Previously, users who watched videos about hoaxes such as QAnon or Pizzagate could easily be pulled into an echo chamber of disinformation by YouTube’s autoplay function, which queued up one conspiracy theory video after another. But now, those who seek out such content will often find a lineup of Fox News videos in lieu of more conspiracies.
YouTube announced the tweak to its algorithm on Jan. 25 following public outcry over its amplification of conspiratorial content. Since then, views of recommended videos that “could misinform users in harmful ways” have been cut in half, the company said.
YouTube’s vast community of disinformation influencers is not pleased.
“I’m sick of it!” the host of a massive QAnon channel huffed in a July video. “Six months ago, when you’d look at [the recommended videos on my content], there’d be all my videos. You’d watch one of my videos, then you could watch three or four of my videos,” he went on. “But YouTube, in their discriminatory practices, has decided to use their algorithm to ... give all my hard work to this major corporation, Fox News,” by recommending its videos instead.
What he described is far from an isolated occurrence. Conspiracy channels all over the platform — some with hundreds of thousands of subscribers — are funneling increased traffic to Fox News, HuffPost has found.
In early August, using incognito mode to avoid browsing-history bias, we watched a total of 100 of the latest videos from 20 deep-state conspiracy theory channels with at least 50,000 subscribers (repeated three times over three days, as recommendations change frequently). On average, more than half of the first five suggested videos following each conspiracy theory video were segments from Fox News or its affiliates. Some conspiracy theory channels led to Fox more often than others.
The number of YouTube recommendations going from conspiracy theorists’ videos to news outlets’ videos has modestly increased for all mainstream media outlets in recent months, but the increase for Fox alone has been bigger than that of BBC, CNN, CNBC, CBS, MSNBC, NBC and ABC combined, according to former Google engineer Guillaume Chaslot, who helped design YouTube’s algorithm and who now tracks YouTube recommendations.
The boon for Fox News comes amid YouTube’s ongoing campaign to promote more credible sources in response to widespread accusations that it has radicalized users by driving them toward fringe content. (YouTube’s top conspiracy channels are still thriving, however, even without the same algorithm boost.) As part of this effort, YouTube has been working to surface authoritative videos for topics where veracity is key, such as news and politics, the company told HuffPost. For news-related topics, YouTube uses a number of signals to determine which media channels are eligible to appear, it said.
Since the recommendation algorithm was altered in late January, Fox News’ main YouTube channel has seen its total monthly views more than triple, according to Social Blade, a web analytics tool. Two of Fox’s largest affiliated channels have experienced similar growth in the same timeframe. More views means greater advertising revenue for both Fox and YouTube.
YouTube Video Views (October 2016 to July 2019)
The algorithm change may not be the sole cause for growth at the Fox News pages, but it’s “definitely helping,” said Mark Ledwich, a software engineer who compiles publicly available data to track the flow of suggested videos between YouTube’s top American news and cultural commentary channels.
“For the more deep-state conspiracy channels — rather than what they used to do, which was often recommending each other — now a lot of recommendations are going to Fox,” added Ledwich, who is based in Brisbane, Australia.
Four Popular Conspiracy Theory Channels’ Percentage Of Video Recommendations To Fox News
Channels run by notorious right-wing conspiracy theorists Mark Dice and Gary Franchi, who each have well over 1 million YouTube subscribers, have become two of Fox News’ major traffic suppliers, Ledwich’s data shows. For a recent video on Franchi’s channel — where he peddles slanderous conspiracies about Democratic politicians and government agencies — 20 of the first 25 recommendations were for segments from Fox News or its affiliates, including the first 10 in a row, HuffPost found.
Fox segments dominate the recommendations on many older conspiracy theory videos, too. On one from 2018 titled “Hillary Clinton is the QUEEN OF PEDOPHILES #PIZZAGATE #PEDOGATE,” 19 of the first 25 recommended videos were Fox News or Fox affiliate segments, including the first four in a row.
On another video baselessly claiming that undocumented immigrants will bring the bubonic plague to America this year, the same was the case for 15 of the first 25 recommendations.
“The good thing is these conspiracy channels are getting less traffic through recommendations,” said Ledwich. “The negative effect is that Fox is getting way more.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Fox News is gaining traffic from viewers coming over from conspiracy videos. As a regular mainstream mouthpiece for extremist ideologies, Fox has invited far-right activists onto its prime-time shows and afforded them a platform to spew their propaganda to millions. More than half of the Americans who believe in QAnon — the conspiracy theory that claims there’s a deep-state cabal of elite liberal and Hollywood pedophiles — are frequent Fox watchers, a new survey from Civiqs and Daily Kos reveals.
QAnon and other conspiracy theories are a “domestic terrorism threat” that may drive people to violence and crime, the FBI declared in a recently released intelligence bulletin.
And even though conspiracy theorists like the disgruntled host of the QAnon channel are lamenting that Fox News is taking traffic from them, the opposite is also true: The cable news outlet has served as a pipeline to fringe content. Toward the end of his rant, the QAnon host admitted that he himself watches Fox News (or “Faux News,” as he calls it), but only “because they have Tucker and Hannity.”