YouTube announces $25m for news initiatives

Earlier this month, YouTube pledged $25,ooo,ooo for establishing a group of reliable news sources, which already includes Vox Media Group, among other outlets. This is part of the wider Google News Initiative, which has earmarked $300m for promoting news. Here’s a look into whether or not this will help, and some of the organisations involved.

Let’s set the scene. It’s 2016, and Donald Trump has just won the Presidential election. Accusations of fake news, virulent Nazism, and Russian interference are rife. As this somewhat unprecedented situation is unfolding, Google and most media organisations are reacting with fear and defiance, and are sliding further and further to the left. Soon, they are blind to the actual situation, and, for PR or for their own beliefs, they now feel such anger towards the far right and fake news. Over the next 20 months, the corporation slips further towards the left, putting on “black-only” (after the initial #YouTubeBLACK event in April 2016) events, memorably tweeting out “Roses are red, Violets are blue, Subscribe to black creators”, and openly making political statements against politicians on the right.

This is the background story, the context of YouTube’s decision to combat fake news. The idea behind the initiative is a good one — allow unbiased creators to help the company with better features and to promote their own organisations. However, what’s actually happening is that they are including only left-leaning news platforms, rather than actual news-reporting channels. Vox’s editor-at-large, Ezra Klein is noted for his leftist bias, and this has made the editorial direction of the company swing to the left. If this bias will influence YouTube’s decisions with regard to news in the future, then trouble could be brewing for right-wing organisations and even the less biased creators. At the very least, priority will likely be given to content from this group, and they will be favoured over other partisan content.

However, it must be said that, from watching Vox myself, only around 1/4 of their videos are political and biased. There are some videos which are about a political issue but balanced, as well as a lot of content, such as Johnny Harris’ “Borders” series, which are about different subjects entirely.

Vox Media doesn’t just include the Vox news outlet itself — it is a group of eight brands, including Polygon and The Verge. The former is a gaming website and the latter a technology-based organisation — both with left-wing biases far more enhanced than that of Vox itself.

While fake news is far less prominent on the left of politics and the media than on the right, manipulation of facts and biased reporting is a huge issue for liberal organisations. If YouTube is trying to combat fake news, then it will only be drowning it out with partisan content and manipulation of news.

This also, now characteristically, flies in the face of the founding principles of YouTube. This is that anyone can post content about anything — however political or biased, no matter what they say — and that their content will have an equal chance of being seen as that of the biggest media organisations. Instead, YouTube has taken a path of only putting music and late night show clips on their Trending page, in spite of the original creators who are “trending” far more than these already established brands. Many had hoped that under the new CEO, Susan Wojcicki, the site would fall back to its original aims. However, she has only quickened the pace of the company’s demise, and by extension that of the smaller creators on the platform.

Will Youtube succeed in its goal?

The stated aim of the initiative is an important one, and while the chosen corporations to be part of the working group currently leave a lot to be desired, it is good to see a social media platform moving in the right direction with regards to fake news. The general idea of the improvements they wish to make is to “make authoritative sources readily accessible”, as stated in the Google blog. This includes new headings and breaking news features which will promote videos on breaking stories and the news of the day, as well as providing links to articles.

In some ways, this could be perceived as a threat to the aforementioned smaller creators and YouTube’s founding principles. By helping already well-established editorial brands, the site risks suppressing its original, individual creators who are trying to break through. However, because of the specific targeting of breaking news and news from that day, very few smaller channels will have uploaded videos, whereas larger brands may well have. In this way, YouTube will reduce any hindrance or strain that may well be placed upon those with smaller channels and production capacity, because they were never really competing in the world of the established brands to begin with. As good of an idea as it may seem to only watch smaller journalistic channels, if one takes this ethical decision, they will inevitably have to wait a couple more days than if they were watching the likes of Vox who can report quickly.

This appears to be one of the first big challenges to fake news and misinformation by a large social media platform, and as such, it is unclear whether or not this initiative will deliver on its goals for YouTube. It is a step in the right direction, and hopefully it will succeed. If so, then other websites must follow suit if they are to keep the right-wing populists they so despise out of politics. In a way, Russia’s aggressive online tactics may come back to bite them: as they attempt to destabilise the western political order, they online alienate left-wing media further, and will push them into increasingly aggressive initiatives in response. We will just have to wait to see what happens, and this dynamic is only going to become more interesting with time.

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