Worried about a dystopian future full of robots that decide how you see the world? You can wait until tomorrow’s fantastic Blade Runner 2049 to imagine how that might look in the future, or you can get there faster by logging in to modern YouTube.
At least, that’s The Wall Street Journal‘s take. The paper tested and confirmed some bizarre content-surfacing results on the massive video-sharing site as recently as this Tuesday. The results, which sullied its “Top News” box with debunked rumors, drove YouTube to “accelerate the rollout of planned changes to its search engine,” according to a YouTube source close to the WSJ.
During the paper’s Tuesday test, searches for hot-topic terms like “Las Vegas shooting” and “NFL anthem protest,” along with the term “9/11,” each brought up top-five video posts, specifically listed in the site’s “Top News” box, whose titles and content were loaded with debunked and misleading content. The fifth result for “Las Vegas shooting” was titled “Proof Las Vegas Shooting Was a FALSE FLAG attack—Shooter on 4th Floor” and claimed that multiple shooters had been involved, in spite of Vegas officials stating otherwise. The fourth result for that NFL search revolved around a previously debunked claim that Anheuser-Busch intended to pull NFL-related advertising due to player protests.
And that 9/11 search, which the WSJ repeated the following day, resulted in a number-two result that was more than 10 years old, had 42.5 million views, and gave credence to that event’s many conspiracy theories. At press time, none of the WSJ‘s cited videos were available on YouTube anymore. The WSJ noted that the Vegas-related video, from a channel called End Times News Report, racked up 371,000 views in a four-hour period on Tuesday night while enjoying that “Top News” designation—which may have given the video some credibility to average viewers—before being delisted.
YouTube’s unnamed source to the WSJ said that searches for terms related to breaking and hot news will now deliver “more authoritative results.” The source did not clarify how the site would rank its videos’ authoritativeness.
Hopefully, YouTube’s new ranking system will fare better than whatever Google News was employing as recently as last week. That site’s content-surfacing algorithm was caught with its veritable pants down when it promoted content that had originated from the notoriously inflammatory “pol” board on 4chan. Google News representatives later admitted that its algorithm had somehow whitelisted 4chan as an “authoritative” source of news.
YouTube has struggled as of late with how to sort, present, and attach an ad-based economy to so much user-generated content. Earlier this year, advertisers pulled ads after seeing their messages slapped onto hateful and extremist videos—an issue that YouTube and parent company Alphabet, Inc. didn’t immediately fix.
Meanwhile, the site’s video creators, especially in the gaming world, have struggled with demonetized videos, unclear messaging from YouTube, and a certain game-streaming celebrity continuing to say racist things. Gaming critic Jim Sterling’s latest video, “YouTube has a YouTube problem,” sums up many of the site’s recent failures to communicate critical, money-related issues to video creators, along with his own estimation of how often its content-combing robots incorrectly flag videos that, according to the site’s TOS, should be monetized.