YouTube as Political Influencer Takes the Spotlight
By Peter Suciu
Aug 16, 2019 2:45 AM PT
youtube's role in the recent presidential elections in brazil has come under scrutiny

YouTube, which operates as one of Google's subsidiaries, is under increased scrutiny after a New York Times report earlier this month highlighted the role it played in the recent presidential election in Brazil.

Among concerns the paper highlighted is YouTube's installation of a new artificial intelligence (AI) system that can track user behavior to suggest additional videos to watch.

The goal arguably is not much different from the way newspapers -- including The Times -- offer links to other stories to keep users on a site so they see more ads. In the case of YouTube, the concern is that instead of instructional videos on guitars, for example, YouTube directed users to what the paper dubbed "paranoid far-right rants." in support of fringe political candidate Jair Bolsonaro. YouTube visitors who intended to view amateur guitar teacher Nando Moura's lessons instead saw his politically themed videos.

Because YouTube is a powerhouse that now has more regular viewers than all but one TV channel in Brazil, the paper suggested that this activity contributed to the political success of now President Bolsonaro.

The concern for many in the United States is what impact YouTube -- as well as Facebook, Twitter, other social media services and Internet-based content in general -- could have on the next general election.

Old Media and Elections

The role the media has played in the U.S. political process has long been controversial. In the 18th and 19th centuries, newspapers were more politically charged than they are today, in part because publishers didn't have access to wire service copy and access to more distant news. The news deemed fit to print was what the publishers were able to craft -- and often times it was filled with biased opinions.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the slanted editorial copy was relegated to the rightfully dubbed "opinion page," and the rest of the content tended to be more strictly news-oriented. However, even today there remain charges from both the left and right over media bias, often highlighted by the fact that newspapers do endorse candidates for public office.

It isn't the editors and the writers who make such endorsements, but rather a paper's editorial board. Most of the nods go to local candidates. However, since 1940, it's typically been the presidential candidate in with the strongest newspaper support who has tended to win the election.

Two notable exceptions are Harry Truman, who had support from only 15 percent of American newspapers in 1948, and John Kerry, who had an edge over George W. Bush in 2004 endorsements.

Since 1996, according to newspaper industry trade magazine Editor & Publisher, almost 70 percent of newspapers have refrained from endorsing a presidential candidate. More importantly, the papers with the largest circulation -- USA Today and The Wall Street Journal -- currently do not endorse candidates. WSJ even went so far as to make a point of it in 1972, by declaring that it wasn't in the business of telling people how to vote.

However, some large and prestigious papers, such as The Washington Post, do continue the tradition of endorsing candidates. Some right-wing pundits and media watchers have suggested that because The Post routinely favors Democrats over Republicans -- as does The New York Times -- that it creates a perception of bias in all its reporting.

Where the issue becomes more complicated is in terms of radio and television broadcasters, which are barred from making direct endorsements of political candidates.

In fact, the equal time rules specify that U.S. radio and TV broadcast stations must provide an equivalent opportunity to opposing political candidates who request it. The FCC implemented the rule so that broadcast stations could not manipulate the outcome of elections by presenting one point of view and excluding the other.

New Media and Elections

The election process and media operations have gotten far more confusing in the Internet era, especially since the 2008 election when Pew Research reported that nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of Internet users went online to get news and information about the campaign.

2008 was also dubbed the "Facebook Election," due to the influence the social network had on younger tech-savvy American voters. Exit polls revealed that Barack Obama won nearly 70 percent of the vote among Americans under the age of 25.

Donald Trump successfully used a digital ad campaign on Facebook in 2016, micro-targeting more than 50,000 ad variations each day to voters.

Twitter was how then-candidate Trump talked to people, but Facebook became the tool that was used to win the election, suggested Trump's digital director Brad Parascale in an interview on CBS' 60 Minutes.

New media increasingly has been providing candidates with a way to reach a wider audience than newspapers or even TV.

"YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google are as influential on political outcomes as any other medium or information channel," explained Greg Sterling, vice president of strategy and insights at the Local Search Association.

Further, "the 2016 U.S. presidential election and subsequent elections around the world have shown the degree to which they can be manipulated and even 'weaponized' by bad actors," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Video is becoming a big problem today," observed social media consultant Lon Safko.

"Using Facebook to distribute fake-news video is a big problem as well," he told TechNewsWorld. "Russia created a huge scare fake news campaign to intimidate the Ukraine a few years ago that was very effective."

Business or Political Motives

The question then becomes whether Facebook, YouTube and other Internet companies have been trying to become the "puppet masters" to create a "new media world order" or it this is just business as usual -- and the evidence suggests it is simply the latter.

"YouTube's primary objectives are audience engagement and ad revenue, which the algorithm is designed to maximize," noted Sterling.

"However, and despite YouTube's recent efforts, it does seem to be amplifying certain extreme positions and may have influenced the recent Brazilian election, though it's hard to know whether it was a 'but for' cause in that case," he said.

Should YouTube be held to the standards of radio and TV, and not allowed to become a broadcast channel for any political message?

