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Senator Warns YouTube Algorithm May Be Open To Manipulation By 'Bad Actors' (theguardian.com) 179

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee has warned that YouTube's powerful recommendation algorithm may be "optimizing for outrageous, salacious and often fraudulent content" or susceptible to "manipulation by bad actors, including foreign intelligence entities." Senator Mark Warner, of Virginia, made the stark warning after an investigation by the Guardian found that the Google-owned video platform was systematically promoting divisive and conspiratorial videos that were damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign in the months leading up to the 2016 election.

"Companies like YouTube have immense power and influence in shaping the media and content that users see," Warner said. "I've been increasingly concerned that the recommendation engine algorithms behind platforms like YouTube are, at best, intrinsically flawed in optimizing for outrageous, salacious and often fraudulent content." He added: "At worst, they can be highly susceptible to gaming and manipulation by bad actors, including foreign intelligence entities."
YouTube's algorithm determines which videos to promote in the "Up next" column beside the video player. The Guardian found that "the algorithm was six times more likely to recommend videos that was damaging to Clinton than Trump, and also tended to amplify wild conspiracy theories about the former secretary of state."
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Senator Warns YouTube Algorithm May Be Open To Manipulation By 'Bad Actors'

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    More Russia! Russia! Russia! from BeauHD

    • So let me get this right? You just happen to feel strongly enough to make this "extremely funny" post anonymously and then within hours two other people pissed themselves laughing and just had to mod your hilarious anonymous post up. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] There is no way those guys are real ^^^ There is no way that if they were real they'd be interested in a silly place like youtube There is no way in the world that you're not sitting in St Petersburg right now pulling your pud with your othe
      • BUT MUH RUSSIA!!!!!

  • by randomErr ( 172078 ) <ervin,kosch&gmail,com> on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @09:11AM (#56075967) Journal

    Ok the Republicans said the same about Democratic videos popping up against Trump. So which is real? Can we can the # of times that pro-Trump and pro-Hillary videos actually ran and unique views by person? We never will because it would reveal too much about Google's algorithms.

    • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

      No, you'll never find out because it's against the narrative. Now be a good boy and stop questioning ingsoc otherwise the police will come and have a chat with you.

      But to be semi-fair and not joking on this, you only need to look at the general bias. The republicans are saying "bad actors" in general but democrats are screeching "russia" and all that. If it seems heavily slanted all in one direction and telling you that it 100% truly, absolutely, and really is this one thing. It's likely the opposite or

      • Yeah. If only we had some sort of official intelligence report [dni.gov] confirming Russia's interference in the 2016 elections...

        • If only we had actual, verifiable evidence, and not an opinion editorial from the desk of James "Least Untruthful" Clapper. That really would be something.
          • The report was signed by Coats, the current DNI, and its assessments and conclusions were supported by the CIA, the FBI and the NSA.

            Seriously, it is out there to be read. Give it a try.

        • by Mashiki ( 184564 )

          You mean just like that official intelligence report that said russians hacked hillary's email sever? Which was never investigated by the FBI, who also never had access to it...

    • by asylumx ( 881307 )
      I think the reality might be that *both* are true. Ultimately, foreign powers probably see the opportunity to divide the US and get us to fight with ourselves, which weakens our stature globally and therefore gives them a chance to climb back into relevance.

      Unfortunately, even the way both of these accusations come up are divisive -- if either party says "the platform was systematically promoting divisive and conspiratorial videos that were damaging to BOTH campaigns" then maybe someone other than their
    • Well the video title "Socialism isn't cool" got demonetized and the video titles "Capitalism isn't cool" did not. lol

      So there appears to be some bias in the algorithm.

    • Can we can the # of times that pro-Trump and pro-Hillary videos actually ran and unique views by person?

      First people would have to agree on which videos are pro-Trump, which are pro-Hillary, and which are neither. I doubt you would make it past that step given that both sides are going to be inclined to bucket borderline videos in a way favorable to them, and both sides would well understand the bucketing fundamentally drives the conclusion.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      This isn't really a political issue, it's to do with the way that YouTube's algorithms decide what to suggest.

