Fox News Got a Big Boost on YouTube From an Algorithm Change
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- If you’ve watched a YouTube Inc. clip recently about Bill Gates’ secret pandemic ploy or the dangers of anti-fascist protest movement Antifa, chances are YouTube queued another video for you in the “Up Next” column from a familiar name—Fox News.
In January 2019, the site, run by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, made a very big change to address its very real misinformation problem. It recognized that some corners were being overrun with conspiracy theories. Algorithms were feeding viewers similar content and YouTube wanted to pull in recommendations from a broader library. As a fix, it rewired its system to promote more “authoritative news” — the sorts of stories from old-school TV stations YouTube once promised to unseat. But by doing so, YouTube accidentally gave America’s top conservative-leaning cable network prime billing.
Since early last year, Fox News has overtaken rivals CNN and MSNBC in viewership on the site. Over the past 12 months, views of Fox News videos on YouTube more than doubled to touch 245 million in June, according to data from research firm Social Blade. Another research firm, Socialbakers, lists Fox News as the most viewed U.S. news channel on YouTube during the first three weeks of June. A similar trend is unfolding on Facebook Inc., which rejigged its system along related lines in 2018. Fox News consistently tops Facebook’s charts of publishers with the most likes, comments and shares. According to Gabriel Kahn, a journalism professor at USC Annenberg, the “virtuous circle these platforms tried to create ended up benefiting a notoriously irresponsible news provider.”
YouTube says it began to surface more media outlets on its site starting in 2017 and that news channels overall flourished this year. One metric the company uses is a channel’s growth rate — specifically, what percentage of average daily views the YouTube account added. By that measure, the YouTube pages of MSNBC, NBC News and CNN all grew more than Fox over the past 12 months, according to YouTube. It declined to share those exact rates, or view counts. Facebook declined to comment.
Millions of Americans, particularly young people, get their news online. For years, Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies have faced accusations that their systems for sorting and surfacing news is biased against conservatives. YouTube and Facebook, fearing that label, have made an effort to embrace right-leaning news outlets, keeping them in their stables of acceptable publishers. Fox News, a long-time favorite of President Trump, has been a beneficiary of that.
Yet Fox News “traffics in conspiracy theories frequently, which as we know is candy for the internet,” says Kahn. Of course, that criticism existed before the coronavirus. But the pandemic’s frenetic news cycle has drawn more people online, deepening worries about the network’s influence.
In April, more than 180 journalism school faculty members and media professionals signed an open letter to Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, co-chairmen of Fox Corp. regarding the network’s coverage of Covid-19, which they said contained false statements and misleading information. Victor Pickard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the signatories, says Fox News anchors often “misrepresent complex social problems and issues,” such as the Black Lives Matters protest. “Fox tends to produce content that emphasizes fear and outrage,” he says. Fox has disputed charges of misrepresentation in its news coverage and a representative pointed to several reports from the network on the severity of the pandemic.
At times, this outrage has become too much for sponsors. In June, a handful of advertisers, including The Walt Disney Co. and T-Mobile US Inc., pulled commercials from Fox’s Tucker Carlson Tonight show after the host’s inflammatory remarks about a Black Lives Matter protest. A spokesperson for Disney said last month that its ads were placed via a third-party buyer. Earlier this week, Carlson devoted parts of his show to debunking the established science on wearing masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus. (Sean Hannity, another popular anchor, has released a PSA in favor of masks.)
Carlson does particularly well on YouTube, which shares more than half the money it gets from video-advertising sales with publishers. Of the 10 most-popular Fox News clips in June, seven were from the conservative journalist and political commentator. Neither Disney nor T-Mobile responded to questions from Bloomberg Businessweek about whether they’ve pulled ads from Carlson’s YouTube videos.
Exactly how much traffic can be attributed to YouTube’s shift is hard to gauge because Google doesn’t release that information. Mark Ledwich, a data scientist who studies YouTube’s systems, estimates Fox News netted over 248 million views from recommendations in June, some 75 million more than MSNBC.
Fox News is also getting better at the internet. In May, it boasted record audience numbers, pulling in more than 100 million online viewers for a sixth consecutive month. Although on YouTube, Fox News has fewer subscribers than CNN and even some big YouTube personalities like Philip DeFranco, it’s become more adept at deploying search-engine tricks to help ensure explosive clips go viral. “Legacy media initially brought a knife to the YouTube gun fight,” says Kahn. “Now of course they know that’s where the money is.”
Jason Ehrich, executive vice president of audience development and strategic partnerships for Fox News Media, says the network’s triumphs aren’t only attributable to YouTube recommendations. Fox has formed an entire team devoted just to YouTube, and grown savvier at posting popular breaking news streams. “Our success on YouTube can be attributed to a multitude of factors,” he wrote in an emailed statement to Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Fox’s growing reach is especially apparent to smaller YouTubers. Some even say its algorithm change favors traditional media, ironic considering former YouTube CEO Salar Kamanagar said in a 2011 speech that users of its platform could be as famous as stars on networks like CNN, MTV or ESPN.
David Pakman, a left-leaning vlogger, estimates he’s lost about 5.5 million views a month. He’s found that fans can watch 10 clips of his show in a row and still only be fed “corporate media” in the recommendations box. While he welcomes YouTube's efforts against conspiracy theories, its blunt process stings. “I’ve essentially been collateral damage,” he says.
In a clip in January, he outlined a new report from nonprofit group Avaaz that found when people search for climate change videos on YouTube, as many as one in five of the “Up Next” recommendations were stories about climate science denial. One prominent video from Fox News featured. “This is destroying my channel,” Pakman says in the clip. “It’s so disheartening and crushing.”
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