinton are undercover conspiracy hounds. Nor is it to say YouTube has a secret, nefarious aim of dividing us. It's just all about that suggestion algorithm, baby. And that algorithm isn't just about politics, either. I watch a bunch of pro wrestling clips on YouTube, and lemme tell ya, the site has suggested some strange videos. You don't want to know about them, frankly.

"We're always exploring new ways to battle misinformation on YouTube," a Google spokeswoman said, adding that the company is rolling out a series of features in the coming months that will help restrict the spread of misleading information. 

In 2012, YouTube changed its algorithm to weigh the length of time people spent watching a video over how many people clicked on it. Sounds good in theory, but this can obviously have the unintended consequence of certain fringe videos being promoted. "We recognize that what works for recommendations on how-to videos, education beauty tutorials and even cat videos, does not work as well for news and other topics," the spokeswoman said. 

Either way, YouTube is serving up some wild videos -- and it's working. People will click on insane videos, even if some part of them knows the video in question is spurious. I mean, if it worked on me it can work on anyone, right?


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