"YouTube and other technology companies -- i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit -- that operate services that distribute media messages should be held to the same code of conduct that media companies are," argued Josh Crandall, principal analyst at NetPop Research.

"YouTube and others are not simply providing technology -- they are curating and filtering what is seen and to whom," he told TechNewsWorld.

"The problem is accountability. Nearly all accountability has been removed from posting fake, slanderous, incriminating, and otherwise fake news on social platforms," noted Safko.

"The platforms don't want to be accountable and censor, and they aren't holding their members accountable either," he suggested. "If media companies aren't held accountable, nefarious actors will continue to abuse their ability to inflame tensions through these platforms."

New Media as Scapegoat

What the recent reporting about the "power" of social media and YouTube doesn't take into account are the other political factors. In 2008 the economy was headed down, there was fatigue from eight years of the GOP-controlled White House -- and by many accounts, Obama simply ran the better campaign.

Similar observations apply to 2016. Hillary Clinton failed to visit key states in the Midwest, and Trump carried key counties in Michigan and Pennsylvania that hadn't voted Republican since Ronald Reagan's victory in 1984. Trump struck a chord with voters who may not even have been on Facebook.

So how much impact did YouTube really have on Brazil's election?

"The idea recently floated by The New York Times that YouTube had a systemic impact on the Brazilian elections last week is tantamount to trading in the same conspiracy theories they've opposed for the last three years," said James R. Bailey, professor of leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.

"YouTube's algorithms aren't inherently politically disposed," he told TechNewsWorld.

The recommended videos typically are related to ones a viewer already has watched. It is true that viewers who clicked to see Nando Moura's guitar lessons did hear his political rants, but was that enough to sway an election?

In Brazil, all citizens over 16 years of age can vote, but it is mandatory for those between 18 and 70 years of age to vote, and those who do not must pay a fine. Unlike in the United States, the election in Brazil employs a two-round system, which means far more candidates vie for the top office.

Also, just over a month before the first-round of voting, then-candidate Bolsonaro was the victim of a knife attack. While he recovered, he may have received some "sympathy votes."

However, the state of the nation's economy and fatigue with outgoing President Michel Temer, who took office after the impeachment of his predecessor Dilma Rousseff, certainly played a factor in the 2018 election outcome.

"That Brazilians might be tuned into right-wing politics right now is no surprise given how poorly their left-wing governments have delivered over the last few decades," suggested Bailey.

News Media or Not

Another consideration is that YouTube didn't stop any left-wing candidates from utilizing the platform in Brazil's election, just as Clinton chose not to embrace Facebook in the 2016 presidential election in the United States.

"YouTube is not a news outlet -- it's a compiler, plain and simple," said Bailey.

"They don't have investigative reporters or opinion pieces; they promote what we post, period," he added. "Breitbart has an ideological agenda. So does CNN, Fox and the NYT."

Here is where the line becomes murky. YouTube is just a video-sharing service, and it doesn't make the content it produces. If it did, the rules would be different -- but even that is changing.

"In the United States, the FCC had a law that made it mandatory to verify every news story from multiple sources," said Safko.

"That law was abolished and influenced by one large presidential contributor, and that seems to be the beginning of the end of truthful, balanced, verified and accountable reporting," he added.

"Social and video platforms should not be responsible for policing the content," Safko said, "but there has to be accountability. With YouTube, Facebook, and the Internet in general, there are no consequences."

Social Responsibility

Whether it is about elections or just politics in general, the question is whether YouTube and social media should be allowed to function as soapboxes across the spectrum, including for extremists. Is it good for democracy in general to give a voice to the extreme political fringes? Where should the line be drawn?

YouTube has made efforts to rein in the more extreme content -- the videos that openly call for violence or otherwise could be viewed as "dangerous speech," but is it time for greater regulation of what is posted?

"Once positioned as tools of social good, social media and YouTube now often have a negative impact on politics and culture by giving fringe characters legitimacy and potentially massive reach," said Local Search Association's Sterling.

"There's much more effort they can and need to deploy against extremism," he added.

However, at least in the present, "there really is no way to formally regulate YouTube," observed Bailey.

"Surely some court cases will come along that require them to trim up a bit here and there," he said, "but like so many Internet providers, they're not arbiters -- they're a platform."

YouTube itself can't be held accountable for what the users post. That said, "a site that intentionally and purposefully spews hate can and should be held liable under current legal strictures," maintained Bailey.

"YouTube should self-regulate before Congress is goaded into acting," he suggested.

"At the end of the day, the First Amendment endorses free speech, but YouTube doesn't have to allow anyone's speech on their site," Bailey noted. "They can reject posts via almost instantaneous filtering, and table them for review before deciding to post or not. Oddly enough, they have rights too -- and it's about time they exercised these."


Peter Suciu has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2012. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, mobile phones, displays, streaming media, pay TV and autonomous vehicles. He has written and edited for numerous publications and websites, including Newsweek, Wired and FoxNews.com. Email Peter.