YouTube as Political Influencer Takes the Spotlight

YouTube, which operates as one ofGoogle’s subsidiaries, is under increased scrutiny aftera New York Times report earlier this month highlighted the role it played in the recent presidential election in Brazil.

Among concerns the paper highlighted is YouTube’s installation of a newartificial intelligence (AI) system that can track user behavior tosuggest additional videos to watch.

The goal arguably is not much different from the way newspapers –including The Times — offer links to other stories to keep users on asite so they see more ads. In the case of YouTube, theconcern is that instead of instructional videos on guitars, for example, YouTube directed users to what the paper dubbed “paranoid far-right rants.”in support of fringe political candidate Jair Bolsonaro. YouTubevisitors who intended to view amateur guitar teacher Nando Moura’s lessonsinstead saw his politically themed videos.

Because YouTube is a powerhouse that now has more regularviewers than all but one TV channel in Brazil, the paper suggestedthat this activity contributed to the political success of now President Bolsonaro.

The concern for many in the United States is what impact YouTube — as well as Facebook, Twitter, other social media services and Internet-based content in general — could have on the next general election.

Old Media and Elections

The role the media has played in the U.S. political process haslong been controversial. In the 18th and 19th centuries,newspapers were more politically charged than they are today, in part becausepublishers didn’t have access to wire service copy and access to moredistant news. The news deemed fit to print was what the publisherswere able to craft — and often times it was filled with biased opinions.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the slanted editorial copywas relegated to the rightfully dubbed “opinion page,” and the rest ofthe content tended to be more strictly news-oriented. However, eventoday there remain charges from both the left and right over media bias, often highlighted by the fact that newspapers do endorse candidates for public office.

It isn’t the editors and the writers who make suchendorsements, but rather a paper’s editorial board. Most of the nods go to local candidates. However, since 1940, it’s typically been the presidential candidate in with the strongest newspaper support who has tended to win the election.

Two notable exceptions are Harry Truman, who had support from only 15 percent ofAmerican newspapers in 1948, and John Kerry, who had an edge over George W. Bush in 2004 endorsements.

Since 1996, according to newspaper industry trade magazine Editor& Publisher, almost 70 percent of newspapers have refrainedfrom endorsing a presidential candidate. More importantly, the paperswith the largest circulation — USA Today and The Wall Street Journal — currently do not endorse candidates. WSJ even went so far as to make a point of it in 1972, by declaring that it wasn’t in the business of tellingpeople how to vote.

However, some large and prestigious papers, such as The Washington Post, do continue the tradition of endorsing candidates. Someright-wing pundits and media watchers have suggested that because The Post routinely favors Democrats overRepublicans — as does The New York Times — that it creates a perception of bias in all its reporting.

Where the issue becomes more complicated is in terms of radio andtelevision broadcasters, which are barred from making direct endorsements of politicalcandidates.

In fact, the equal time rules specify that U.S. radio andTV broadcast stations must provide an equivalent opportunity toopposing political candidates who request it. The FCC implemented the rule so that broadcast stations could not manipulate the outcome of elections by presenting one point of view and excluding the other.

New Media and Elections

The election process and media operations have gotten far more confusing in theInternet era, especially since the 2008 election when Pew Researchreported that nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of Internet userswent online to get news and information about the campaign.

2008 was also dubbed the “Facebook Election,” due to the influence thesocial network had on younger tech-savvy American voters. Exit polls revealed that Barack Obama won nearly 70 percent of the vote among Americans under the age of 25.

Donald Trump successfully used a digital ad campaign onFacebook in 2016, micro-targeting more than 50,000 ad variations eachday to voters.

Twitter was howthen-candidate Trump talked to people, but Facebook became the toolthat was used to win the election, suggested Trump’sdigital director Brad Parascale in an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

New media increasingly has been providing candidates with a way to reach awider audience than newspapers or even TV.

“YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google are as influential on politicaloutcomes as any other medium or information channel,” explained GregSterling, vice president of strategy and insights at the Local SearchAssociation.

Further, “the 2016 U.S. presidential election and subsequent elections aroundthe world have shown the degree to which they can be manipulated andeven ‘weaponized’ by bad actors,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Video is becoming a big problem today,” observed social media consultantLon Safko.

“Using Facebook to distribute fake-news video is a big problem aswell,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Russia created a huge scarefake news campaign to intimidate the Ukraine a few years ago that wasvery effective.”

Business or Political Motives

The question then becomes whether Facebook, YouTube and otherInternet companies have been trying to become the “puppet masters” to createa “new media world order” or it this is just business as usual — and the evidence suggests it is simply the latter.

“YouTube’s primary objectives are audience engagement and ad revenue,which the algorithm is designed to maximize,” noted Sterling.

“However, and despite YouTube’s recent efforts, it does seem to beamplifying certain extreme positions and may have influenced therecent Brazilian election, though it’s hard to know whether it was a’but for’ cause in that case,” he said.

Should YouTube be held to the standards of radio and TV, and not allowed to become a broadcast channel for any political message?

