YouTube’s algorithm sent consumers down a denialism-ridden rabbit hole
From Area 51 to faked moon landings, conspiracy theories have tethered themselves to American culture. Over time, outlandish accusations have become the new normal, and there’s no place like the internet to bring these radical theories together.
One of the most common breeding grounds for conspiracy theories is YouTube. Take, for example, the Flat Earth community, a group of individuals who argue the Earth is not spherical, but rather, a flat plane.
In 2015, Flat Earther Mark Sargent posted a video series to Youtube using everything from airplane routes to camera images to prove the earth is flat. His channel became a beacon of information for the flat earth community and now has over 81,000 subscribers.
“I am now a 24/7, full-time flat earth advocate,” Sargent explained to me over the phone. “I am the freshman recruiter for the metaphorical ‘Flat Earth University.’ I wake up every morning and check to see how Flat Earth is doing out there.”
Earlier this year, Netflix began streaming the Portland Film Festival’s Best Documentary Winner Behind the Curve, a film chronicling the beliefs and lives of YouTube’s most prominent flat earthers, Mark Sargent included. Though the film was critical of flat earthers and their theories, Sargent is optimistic it will plant the seed for new members to join the community, acting as a Trojan horse to draw in more conspirators.
Sargent argues that most Flat Earthers are sucked into the community while trying to debunk the theory in the comment sections of YouTube, watching hours upon hours of conspiracy videos in the process.
For Sargent, it took several months of binge-watching videos on YouTube in 2013 for the theory to fully resonate. “I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘okay, I can’t prove the globe in a court of law anymore.’”
Youtube’s algorithm recommends videos similar to the ones users are already searching for, leaving many individuals susceptible to spiral down a rabbit hole of conspiracy videos. For many, a search about one conspiracy leads to a recommendation for another, a process that may last hours.
Marcus Lee, a student at The University of Denver, was clicking through videos on YouTube one night when the site recommended a video claiming to have evidence that mermaids are real.
“The government has been hiding it from us for ages. The ocean is the most unexplored place on earth, and mermaids have just been left undisturbed,” Marcus said.
The video recommendation feature of YouTube is a great tool for keeping users on the site for longer periods of time. Watching more videos equivocates to more advertisements and greater profits for YouTube, making conspiracy videos a real revenue generator.
“The average person that gets into Flat Earth watches 20 videos in a row,” Sargent claims. “So who do you think YouTube is going to recommend?”
In the face of tremendous public pressure, the site was ultimately forced to make changes to its recommendation algorithm earlier this year, cutting suggestions for videos conveying misinformation in half. While many considered the algorithm change a move in the right direction, it might have come too late. Popular channels like Mark Sargent’s have continued to see a steady increase in subscribers in the months since Youtube’s changes.
“We were being recommended heavily for three straight years. You looked up potato salad recipes, you were getting flat earther videos,” Sargent said. “So when they [changed the algorithm], did it cripple us? No. Did it slow us down? Yeah, you bet.”
Believing that the world is flat and that mermaids exist seems harmless at first glance, however, these theories are a slippery slope. Denialism, which is the rejection of basic and indisputable facts in favor of radical theories, can manifest as everything from innocuous opinions on the earth’s shape, to more threatening cultural phenomenons.
Take climate change, for example. Despite mounds of evidence supporting the realities of global warming, everyday citizens, our nation’s president and all sorts of people in between maintain that the whole thing is a scientific hoax.
My own grandfather is among those who reject the realities of climate change. A retired high school science teacher of 37 years with a doctorate in education, he believes that while human activities likely tie in with the earth’s changing temperatures, they can be more so defined as a part of the earth’s natural cycle.
“I am sure that some of the things we do are affecting the climate, but I think climate change is just a natural phenomenon. A way for the earth to replenish,” he said.
Denialism manifests even more radically among conspiracists who argue mass shootings are nothing more than government hoaxes employed to take away citizens’ right to bear arms. In the wake of Sandy Hook, for example, the parents of the elementary school students whose lives were claimed in the shooting were harassed online for faking their own children’s deaths.
These conspiracies, popularized by Infowars’ Alex Jones, have detrimental effects for the families of victims. Lenny Ponzer, who lost his son to Sandy Hook, has spent years refuting the claims of shooting conspiracists. In a quote published in The Washington Post, Ponzer articulated his frustrations.
“Unimpeded conspiracy theories distort the truth and erase history,” he said, further adding that gun violence conspirators “hide behind their computer screen and terrorize people grappling with the most unimagined grief.”
Ultimately, YouTube and the internet at large have become promoters and protectors of conspiracy theorist groups. This culture of denialism might appear harmless and even amusing upon first glance but becomes alarming upon further consideration of its implications. It is up to companies like YouTube, Facebook and Google to protect susceptible individuals from spiraling from harmless flat earth theories to beliefs with major ramifications for private individuals and the planet at large.
“It’s kind of like the La Brea Tar Pits,” Sargent concludes. “Once you’re in, you don’t get out.”
Did Marcus say this or is this quoting the video?
Chloe Gibson is a first-year documentary studies & production major who was abducted by aliens. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Art by Quinivere Fullerton, Contributing Artist.