Maybe you’ve had this experience: you're looking up informational videos on YouTube, say on the Sandy Hook school shooting or the moon landing. After your chosen video plays, you notice other videos on your playlist that pop up automatically. But the next video, instead of offering more factual information on your chosen subject, accuses the parents of the deceased in the Sandy Hook school shooting of being actors, or claims that the moon landings were faked.
The Turkish-born author and social scientist Zeynep Tufekci, who will be leading the 23rd annual Public Conversation on Nov. 11 as part of this year’s Spirit and Place Festival, talks a lot about the algorithms that control these video queues. [Note: this event is SOLD OUT]
Tufekci, an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Sciences at the University of North Carolina, is the author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, published by Yale University Press, and available for free on her website as a pdf.
In her March 10 opinion piece in The New York Times “YouTube: The Great Radicalizer,” Tufekci write that YouTube might be “one of the most radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.”
The fact that your queue on YouTube might lead you to more extreme content is a function of an algorithm designed to maximize viewer engagement. Thus, if you searched recently for news reports on Sandy Hook on YouTube, chances are excellent that you would have also come across the Alex Jones’ conspiracy-mongering on InfoWars.
“It’s one thing to have Alex Jones say it,” says Tufekci, “It’s a whole other thing for your YouTube to be constantly amplifying extremist stuff and to be recommending autoplaying it to unsuspecting audiences that didn’t even ask for it.”
(In August, YouTube, Apple, and Facebook all shut down Alex Jones channels on their networks, but this does not mean that the algorithms that control the video queues have been changed in any way.)
Tufekci compares this autoplay phenomena to the candy put at kids’ eye-level in supermarket checkout lanes. What’s the solution?
“It involves some understanding that we’re being manipulated,” she says. Right now you don’t even know what’s going on.”
She also says that there’s a lot of soul-searching going on in Silicon Valley at this moment about this issue. “We’re seeing a lot of questions about what kind of regulation and things should happen,” she says. “I’m arguing that the business model of promoting whatever’s engaging has been terrible. it comes with all sorts of external harms.”
Tufekci, a former computer programmer, clearly sees social media technology as a mixed bag. This technology, she says, has helped protest movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, organize quickly, but there’s also a downside.
“It helped the movements scale up very quickly very fast, which was a great advantage in some ways but it also caught them in a vulnerable place. So if you scale up that fast, the speed of which you scale up doesn’t necessarily indicate the strength of a movement ten years ago twenty years ago when these things were harder,” she says.
Tufekci uses as an example of the Civil Rights Movement, which did not have the benefit of social media. But what they did have was the benefit of the slow hard work of organizing, mimeographing flyers clandestinely, planning freedom rides, etc, built up social capital and experience among organizers, and the ability to adapt to changes as necessary—that more contemporary protest movements—like the progressive political movement Occupy Wall Street, lacked, she says.
The main reason Occupy Wall Street failed in many of its goals had a lot to do with their strategy, Tufekci argues. Unlike the strategy of the Tea Party, which began as a conservative backlash against the U.S. government bailouts in 2008, Occupy failed to engage politically, she says.
“The left side refused to engage the electoral system,” she says. “It refused to develop long term strategy. And it’s kind of dissipated. “It changed the way we talk about inequality but given how popular it could have been, and how impactful Tea Party ended up being, I think it’s kind of a striking.”
She also thinks it is “a total misunderstanding,” that the Tea Party was “astroturf”—a phony grassroots movement propped up by millionaires and billionaires—an idea popular among media pundits at the time.
“What you have is a real movement that got latched onto, not the other way around,” she says, acknowledging the financial support as well as strategic vision that the movement received from wealthy donors.
“The one thing that it had that Occupy did not have is lots of funding and strategic vision,” she says. “What they ended up doing is that they figured out the weakest part of the U.S. electoral system. They primaried all sorts of people. They took over the Republican Party; they effectively blocked Obama’s second term, and arguably elected a president in 2016.”
And Trump administration and its allies, Tufekci suggests, has something in common with authoritarian governments around the world, from Egypt to Russia: they’ve figured out how to use social media to sow discord.
But at first authoritarian governments didn’t know what to do with the internet, she said. At first they tried to shut down the internet to suppress dissidents organizing on social media.
“What then happened the government figured out is that you flood the place with misinformation that you sow confusion, that you do all these things that we see [such as establishing bot armies and bogus Facebook accounts] and if you have a problem you don’t even cut it off. The governments they have found that different algorithms serve authoritarians much better to just step back and let the algorithms promote polarization and misinformation which they do well.”
So the social media tools that at first seemed like they would help spread democratic values throughout the world became a tool for authoritarians to use to crush dissent and gain power.
“It is absolutely true that at first it helped the dissidents like most technology and as time went by first thing the authoritarians figured out how to use it,” says Tufekci. “And that’s what we saw in the 2016 presidential election, a range of parties saying how can I use this to spread confusion? How can I use this to create polarization?”