A few months ago, a disturbing Medium article was going around about children’s media on YouTube. The auto play feature on the platform was sending children down a rabbit hole of videos created solely because of the platform’s algorithm.
This article launched a number of conversations about technology company accountability and algorithmic justice. The nightmarish quality of the videos (popular cartoon characters speaking directly to your child, in pain, or committing violent acts) probably helped.
Though I found this story interesting, at the time I had zero YouTube literacy. As a trans person with early life internet access, I am never skeptical about the power of narrative online. But at the time, I was skeptical about the potential to shape narrative on YouTube. Without strong online communities and at least some real time personal connection, is it really possible to change people’s minds on that scale?
Turns out: it is possible. Not only possible, but easy.Most of the successful examples… are from the Right Wing.
The book “New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World,” discusses how the internet facilitates the rapid spread of new ideas through ‘participatory energy.’
One example they cite is the Right Wing intensity machine, which builds a wave of gradually radicalized action takers through multichannel media and online community.
YouTube is a key anchor in that intensity machine — and learning the ins and outs of that platform is key to fighting this wave of radicalization. As we head into a presidential election year, I have zero skepticism of marketing tools as mechanisms for radicalization.
Fear of social media propaganda and technology company power tends to focus on conspiracy theories, ‘deep fakes,’ and personality targeted Facebook ads. But it’s increasingly clear that the most insidious right wing ideology is peddled through basic ass marketing.
This series is about my experimentation with the Redirect Method, a tool for combatting the spread of algorithmic based radical ideology — learning how it works, the highlights, the pitfalls, and how it can be replicated. My hope is that by documenting my learning with this tool, others can reach more people they don’t engage, better understand the traps laid by the Right online, and start to beat back against the racist ideology spreading across the internet.
What’s Going on with YouTube Now?
From the MIT Media Lab (uh… the good parts of the MIT Media Lab):
“Recommendation algorithms are some of the most powerful machine-learning systems today because of their ability to shape what information we consume. YouTube’s algorithm, especially, has an outsized influence. 70% of what users watch is fed to them through recommendation... It also often rewards the most extreme and controversial videos, which can quickly push people into deep rabbit holes of radicalization.”
The disturbing parts of YouTube haven’t gotten better, and it’s easy to see why. The power of recommendation (even if the model that recommendation is based on sucks) continues to drive most of what people watch on YouTube, so curbing it is hardly in YouTube’s interest.
It’s not getting better: at a conference last week, “Please Don’t Include Us: Inequity and AI,” one researcher mentioned that, based on this new article, YouTube isn’t exploring changes that would create meaningful fixes. So… barring major systemic changes to YouTube’s business model, the recommendation engine will stay fundamentally the same — promoting the most extreme content over all else.
What is the ReDirect Method?
The Redirect Method was developed by Google’s Jigsaw initiative, run by Yasmin Green. Created in part to address the lack of meaningful intervention online in the radicalization of young people by ISIL, this process was released online to help other researchers combat online radicalization and propaganda created by violent groups.
Spoiler alert: the vast majority of the Redirect Method is just a scaled, iterative system for testing SEO, YouTube, and paid advertising tactics, similar to what you might find at a well funded marketing agency. That said, I have extremely limited knowledge of SEO, YouTube, or paid advertising, so I am grateful for this system!
As depicted in the graphic above, The Redirect Method has 3 stages — research, content creation, and targeting. The process itself really only includes two components: ads for reaching an audience and videos for presenting them with alternative narratives.
Here’s What You’ll Need:
If you’re following along at home or trying to make your own DIY deradicalization communications strategy on a dime, here are some of the tools and skill sets you’ll need (or at least start to develop):
YouTube and AdWords
This is obvious but not neccessarily easy (unless you’re already a highly successful YouTuber — in which case, Godspeed highly successful YouTuber interested in leftist ideology, you may save us all). YouTube’s platform and algorithm take time to learn well, and AdWords, if you’re not familiar, is a . That said, using these platforms effectively relies on effective targeting, research, scale, and iteration: all skills that are worth building both as a marketer and as a person interested in the spread of information.
Other people’s content
This is my favorite part of the ReDirect Method: the part where it’s not that much work. On the site, they describe this process as ONLY different from other deradicalization efforts because of the emphasis placed on audience reach (as opposed to media creation). I call it “the approach I have been waiting for my entire life” — it’s cheaper, engages people with what’s already working, and puts the bulk of the time, energy, and money on solving the problem.
Next time we’ll talk about research — figuring out your target audience, how they engage with videos, what you actually want to change, and the overall landscape of Right Wing ideology online (yikes).