YouTube is a hugely important platform via which individuals – in particular adolescents – access information about topics of everyday interest or political issues. It is the second biggest website on the Internet, founded in 2005, and could be considered as the breakthrough of the so-called Web 2.0, the opening of the web for everyone to participate. As the largest video streaming platform on the Internet, YouTube allows creators and users to upload, view, comment on and rate content, and to respond to each other in videos. 86% of young people in Germany use YouTube actively and as many as 23% of YouTube users aged between 12 and 19 regularly watch videos that “comment on the news and international affairs.” Additionally, there are indications that YouTubers assume the position of role models. For instance, Döring has found that adolescents often uncritically copy the traditional and stereotypical gender roles embodied by YouTubers, suggesting that they tend to be uncritical recipients of the information disseminated on the platform. Generally speaking, as stated by Hugger et al. (2019), “there are barely any accurate empirical findings about the extent to which adolescents differentiate between videos published on the Internet by YouTubers, in particular those containing information and opinions on political events and international affairs.” Authenticity appears to be a particularly important factor for the target audience:
“Adolescents tend to believe that YouTubers providing information-based content are more authentic because they are ‘genuine’ people talking about their ‘real-life experiences’. This is particularly true for videos produced by YouTubers with a comparatively low number of followers. The appeal and credibility attributed to YouTubers by the adolescents surveyed increased in step with their perceived authenticity.”
A study carried out by the Pew Research Center in 2018 revealed that YouTube also plays a major role in the life of its adult users. For example, 35% of all adults in the USA (accounting for both users and non-users of the site) use YouTube to help them, “figure out how to do things they haven‘t done before,” and one fifth of all users use the platform to help them understand events that are happening in the world. The obvious implication of this is that extremist content on YouTube may reach an interested target audience that would otherwise be separated in time and geographical distance, and not all of whose members may be capable of reflecting critically on what they see.
YouTube’s recommendation algorithm has also become a focus of increasing research interest. According to the Pew study referred to above, YouTube encourages users to watch progressively longer videos, and many users encounter videos that are false or untrue or that show people engaging in dangerous or troubling behaviour (64% and 60% respectively). A study investigating extremist content found that the algorithm proposed increasingly extreme content to users who had already engaged with less extreme content in the past. Particularly in the digital sphere, the decisions taken by an individual are shaped to a very large extent by algorithm-driven recommendations and the individual’s social network. Content proposed by the algorithm may not be perceived as “biased”, making it harder for users to reject what they see and hear.
This causes the following problem: the way that the YouTube platform currently works means that people who are searching for authenticity and information, inter alia to help them “figure out how to do things they haven‘t done before” or to learn about international affairs, and who also tend to accept YouTubers’ opinions uncritically, are being shown a growing number of videos of increasingly extreme and extremist content. Simply by asking straightforward “how to” questions (“How do I pray correctly?”), questions about international affairs (“migration”) or questions seeking information (“What is a hijab?”), individuals searching for information can therefore quickly find themselves in a microcosm or echo chamber.
Extremist actors know that their target audience is on these platforms and use all means available to penetrate their topical discussions and gain an advantage in the discourse. By being very active and posting videos nearly daily, and also by using hashtags, catchy and optimised titles, and skilful use of film techniques, extremist videos attain top ranks in search engines and in the integrated search function of YouTube itself. While “hardcore” propaganda of extremists is seldom found on the platform, the main use for groups and individuals alike is to spread the narrative(s) and ease the users into more extremist views one video at a time. If the user is then so inclined, nearly all channels provide contacts on social messaging services or links to their own websites, where more extreme content can then be disseminated. If YouTube is the pond, the nets are cast wide to find potentially interested people who are then dragged along until some of them are caught – and this at nearly no cost or personal risk to the owner of the channel. Regardless of the extremism in question, YouTube is a platform that needs more consideration in research if we want to make an impact in online radicalisation and build an understanding of these processes. To tackle these questions modus|zad has studied the fringes of Islamist extremism in Germany and will release a report in English and German the coming month.