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No one knows how YouTube’s Trending section works

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How does this keep happening?

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki FilmMagic

YouTube’s Trending section is under fire once again after another misleading, offensive video made its way to the top of the list.

Criticism surged against the company today after Motherboard reported that one of the top trending videos, displayed for hundreds of millions of viewers in the United States, alleged that a Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student was a crisis actor. There have been thousands of videos about the school shooting that occurred last week in Parkland, Florida, many of which feature students advocating for gun control legislation.

This particular trending video focused on David Hogg, an outspoken student who has appeared on television often since the shooting. The video suggested he was an actor paid by CNN to promote a particular viewpoint, even though that has been discredited by reliable media outlets.

It’s not surprising that insensitive conspiracy videos about controversial topics like gun control are circulating YouTube. More than 400 hours of footage is uploaded to YouTube every minute, and it’s impossible for the company to moderate every single video. The issue, however, is that one imagines that YouTube’s Trending section would be more heavily watched — especially when videos like the insensitive piece about Hogg break the site’s rules for what videos are allowed to appear on the Trending list.

YouTube’s FAQ on how its Trending section works establishes that YouTube’s algorithm tries to promote videos that don’t mislead viewers.

“Misleading, clickbaity and sensational titles and thumbnails impact viewer satisfaction and engagement,” YouTube’s support site says. “Viewers can and often do report videos that are misleading, clickbaity and sensational. We look at these reports as well as at a number of other signals from viewers, including: audience retention, likes and dislikes, and viewer feedback to help tune our recommendations.”

Yet “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR….” is clearly a misleading and salacious title, and the video contains unfounded and slanderous conspiracy theories. YouTube also says that “the Trending system tries to choose videos that will be most relevant to our viewers and most reflective of the broad content on the platform.”

By YouTube’s own admission, “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR….” is therefore “reflective of the broad content on the platform.” Except that it’s something YouTube is trying to get away from. YouTube faced similar problems in October 2017 following a mass shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas. Videos promoting fake news and conspiracy theories surfaced to the top of search results and were recommended to viewers. A YouTube representative told The Guardian that the site was aware it had problems with its news algorithm.

“There is still more work to do, but we’re making progress,” the company told The Guardian. “We’re continuing to invest in new features and changes to YouTube search that provide authoritative results.”

Except YouTube won’t address exactly how its algorithm determines what’s authoritative and what’s not, and this gets into one of YouTube’s biggest problems: transparency. The company isn’t transparent about how anything works — how its algorithm works, how recommendations work or why these types of videos keep appearing in the Trending section. YouTube said it will hire 10,000 people for a moderation team to try and combat this type of content, but even then, it’s unclear how it will be deployed.

This isn’t the first time that YouTube has battled questions over its lack of oversight — it’s not even the first time this year. Logan Paul, one of YouTube’s most notorious creators, drew attention to YouTube’s lack of curation and moderation when he uploaded a video featuring the body of a man who had committed suicide. YouTube didn’t take action, and it wasn’t until the video made it into the top 10 videos on the Trending list that Paul himself, not YouTube, took down the video.

Philip DeFranco, one of YouTube’s top commentators and critics, released a 22-minute video after Paul’s video appeared on Trending, asking how this possibly could have flown under the radar.

“Part of the reason Logan Paul’s video received so many views is it was top-trending on YouTube,” DeFranco said. “A video that featured a dead person in the thumbnail with footage of an actual dead person in the video; it was top trending and being promoted by YouTube. We’re not talking about a video and creator that just somehow went under the radar. We’re talking about the biggest creator on YouTube posting a video that had over six million views, was trending on YouTube, that no doubt had to be flagged by tons of people.

“The only reason it was taken down is Logan or his team took it down, and YouTube didn’t do a damn thing; part of the Logan Paul problem is that YouTube is either complicit or ignorant.”

Creators have been talking about the problems with YouTube’s Trending section and the company’s lack of transparency over how it works for years. Ethan Klein, host of the popular H3H3 Podcast, pleaded with the company in a video to “just cut with the trending bullshit and stop lying to people. What do you want? What are you doing?”

It’s a problem that YouTube is very aware of and reportedly wants to fix. The company’s CEO, Susan Wojcicki, said in a recent blog post that transparency is crucial, and named it her number-one task to work on in 2018. One of those areas that YouTube needs to be more transparent in, as it’s becoming increasingly more clear, is the Trending section.

Polygon has reached out to YouTube for more information and clarity over how YouTube’s Trending section works. We’ll update this article if YouTube responds.

Update: YouTube took down the video for violating bullying and harassment policies.

Screenshot of the video being taken down.
YouTube

Update 2: YouTube provided Polygon with the following statement on the video in question:

This video should never have appeared in Trending. Because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source, our system misclassified it. As soon as we became aware of the video, we removed it from Trending and from YouTube for violating our policies. We are working to improve our systems moving forward.

Despite the fact that footage in the video was taken from a credible news source — in this case, CNN — the video’s description technically violated YouTube’s guidelines, which is why it was pulled down.

YouTube doesn’t currently have employees who curate the Trending tab; trying to have people keep an eye on it would be a herculean effort because of how many different Trending tabs there are in various regions around the world. Although the algorithms are trained by human engineers, there isn’t any actual human oversight of the section at the moment.