      YouTube doesn't just look at the ratio of thumbs up and thumbs down votes, it looks at the amount of "interaction" the video gets. Down votes count as interaction. Watching the whole video counts as interaction, watching 10 seconds of the video counts as (less) interaction. Commenting counts as interaction.

      The problem with this is that it tends to push conspiracy theories and other nonsense to the t

  • by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @09:12AM (#56075971) Journal

    If we stipulate that (shudder) Youtube, Facebook, and other influential social media outlets are places where political opinion is formed, then they are news sites.

    Even if users are unable or unwilling to recognize this fact, folks whose business it is to shape public opinion realize and exploit these forums... including their founders and overseers.

    The degree to which your discomfort with this enrages you is in direct proportion to your political bend and who's currently winning hearts and minds.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    My "Up next" column on YouTube contains good documentaries and/or Lets Plays by high quality gamers. It is comparable a mirror image of my personal preferences.

    If the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate looks into a mirror and sees propaganda or "outrageous, salacious and often fraudulent content", then surely the one to blame is the mirror.

    • by Cytotoxic ( 245301 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @10:18AM (#56076269)

      This is the salient point. The algorithms are customized to the individual, so YouTube, Google, Facebook and other social media platforms are echo chambers.

          So when the guardian writes:

      The Guardian found that "the algorithm was six times more likely to recommend videos that was damaging to Clinton than Trump, and also tended to amplify wild conspiracy theories about the former secretary of state."

      One must ask, to who? Who is the user that is getting served up this content, and what have they been doing online?

      It would be absolutely stunning if a Google company was an overall net negative to the Clinton campaign. Alphabet (Google parent company) Chairman Eric Schmidt worked closely with the Clinton campaign and created the company "The Groundwork" [qz.com] for the purpose. With deep knowledge of the algorithms used by Google and YouTube and a slew of engineers from the companies, The Groundwork has direct ties into the backend at Google.

      Claiming that YouTube was manipulated to shill for Trump (overall) would be like claiming that William Randolph Hurst's papers were shilling against his favored candidates. It just doesn't make any sense at all.

      • Yeah, I was wondering, how does one do a systematic external analysis of YouTube algorithms? There's hundreds of markers used in the algorithms, from the geo location of the viewer's IP address to the fonts installed on the system. Can anybody really account for all those possible variables without having deep internal knowledge of the algorithms used?
    • When I'm on youtube, the next video usually will either be more music (most often AC/DC) or more bad European drivers.

      In fact, the last time I tried to find a divisive political video, I couldn't seem to find the right search terms for it. That was last week.

  • by geekmux ( 1040042 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @09:16AM (#56075989)

    I'm really getting tired of hearing about how Facebook, YouTube, or any other form of social media is "manipulating the masses". Social Media is supposed to be entertainment, not a fucking source of news, facts, and shit you use to guide you in your life's decisions.

    I think we should give up on trying to fix Stupid. Find a way to quarantine it off or something. Colonize a new country of citizens that still believe in common sense, rational thought, and intelligent discourse. One thing is for certain; if we continue to monetize and reward stupidity, you can expect the devolution to continue.

    • Yes and no. They are intended for entertainment but sometimes hard news is disseminated on these platforms. You can't deny this.
      • Yes and no. They are intended for entertainment but sometimes hard news is disseminated on these platforms. You can't deny this.

        And sometimes the National Enquirer tabloid rag has a fact in it. That doesn't exactly justify it's existence or my need to read it. If the hard news is worthy enough, it will be picked up and reported on by reputable sources, without having to wade through the other 99% of bullshit click-bait.

        • by Layzej ( 1976930 )

          Yes and no. They are intended for entertainment but sometimes hard news is disseminated on these platforms. You can't deny this.

          And sometimes the National Enquirer tabloid rag has a fact in it. That doesn't exactly justify it's existence or my need to read it. If the hard news is worthy enough, it will be picked up and reported on by reputable sources, without having to wade through the other 99% of bullshit click-bait.

          And sometimes the National Enquirer tabloid rag has a fact in it. That doesn't exactly justify it's existence or my need to read it.

