YouTube finally decides it should care about misinformation

While Facebook has taken the brunt of the criticism over fake news, YouTube has also become a target of late for those who believe the video-sharing site isn’t doing enough to stem the flow of misinformation. Sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has called it “an engine for radicalization,” because the YouTube algorithm continually suggests videos with more and more extreme content, and a former Google engineer who worked on the algorithm agrees, telling CJR this behavior was designed as a way of boosting user engagement.

The Google-owned site appears to have absorbed at least some of these criticisms, because it just announced new features it says should help cut down on the spread of misinformation through the platform during news events, along with a $25 million funding program the company says is aimed at fostering innovation at news organizations—money that comes from the recently announced $300-million Google News Initiative. The first feature being rolled out is an “information panel” that will pop up on top of search results involving breaking news stories, with links to news articles about the event from “authoritative sources.”

And who defines what qualifies as an authoritative source? YouTube, of course. According to the announcement, Fox News fits into that category, something a number of observers say is problematic at best. In any case, the feature is designed to help avoid some of the embarrassing moments YouTube has suffered in the past, when conspiracy theories and hoaxes popped up among the top recommended videos for news events such as the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. At one point, most of the top 10 recommended videos about that event said the victims of the shooting were “crisis actors.”

Facebook is also trying to select “trusted” news sources and promote their content in the News Feed (CJR recently talked to Facebook’s Head of News, Campbell Brown, about the difficulty of doing this). Every time a platform chooses one media outlet over another there are cries of bias, and YouTube’s latest attempt to do so is no exception.

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The funding news, meanwhile, sounds impressive, but it’s a little less so once you dig beneath the surface. Google said some of the funds will be used to hire staff at YouTube to implement some of the features it just announced and liaise with media, while the rest will go fund the development of “long-term sustainable video skills” at a variety of media outlets. As a number of critics mentioned in a recent CJR feature on Google and Facebook and their funding of journalistic ventures, this could translate into “teach more people how to use YouTube.” That benefits Google, but is it a long-term benefit for journalism?

Here are some more links related to Google and the problem of misinformation:

  • Show me the money: Digiday points out that YouTube’s new outreach program could help the video-sharing service win some fans in the media, especially since Facebook has led many outlets down the garden path when it comes to generating video revenue. Among the other announcements in its recent launch, YouTube will be expanding its Player For Publishers program, which allows media partners to embed a player on their sites and keep all the related ad revenue.
  • A working group: YouTube says that as part of the rollout of its new program, it will be creating a working group made up of news organizations and media experts who it hopes will help it “develop new product features, improve the news experience on YouTube, and tackle emerging challenges.” News organizations who are currently part of the group include Vox Media, a Brazilian radio network called Jovem Pan, and Indian TV channel India Today, and YouTube says it will be adding more partners soon.
  • Media literacy team: In addition, YouTube is putting together a group of YouTube stars—including Ingrid Nilsen, Mark Watson, John Green, and AsapSCIENCE—to teach video-watching teens and millennials about fake news and misinformation. Green, Nilsen, and Watson will work with MediaWise, a group that is trying to provide media literacy skills to one million teens. Green has a series of videos designed to teach viewers about issues such as online advertising and media ownership.
  • Business as usual: Wired notes that the new features including the text links above a breaking-news video are designed only for situations in which a news event has just occurred. In every other instance, YouTube search and the recommendation algorithm will work as they always have. “There are going to be counter points of view, and there’s going to be [videos] where people who have a conspiratorial opinion are going to express them,” YouTube Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan told the magazine.


Other notable stories:

  • Univision announced on Tuesday that it is looking to sell Gizmodo Media Group and The Onion, assets that it acquired over the past two years as it was scaling up its Fusion online group. It paid $135 million for Gizmodo and a number of other sites that were part of Gawker Media, which filed for bankruptcy in 2016 after losing a defamation case launched by former wrestler Hulk Hogan.
  • University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow writes in The Boston Globe that the recent rescue of a stranded boys soccer team from a cave in Thailand is the kind of classic “baby in the well” drama that comes along every few years. “It’s a story of survival — told to us in real time — that will hopefully culminate in relief and gratitude,” he writes. “It’s also a story we’ve all seen before.”
  • The New York Times says it now has 55 email newsletters that go out to more than 14 million subscribers. The secret to a successful newsletter, says Elisabeth Goodridge, editorial director of newsletters, is, “Know your audience, have an expert write it, design it beautifully, maintain it with best practices in mind, and, perhaps most important, offer something valuable that you can’t get anywhere else.”
  • Business Insider took down an opinion piece about Scarlett Johansson playing a trans character in an upcoming movie because the site said the article didn’t meet its publishing standards. Some of the site’s staff also reportedly complained about the piece. In a memo following the incident, editor-in-chief Nich Carlson said that that “culturally sensitive columns, analysis, and opinion pieces” would now be reviewed by the company’s executive editors before publication.
  • BuzzFeed announced the launch of a weekly interview show that will appear on Facebook as part of the social network’s new Watch video feature. The show, which is called Profile, will be hosted by Audie Cornish of NPR’s hit show All Things Considered, and episodes of the BuzzFeed program will start appearing on Facebook on Sunday later this summer, the company said in a news release.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.