YouTube promises to stop recommending flat Earth and 9/11 truther videos

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YouTube promises to stop recommending flat Earth and 9/11 truther videos
YouTube says it will roll out important updates to its recommendation algorithm in order to exclude problematic content.
YouTube says it will roll out important updates to its recommendation algorithm in order to exclude problematic content.

Image: Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Even without Alex Jones, harmful conspiracy theory videos were running rampant on YouTube. Now, the company says it’s going to take action.

In a blog post published on Friday, YouTube said it would be making changes to its recommendations algorithm to explicitly deal with conspiracy theory videos. The company says the update will reduce the suggestion of “borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways.”

YouTube clarified what kind of videos fit that description by providing three examples: “videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.”

The company clarified that this content doesn’t necessarily violate its community guidelines. This means that while the content may still exist on YouTube, the site’s algorithm will omit these videos from being recommended to its users.

In order to deal with this sort of problematic content, YouTube says it relies on “a combination of machine learning and real people.” Human evaluators and experts will train the recommendation system to evaluate these videos. At first, the changes will only be visible on a small number of videos in the U.S.

YouTube says that overall less than 1 percent of videos will be affected by this change. But, with the platform’s massive video archive and hundreds of hours of new content being uploaded per minute, that still amounts to a lot of videos.

The video site, which is the second most trafficked website in the world, according to Alexa, has long been criticized for its recommendation engine. The company actually did make changes in an attempt to combat misinformation. For example, YouTube adjusted its search algorithm to center trusted news sources for breaking news queries in September.

YouTube recommendations continued to be a problem, however.

The Washington Post recently discovered hateful content, as well as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg health conspiracies, being recommended on YouTube. Motherboard reported on a 9/11 newscast that was being suggested to YouTube users en masse last week.

Just yesterday, BuzzFeed News published an investigation into YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. BuzzFeed found that YouTube would eventually recommend conspiracy theory and hate videos from far-right commentators for the most basic of current events searches.

A Pew study published in November found that an increasing number of Americans are researching topics on YouTube and going to the service for news. The study also found that the site’s recommendation engine plays a large role in what videos its users consume. 

Omitting flat Earthers, 9/11 truthers, and bogus MDs from YouTube recommendations would be a big step toward fixing one of the platform’s many problems.

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