Despite Remediation Efforts, ADL Finds YouTube Still Amplifies Extremist Content

New ADL Belfer Fellow survey shows white supremacist and other potentially harmful content is still recommended by YouTube

New York, NY, February 12, 2021 … While YouTube has made efforts to remove extremist content, 9 percent of YouTube users who participated in a national study viewed at least one video from an extremist channel, and 22 percent viewed at least one video from an alternative channel that could serve as a gateway to extremist content, according to a new report from ADL (the Anti-Defamation League).

Additionally, 38 percent of recommendations shown on videos from alternative channels and 29 percent of recommendations shown on videos from extremist channels were to additional videos of the same type. As a result, a large number of users followed at least one recommendation to a video from an alternative channel and others followed at least one recommendation to a video from an extremist channel.

“It is far too easy for individuals interested in extremist content to find what they are looking for on YouTube over and over again” said Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “Tech platforms including YouTube must take further action to ensure that extremist content is scrubbed from their platforms, and if they do not, then they should be held accountable when their systems, built to engage users, actually amplify dangerous content that leads to violence.”

The new report found that although some high-profile extremist channels were removed by YouTube before and during the study period, white supremacist and other alternative and extremist content remained disturbingly accessible on the platform. In fact, among those who watched at least one video from an alternative or extremist channel, the mean numbers of videos watched were 64.2 (alternative) and 11.5 (extremist) over the course of six months

These results are evidence that remediation efforts made by YouTube were not adequate to stop the platform from frequently recommending more videos from alternative or extremist channels. As a result, many people in the study were not only watching large numbers of videos from alternative or extremist channels, but also were shown recommendations for more such videos when they did so, further increasing exposure to potentially harmful content.

In addition to tracking video viewing habits, the survey found that consumption of extremist or alternative videos was most frequent among people who reported existing bigoted views. Exposure to extremist channels tends to be higher among those who reported having cold feelings against Jews — during the study period, 25 percent of that group watched at least one video from an alternative channel and 21 percent watched at least one video from an extremist channel (compared to 19 percent and 8 percent, respectively, among those with medium or warm feelings). 

These findings further support the need for platforms to remove violent extremist groups and content, including conspiracy theories like QAnon that fueled the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. There have been demonstrable impacts of removing such users: following then-President Trump’s removal from Twitter and his suspension from Facebook and Instagram,

ADL’s Center for Technology and Society researchers found that immediately following the suspension of QAnon-related accounts on January 8, the use of QAnon-related hashtags plunged by 73% and is currently 97% lower than it was at the height of the spike that followed the Capitol insurrection.

“Relative to other social media platforms, YouTube often evades criticism for spreading hate,” said Brendan Nyhan, a report author, professor of Government at Dartmouth College and an ADL Belfer Fellow. “Despite the recent changes that YouTube has made, our findings indicate that far too many people are still being exposed to extremist ideas on the platform.”

The Belfer Fellowship program is possible due to the continued generosity of the Robert Belfer Family. ADL’s Center for Technology and Society works with the fellows as they pursue research in previously unexplored areas related to ADL’s mission to secure justice and fair treatment in digital spaces. The fellows also augment ADL’s ongoing research efforts to help quantify and qualify online hate in a variety of social media sites, gaming platforms and other fringe online communities. Read more about the Belfer Fellowship and the Center for Technology and Society at: adl.org/CTS.

ADL is the world’s leading anti-hate organization. Founded in 1913 in response to an escalating climate of antisemitism and bigotry, its timeless mission is to protect the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all. Today, ADL continues to fight all forms of hate with the same vigor and passion. A global leader in exposing extremism, delivering anti-bias education, and fighting hate online, ADL is the first call when acts of antisemitism occur. ADL’s ultimate goal is a world in which no group or individual suffers from bias, discrimination or hate.