Will YouTube curb misinformation in Brazil? Don’t count on it

. Nov 26, 2019
Will YouTube curb misinformation in Brazil? Don't count on it

Godwin’s law is an internet adage asserting that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” A similar thing could be said of the YouTube related videos algorithm—the more you watch, the higher the chance of being directed to the channel of some sort of conspiracy theorist.

Start watching anything on a political topic on YouTube and, inevitably, you will end up being shown content with extreme, misleading, or even flat-out false content. If you are on the left, you will end up being directed to left-wing conspiracies. The same is true on the right. Experiments on this YouTube phenomenon have reached similar conclusions that the platform’s algorithm tends to boost misinformation.

</p> <p>That is actually not entirely YouTube&#8217;s fault, as fake news spreads faster than verifiable facts on any platform. But the algorithm takes this phenomenon to a whole new level. YouTube&#8217;s artificial intelligence systems are designed to maximize watch time, learning from user behavior and recommending content users will be drawn to.</p> <p>It is harder to underestimate the video-sharing company&#8217;s power in Brazil, where it has over 100 million users (or half of the country&#8217;s population). According to Google, its parent company, <a href="">YouTube added 35 million users</a> over the past two years, the equivalent of the entire population of Canada. It is one of the biggest content-consumption platforms in the country, reaching more people between 18 and 49 years old than cable TV.&nbsp;</p> <p>And it has become something of an echo chamber that has allowed the propagation of extremist conspiracies. During the 2018 election, its &#8220;Trending&#8221; feature boosted far-right channels that spread flat-out lies about politics—some of which, according to a <a href="">report</a> by <em>The Intercept</em>, had even been <a href="">banned on Facebook</a>—and received money from conservative parties such as the Social Liberal Party, President Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s former political group, and Brazilian Labour Renewal Party, which houses Vice President Hamilton Mourão.</p> <p>Now, YouTube has announced the launch of an <a href="">anti-misinformation tool</a>.</p> <p>The tool has been tested in India since March. Fact-checking will be made in partnership with third parties, including many of Brazil&#8217;s mainstream media outlets, which will be responsible for verifying content. The problem is that YouTube won&#8217;t shut off channels dedicated to spreading false information. And research has proven that fact-checking warnings have limited effects on how most users consume content.</p> <h2>News, on social media</h2> <p>A survey by the Reuters Institute says that 91 percent of Brazilians consume their news on the <a href="">internet</a>. And 72 percent go through social media, making it the third-highest out of 26 surveyed countries, behind only Greece and Turkey.</p> <p>And it is amazing to observe how people&#8217;s perceptions change in accordance with whether they consume their news on social media or through established media outlets.&nbsp;</p> <p>Consultancy Quaest <a href="">surveyed</a> Brazilians on their outlooks about the country. Those who read print newspapers are more pessimistic about the country&#8217;s future: 49 percent think Brazil is getting in worse shape than it used to be, and only 14 percent believe things are improving. But, among those who get their news from Facebook, WhatsApp, and other such platforms, there is much more satisfaction: 62 percent of them believe Brazil&#8217;s prospects are improving.</p> <p>The survey doesn&#8217;t elaborate on why that is happening, but another piece of evidence may offer us a clue. A 2018 survey by Datafolha, Brazil&#8217;s most-prestigious pollster, shows that conservative voters are <a href="">more active on social media</a> than those of a liberal leaning.</p> <h2>Bolsonaro had no Trump-like effect in Brazilian media</h2> <p>Since emerging as the Republican nominee in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the mainstream media. Criticism from household names of the press actually makes him <a href="">more appealing to voters</a> who reject what they paint as simply &#8220;the liberal media.&#8221; At the same time, Mr. Trump&#8217;s rise—and scapegoating of the press—may have boosted <a href="">trust in news organizations</a>, even among conservatives.</p> <p>When Jair Bolsonaro was elected Brazil&#8217;s president last year, many in the news business predicted a similar thing would happen. Mr. Bolsonaro employs similar tactics used by Mr. Trump, electing the press as his <em>bête noire</em> and calling out any piece of information he finds disfavorable for him as &#8220;fake news.”&nbsp;</p> <p>It has played out differently in Brazil, however. Local newspapers are hemorrhaging print subscribers at a worrisome rate. Since 2014, for instance, <em>Folha de S.Paulo</em>, Brazil&#8217;s most prestigious daily publication, lost 59 percent of its subscribers—and the remaining ones belong to older generations, which indicates a lack of renewal of the subscriber base.</p> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/995461"></div><script src=""></script> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/995283"></div><script src=""></script> <div class="flourish-embed" data-src="visualisation/995607"></div><script src=""></script> <p>And while online subscriptions are on a rise—in some cases, they have doubled over the same span—we must be careful before celebrating, for three reasons:</p> <ul><li><strong>Small base.</strong> Until very recently, Brazilian newspapers treated their webspace as a subproduct of their printed version. Focusing on online content is a recent thing. That&#8217;s why the growth rate is so big—because the baseline is so low.</li><li><strong>Lower revenues.</strong> Online ads and subscriptions generate lower revenues for publications.</li><li><strong>&#8220;Fiscal pedaling.&#8221; </strong>The big leap for online subscriptions happened in 2018, when the body that audits readership allowed newspapers to pull a maneuver boosting their numbers: subscribers paying full price are accounted the same as those who benefit from discounts of up to 90 percent—which explains the amazing growth.</li></ul> <p>

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