          The president of the USA cites the National Enquirer [cnn.com] as a reliable source. He says it has a very good record. [thehill.com] Possibly some of that affection comes from the fact that they have engaged in at least one cover up [fortune.com] on Trump's behalf.

          Ultimately it doesn't matter whether you or I can recognize bullshit. The president of the USA is susceptible. Likely a sizable group of voters are as well. As you say, we can't fix stupid, but if we want an informed democracy then we shouldn't promote it.

    • Colonize a new country of citizens that still believe in common sense, rational thought, and intelligent discourse.

      That's already a thing. [seasteading.org]

      Or you could wait for the BFR and move to Mars. [spacex.com]

    • by Kiuas ( 1084567 )

      Social Media is supposed to be entertainment, not a fucking source of news, facts, and shit you use to guide you in your life's decisions.

      Who determines what social media is and is not supposed to be a source of? I mean, Slashdot is a form of social media. Not a very modern one at that, but the existence of the karma system as well as a friend system makes it a social media even though the topics being discussed are (mainly) news. So are you saying that we should get rid of the social dimensions of this si

    • by houghi ( 78078 )

      Everything you hear will have an influence on you, be it positive or negative. It also means that they can use it to sell you stuff. Be it soap or ideas.

    • ... citizens that still believe in common sense, rational thought, and intelligent discourse.

      I contend that there has never been a significant population of such people anywhere, ever. The plebes always have been, and always will be, largely irrational emotional reasoners.

      Those "halcyon days" of a "rational and intelligent populace" are a myth of the intelligentsia, a sort of creation myth for (classical) liberal principles.

      The enlightenment thinkers told us outright that their ideas would only work for a population with the attributes you're lamenting a lack of. Since our system appears to have

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Disclaimer: i work at Google.

  • Check the prior (Score:4, Insightful)

    by invalid_user ( 253723 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @09:26AM (#56076035)

    Are there more anti-Clinton videos than anti-Trump videos on YouTube? If so, most Bayesian methods will recommend you an anti-Clinton video... unless if you apply a completely partisan bias that enforces equal time for both sides (or even mute out the other side).

    In my opinion, the reason there are more anti-Clinton videos on YouTube is simply because there are just too many people who can't find their views represented in the mainstream media. So, if the mainstream media will just stop calling everyone who doesn't echo their agenda an "alt-right", and instead, reason with them, the videos will most likely just go away.

    Today Democrats still have close to the entire mainstream media firmly behind their narrative, and Colbert's show is still the most viewed on YouTube. So why the paranoia?

    Remember, strike out their voices, and they will become powerful than you could possibly imagine.

    • Re:Check the prior (Score:4, Informative)

      by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @09:44AM (#56076105) Journal

      Are there more anti-Clinton videos than anti-Trump videos on YouTube? If so, most Bayesian methods will recommend you an anti-Clinton video... unless if you apply a completely partisan bias that enforces equal time for both sides (or even mute out the other side)

      Only if it's an entirely trivial algorithm. More likely, it will take other factors such as number of comments, number of views, and so on into account. Given the information that Google collects, it will probably also take into account the amount of time that people spent watching them, the things that other people geographically close to you watched, the things that other people who read the same kinds of new sources as you read (if they've got Google ads, Google knows whether you prefer an R- or D-leaning news site), what news apps you have installed on your Android phone, how many times the word Trump and Hillary appear in emails that you've sent and received with GMail (and with what modifiers, such as whether 'lying' appears near 'Hillary' or 'treason' appears near 'Trump') and so on.

      • Blocking ads stops a lot of that, and with the way ads have become malicious, and high security risk exploits able to be ran from JS, i would expect everybody have a decent adblocker by now...

      • Backing up your point, YouTube is all about serving you what you'd like to see (at least as best they can guess). A couple of months back, the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe mentioned a resurgence of Flat Earth conspiracy theorists. Wondering what in the world they were talking about, I Googled it and pulled up a couple of trippy videos on YouTube. (I highly recommend it, if you are into circus side-show style entertainment on the web)

        Ever since then, I'll get a flat earth video mixed in on my sidebar, a

    • corporatists do. There are right wing corporate hacks on both sides. The media sides not with a party, but with the ultra wealthy.

