The top-ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee has warned that YouTube’s powerful recommendation algorithm may be “optimising for outrageous, salacious and often fraudulent content” or susceptible to “manipulation by bad actors, including foreign intelligence entities”.
Senator Mark Warner, of Virginia, made the stark warning after an investigation by the Guardian found that the Google-owned video platform was systematically promoting divisive and conspiratorial videos that were damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the months leading up to the 2016 election.
The Guardian’s research was based on a previously unseen database of 8,000 videos recommended by the algorithm in the months leading up to the election. The database was collated at the time by Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube engineer who built a program to detect which videos the company recommends.
“Companies like YouTube have immense power and influence in shaping the media and content that users see,” Warner said. “I’ve been increasingly concerned that the recommendation engine algorithms behind platforms like YouTube are, at best, intrinsically flawed in optimising for outrageous, salacious and often fraudulent content.”
He added: “At worst, they can be highly susceptible to gaming and manipulation by bad actors, including foreign intelligence entities.”
However, critics have for months been warning that the complex recommendation algorithm has also been developing alarming biases or tendencies, pushing disturbing content directed at children or giving enormous oxygen to conspiracy theories about mass shootings.