It will come to no surprise to you dear reader, that I am one of those individuals that love to read reports. If there is a think tank out there that has an idea, more often than not, I am going to read it — or at least the first few pages. I truly enjoy reading not only new ideas, but I also like to think about these new ideas and how they will impact the larger society. Well, a new report came out this week from a group called the Data and Society Foundation.
According to their own website, the Data and Society Foundation is established focused on the social and cultural issues arising from data-centric and automated technologies. Furthermore, Data and Society is committed to identifying thorny issues at the intersection of technology and society, providing and encouraging research that can ground informed, evidence-based public debates, and building a network of researchers and practitioners who can anticipate issues and offer insight and direction. All of these seems like laudable work.
This organization recently came out with a report entitled “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Revolutionary Right on YouTube.”
Before we get too deep into the report, it’s probably advisable that we discuss how YouTube has changed our society’s ability to get information. Right now, YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world. Four hundred hours of video content is uploaded to the platform every minute. Not only that, there are some pretty large demographic trends that YouTube enjoys. In any given month, 80 percent of 18-to-49-year-olds will watch a YouTube video. YouTube users tend to be younger, as they leave the cable box and flock to the mobile device. YouTube is becoming the platform where these younger people are getting ideas on entertainment, society and culture.
So, back to the report. In its broadest sense, the report was outlining how a number of YouTube commentators, or influencers, are attracting these young people and are working in concert to attract the same audience. The problem the report sees? These social network influencers might actually influence our youth. The report said, “Social networking between influencers makes it easy for audience members to be incrementally exposed to, and come to trust, ever more extremist political positions.”
Now, in full disclosure, I listen to a great deal of YouTube videos from all across the world and all across every spectrum you can imagine. I am probably even guilty of listening to countless hours of content from those that the report finds in poor taste or at least not worth my time.
So please excuse me as I take umbrage with the fact that I am somehow being coerced or more inclined to trust more extremist political positions. And if I had to take a wild guess, many of the young individuals that are watching these videos aren’t necessarily being inclined, either. If anything, exposure to ideas and concepts from around the world and across the spectrum help make well-rounded individuals. I tend to believe in the marketplace of ideas, the good ideas will gain traction and the bad ideas will die on the vine.
The reality is that social media platforms like YouTube have lowered the barrier to entry. In the not-so-distant past, the news and ideas of the world were presented to you in the newspaper and on a handful of television and radio stations. The outlets were few and the amount of airtime or attention we paid to these items of the day were shorter than they were today.
But technology has changed that. While we don’t have more time, we certainly have more content. As the devices we have used have become smaller and cheaper, it’s easier for us to access this content virtually anywhere. Long commutes, household chores, even at the gym.
The real issue is not content or even the influencers themselves. The real issue is that those that have traditionally called the shots on what we have consumed for news and entertainment are no longer making those decisions. The influencers of the past have lost their ability to shape the conversation and that is exactly what they are worried about.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.