      As for the parties, The Dems have Chuck Shumer and Fienstien. The Rs have, well.... pretty much the entire party. On the Dem side I've at least got Bernie Sanders and Liz Warren. I don't think I can point to a single R that has consistently voted in favor of the working class. The tax bill, for example, is us borrowing a $1 trillion dollars to give it away to the richest 1%.
      • Still, the only folks offering real solutions are the real left. Go look up Justice Democrats, which is the left wing movement in the Dem party, if you want to see anything actually get fixed.

        There's no hope for the Justice Dems if even in their infancy they are eating their own over immature comments made over a decade ago. I don't know how you can have confidence in a party that will likely fracture every time someone fails the SJW purity test.

        But your point about corporatists controlling mainstream media is well received, and suggests the real reasons why there will be a continuous crackdown of free speech on massive platforms such as Youtube and Twitter. Not to root out fake news or click

  • by DrXym ( 126579 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @09:30AM (#56076063)
    Open up YouTube without logging on and the entire page is just bullshit click bait. People have figured out how to game the algorithm to get their vapid trash onto the front page, generating millions of views in the process.

    I'm sure the same thing happens at a smaller scale. Channels know the keywords to use, the video stills to advertise the content, the baiting language to get the views. Once the views go up the ranking algorithm makes the video more prominent, perpetuating the process. And if it can be done for commercial reasons it surely can be done for political or propaganda purposes.

    • by MrDozR ( 1476411 )
      Totally agree with this. The front page is pure crap. It's almost cause for me to actually log on and filter to what I want (numberphile, minutephysics and some other geeky stuff), but I shouldn't have to. Maybe the front page should be a search box like google's own search homepage?
    • I usually get to youtube from a search from google that ends in "video". I've only seen the front page a couple times in the past year.

      And I don't have a youtube account to log into.

  • by burtosis ( 1124179 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @09:31AM (#56076065)
    Since it appears we have reached the point where too many Americans believe things like Hillary is running a child sex slave ring on Mars I'd just like to say it's been fun but I think we are well and truly fucked at this point.
    This is really just another "failure" like Tey where the problem is just that it is a reflection of how people want to use the technology. The algorithm is "failing" because divisiveness, tribalism, hatred, not challenging people to think and a deep seated pride in willful ignorance fuled by confidence in whatever you believe is real is what the free market wants because that's what people want. The real bad actors are those that don't teach people to think critically from a young age, if you don't know what's real it's not even possible to act in your own self interest - people make choices they never would have if they only had a clear understanding of reality.
    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Critical thinking is a morally dubious and decadent liberal ploy to destroy our way of life

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Tom Cruise

  • by andrewbaldwin ( 442273 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @09:56AM (#56076169)

    As Isaac Asimov said, many years ago...

    "Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

    Social media has its place - entertaining, yes but certainly not informing and enlightening.

    Sadly, the comfort zone 'bubble' appeals to those of all political and religious persuasions and, far from being 'social', recent system have been ever more divisive.

  • They tried to be anonymous ... but the system saw them watching anti-hillary videos and started to tailor the content ...

    The algorithm worked ... it did it's job, it started with the most popular videos (click bate), then as they searched and watched it instantly tailored to what they were doing ...

  • Nothing to add besides the title.
  • by Pyramid ( 57001 ) on Tuesday February 06, 2018 @10:21AM (#56076287)

    Channels about chemistry, logical thinking, social discourse, physics, etc. are demonetized at the drop of a hat, but we have Pewdiepie, menstrual blood "art" and pop stars wearing strap-on dildoes at the top.

    Social media is not about liberal notions like free speech, education, science. It's about doing everything possible to keep eyes focused on the stream of shit for as long as possible. The byproduct is the algorithms that select the carefully crafted stream of diarrhea ensure everyone stays in their same lane, comfort bubble.

    Discourse, critical thinking are the backbone of western societies. We're in trouble.

  • "I've been increasingly concerned that the recommendation engine algorithms behind platforms like YouTube are, at best, intrinsically flawed in optimizing for outrageous, salacious and often fraudulent content."

