Project description

We investigated for several months how users are exposed to extremist content on YouTube and what role extremist vloggers and the YouTube recommendation algorithm play in the real-life radicalization of viewers. Facebook and Twitter have been repeatedly implied in the distribution of (hate) propaganda and fake news, but remarkably little is known about the role of YouTube, despite being one of the most popular media platforms around the world. Its importance has sadly been underscored by the viral video of ‘involuntary celibate’ Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in 2014, and the recent Christchurch attacker in New Zealand, whose ideology bears strong similarity to the extremist content we encountered on YouTube.

In a collection of written articles, data visualization, videos and a podcast for our broad online and printed news audiences, we shed light on the most important YouTube channels of the ‘reactionary right’, both in The Netherlands and internationally. We uncover their mutual connections around themes like antisemitism, anti-feminism and white supremacy and show how this can easily lead viewers down a rabbit hole of increasingly extremist content, even if the YouTube recommendation algorithm itself is not biassed. To sketch the full picture, we did not only talk to radicalization experts and analyzed some 600.000 videos and 120 million comments from 1500 YouTube channels, but we also tracked down a handful of the (usually anonymous) commenters that expressed increasingly extremist views. In this way we hope to shed light on YouTube, and other social media, fuelled radicalization processes, that the interviewees described as ‘personal development’ and a deepening of their understanding.

What makes this project innovative?

Unlike other research, we did not only look at the videos that the YouTube algorithm recommends, but also unearthed the underlying community of reactionary right channels that follow and feature each other. Moreover, we reconstructed the journey of users through this network using tens of millions of their comments and interviewed some of these people about the development of their views.

What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?

I am sorry, I can't provide these metrics. But, in general, our mission is to report on issues that we think are current, newsworthy and important for society and we always search for the best formats to reach different audiences (e.g. various innovative digital storytelling formats and data visualization, video, podcast, as well as written articles) and to bring across the key points of our story in the best possible way.

Source and methodology

To uncover the network of reactionary right channels, we compiled a list of YouTube accounts that are considered to be extremist right by anti-fascism experts, academic researchers and various media sources. Using the ‘YouTube Data Tool’ of the Digital Methods Initiative we then collected all followers, subscriptions and featured channels of these accounts. We filtered the resulting collection of channels by hand and iterated this search procedure several times. Of the final 1500 channels we collected the videos, comments and other additional information from the YouTube API, using Python scripts. We also transcribed 400.000 videos using the youtube-dl Python library. Data on the monthly number of views and subscribers of the channels were obtained from Socialblade, which also provides a measure for the influence that popular channels have. We analyzed these data with the help of statisticians, media scientists and algorithm experts, partially through two hackathon days in september and october. For our understanding, we also simply watched hundreds of the most popular videos we surfaced.

Technologies Used

We used the following technologies: YouTube Data Tool and API, Python, R, Gephi, D3.js, HTML/CSS/JS, Adobe Creative Cloud

Project members

Dimitri Tokmetzis, Annieke Kranenberg, Hassan Bahara, Leon de Korte

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