YouTube has become a major news source for people in the United States as independent and traditional media sources attract large audiences on the video sharing website. However, the growing influence of Google’s video platform also increases concerns about the fight against rampant disinformation and harassment.
In a study published by the Pew Research Center today, 26% of adults in the United States said they now get their messages from YouTube. This includes 23% through videos posted by news organizations and 23% through independent YouTube channels. The researchers interviewed 12,638 U.S. adults for the report.
“The study finds a news landscape on YouTube where mainstream news organizations and independent news creators thrive side by side – and where mainstream news organizations no longer have full control over the news Americans watch,” the authors wrote.
The report defines “outside news organizations” as both traditional media outlets like the New York Times and digital native outlets like BuzzFeed. Independent channels can include celebrities like John Oliver alongside “YouTubers,” the 30% who built their following almost entirely on the platform.
While the report paints a picture of a thriving news ecosystem, it also notes some worrying differences between traditional and independent sources. Independent channels, for example, are based more on personalities than on a broader news organization. And those independent channels are far more likely to focus on conspiracy theories on topics like anti-vaccine issues or Jeffrey Epstein’s death.
The report analyzed 3,000 videos posted by the Top 100 YouTube News Channels in November and December 2019 and found that 4% contained conspiracy theories. Among independent broadcasters, 14% of videos were mostly devoted to conspiracy theories, and up to 21% mentioned them. Only 2% of videos from traditional news organizations mentioned conspiracy theories.
“Coverage of conspiracy theories has focused almost entirely on videos from independent channels and virtually not on videos produced by channels affiliated with news organizations,” the study said.
In addition, 37% of videos from independent channels tended to look at their subjects through a negative lens, compared with just 17% from news organizations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this negativity generates more views, which has made this subset of independent channels particularly problematic for YouTube. In June, YouTube had banned the channels of the white supremacists Stefan Molyneux, Richard Spencer and David Duke, who were among the top news sites when the study was carried out.
YouTube has attempted to tackle problematic content for the past few years by removing channels that violate its guidelines. The company used a mix of human and AI-powered content moderation to attack the problem. However, critics are calling for more measures.
Divided attitudes towards YouTube reflect the political divide seen on other social platforms. The study found that Republicans and Republican independents tend to view censorship and political issues on YouTube as bigger issues than Democrats.
Still, these controversies do not seem to affect the attitudes of the average viewer. Less than 30% felt they had “big” problems with the messages they received from the website. Even fewer people cited harassment or lack of courtesy as a concern. Instead, YouTube viewers saw access to “outside the mainstream” sources and the variety of opinions available as major assets.