    And how is that possibly any business of the federated government of the United States of America? It doesn't matter if it's true or not, it's none of their durn business to begin with.

    Senator Warner, I know you are a smart guy, you're one of the Senators for my beloved state, but don't you think the

  • That sweater guy from Pennsylvania. He attained lasting fame in the internet as The Santorum.
  • YouTube Algorithm May Be Open To Manipulation By 'Bad Actors'

    You leave Jean-Claude Van Damme alone! He tries his best.

  • Have you seen some of that Star Trek fan fiction that's posted on YouTube? It's unwatchable! I mean, obviously the effort is there and bless them they put their hearts into it but the poor guys just can't act to save their lives.
    • by Megane ( 129182 )

      Have you seen some of that Star Trek fan fiction that's posted on YouTube? It's unwatchable!

      They put ST:D episodes up on Youtube? I'll be sure to not watch them there, too!

  • What is even more damaging is CNN's and Foxnews selection algorithm. The algorithm used to select headlines and editorial content by The New York Times and Washington Post are also damaging. In fact all of mainstream media could be said to have the same affliction.

  • We're waiting on Medicare for All, College for all, Infrastructure spending, ending the wars and living wage (among other things). If this was some wackadoodle from the House I could put up with this, but it's the Senate. This isn't just that they have better things to be doing, it's that they know they have those better things and they're not doing them; probably because they've been bought off.

    Show up to your primary folks and vote these people out.
  • damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign

    That describes pretty much all of Hollywood.

  • Bernie supporters and Trump/GOP supporters were pushing Hillary is bad videos, watching them, sharing them, commenting on them. So of course more anti-Hillary videos came up.

  • Isn't this pretty much SEO?
  • And they won't let him upload. Basic chemistry stuff - entertaining if you're into actually learning how things work. He does cater a bit to the younger crowd who like exciting stuff, or somewhat dangerous stuff, and it's a bubble-wrapped world guy, but this is insane. His latest strike was for a vid on how to make gunpowder - and not very good stuff - out of urine, which takes a very long time, huge effort and so on - compared to just buying the stuff legally at any gun shop and many mailorder places...
    • by ruddk ( 5153113 )

      He has 1.3 million subscribers. I can't figure out if it is incompetence at YouTube or them being evil. I'm kinda thinking it's a combination. They certainly seem to be a lot of stupidity going on:
      https://mediaequalizer.com/mar... [mediaequalizer.com]

      Also, their latest 1000 subs, 4000hours limit, that won't affect all those channels who basically just copies something from other channels or TV news programs and repackage it or any of the other "bad actors".

  • YouTube
    Alphabet
    Google
    Employees of all of the above.
    The political party supported by all of the above.

  • So it WASN'T the RUSSIANS! It was GOOGLE! We've heard enough talk, STRING 'EM UP!
  • FTA:

    "Chaslot explains that the algorithm never stays the same. It is constantly changing the weight it gives to different signals: the viewing patterns of a user, for example, or the length of time a video is watched before someone clicks away. "

    "The engineers he worked with were responsible for continuously experimenting with new formulas that would increase advertising revenues by extending the amount of time people watched videos."

    So basically it doesn't care what the content is, just that peopl
  • "Senator Mark Warner, of Virginia, made the stark warning after an investigation by the Guardian found that the Google-owned video platform was systematically promoting divisive and conspiratorial videos that were damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign in the months leading up to the 2016 election."

    The conventional media and the Washington establishment assumed that Clinton was a shoe-in for President. The fact that the majority of Americans voted for Trump demonstrated that they didn't accept the msg. T
  • Senator Mark Warner, of Virginia, made the stark warning after an investigation by the Guardian found that the Google-owned video platform was systematically promoting divisive and conspiratorial videos that were damaging to Hillary Clinton's campaign in the months leading up to the 2016 election.

    /. readers know Google is uber liberal. For Warner to say the "Google-owned video platform" damaged Hillary's campaign is nothing short of ludicrous! Hillary lost and the Dems need to get over it.

    She ran a

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