“YouTube and other technology companies — i.e. Facebook, Twitter,Reddit — that operate services that distribute media messages shouldbe held to the same code of conduct that media companies are,” arguedJosh Crandall, principal analyst at NetPop Research.

“YouTube and others are not simply providing technology — they arecurating and filtering what is seen and to whom,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“The problem is accountability. Nearly all accountability has beenremoved from posting fake, slanderous, incriminating, and otherwisefake news on social platforms,” noted Safko.

“The platforms don’t want to be accountable and censor, and theyaren’t holding their members accountable either,” he suggested. “If media companies aren’t held accountable, nefarious actors willcontinue to abuse their ability to inflame tensions through theseplatforms.”

New Media as Scapegoat

What the recent reporting about the “power” of social media andYouTube doesn’t take into account are the other political factors. In2008 the economy was headed down, there was fatigue from eight yearsof the GOP-controlled White House — and by many accounts, Obama simply ran the better campaign.

Similar observations apply to 2016. Hillary Clinton failed to visit key states in the Midwest, and Trump carried key counties in Michigan and Pennsylvania that hadn’t voted Republican since Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1984. Trump struck a chordwith voters who may not even have been on Facebook.

So how much impact did YouTube really have on Brazil’s election?

“The idea recently floated by The New York Times that YouTube had asystemic impact on the Brazilian elections last week is tantamount totrading in the same conspiracy theories they’ve opposed for the lastthree years,” said James R. Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.

“YouTube’s algorithms aren’t inherently politically disposed,” he toldTechNewsWorld.

The recommended videos typically are related to ones a vieweralready has watched. It is true that viewers who clicked to see NandoMoura’s guitar lessons did hear his political rants, but was thatenough to sway an election?

In Brazil, all citizens over 16 years of age can vote, but it ismandatory for those between 18 and 70 years of age to vote, and thosewho do not must pay a fine. Unlike in the United States, theelection in Brazil employs a two-round system, which means far morecandidates vie for the top office.

Also, just over a month before the first-round of voting,then-candidate Bolsonaro was the victim of a knife attack. Whilehe recovered, he may have received some “sympathy votes.”

However, thestate of the nation’s economy and fatigue with outgoing PresidentMichel Temer, who took office after the impeachment of his predecessorDilma Rousseff, certainly played a factor in the 2018 electionoutcome.

“That Brazilians might be tuned into right-wing politics right now isno surprise given how poorly their left-wing governments havedelivered over the last few decades,” suggested Bailey.

News Media or Not

Another consideration is that YouTube didn’t stop any left-wingcandidates from utilizing the platform in Brazil’s election, just as Clinton chose not to embrace Facebook in the 2016 presidential election in the United States.

“YouTube is not a news outlet — it’s a compiler, plain and simple,” said Bailey.

“They don’t have investigative reporters or opinion pieces; theypromote what we post, period,” he added. “Breitbart has an ideological agenda. So does CNN, Fox and the NYT.”

Here is where the line becomes murky. YouTube is just avideo-sharing service, and it doesn’t make the content it produces. Ifit did, the rules would be different — but even that is changing.

“In the United States, the FCC had a law that made it mandatory toverify every news story from multiple sources,” said Safko.

“That law was abolished and influenced by one large presidential contributor, and that seems to be the beginning of the end of truthful, balanced, verified and accountable reporting,” he added.

“Social and video platforms should not be responsible forpolicing the content,” Safko said, “but there has to beaccountability. With YouTube, Facebook, and the Internet in general,there are no consequences.”

Social Responsibility

Whether it is about elections or just politics in general, thequestion is whether YouTube and social media should beallowed to function as soapboxes across the spectrum, including for extremists. Is it good for democracy in general to give a voice to theextreme political fringes? Where should the line be drawn?

YouTube has made efforts to rein in the more extreme content — thevideos that openly call for violence or otherwise could be viewedas “dangerous speech,” but is it time for greater regulation of what is posted?

“Once positioned as tools of social good, social media and YouTube nowoften have a negative impact on politics and culture by givingfringe characters legitimacy and potentially massive reach,” saidLocal Search Association’s Sterling.

“There’s much more effort they can and need to deploy againstextremism,” he added.

However, at least in the present, “there really is no way to formallyregulate YouTube,” observed Bailey.

“Surely some court cases will come along that require them to trim upa bit here and there,” he said, “but like so many Internet providers, they’re notarbiters — they’re a platform.”

YouTube itself can’t be held accountable for what the users post. That said, “a site that intentionally and purposefully spews hate can and shouldbe held liable under current legal strictures,” maintained Bailey.

“YouTube should self-regulate before Congress isgoaded into acting,” he suggested.

“At the end of the day, the First Amendment endorses free speech, butYouTube doesn’t have to allow anyone’s speech on their site,” Baileynoted. “They can reject posts via almost instantaneous filtering, andtable them for review before deciding to post or not. Oddly enough,they have rights too — and it’s about time they exercised these.”

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and Peter.

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