AUSTIN, TEXAS – YouTube is apparently planning to deputize crowd-sourced online encyclopedia Wikipedia in a bid to combat the spread of disinformation, according to its CEO Susan Wojcicki.
“When there are videos that are focused around something that’s a conspiracy — and we’re using a list of well-known internet conspiracies from Wikipedia — then we will show a companion unit of information from Wikipedia showing that here is information about the event,” Wojcicki told an audience during a panel at the South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, citing chemtrails and the moon landing as commonly-questioned events.
In the demonstration offered by Wojcicki, a small block of text with a link to Wikipedia appears under videos with questionable content. Of course, Wikipedia is hardly a silver-bullet when it comes to the truth: while some articles have exhaustive notation and a vibrant community of crowdsourced volunteers capable of debating minutiae in perpetuity, the platform is also vulnerable to edits by advertising and promotional agencies, public-relations firms, pranksters, partisans, vandals and troll clans.
The move by YouTube – a Google-owned property that popularized on-demand streaming videos about an endless number of subjects, ranging from cereal unboxing reviews to Hollow-Earth theories and academic symposiums – is the latest salvo from Silicon Valley against what it deems “fake news” and “disinformation.”
Conspiracy mania and conspiracy phobia
Just as Facebook and Google News have been accused of promoting “fake news” content and allowing their servers to be “weaponized” as a Trojan horse for rogue states’ alleged “interference” in rival states’ political processes, YouTube has also come under fire for radicalizing viewers through the proliferation of fringe videos featuring neo-Nazis and hard-leftists, and a range of amateur videos promoting dubious claims by advocates of “Hitler on the Moon,” “Flat Earth,” crisis actor and various UFO theories.
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Of course, not all conspiracies are created equal: while non-falsifiable crackpot fantasies do exist, they are often conflated with alternative viewpoints and analyses that have far more basis in fact.
As author and lecturer Michael Parenti memorably noted in his 1996 book Dirty Truths:
Those who suffer from conspiracy phobia are fond of saying: ‘Do you actually think there’s a group of people sitting around in a room plotting things?’ For some reason that image is assumed to be so patently absurd as to invite only disclaimers. But where else would people of power get together – on park benches or carousels? Indeed, they meet in rooms: corporate boardrooms, Pentagon command rooms, at the Bohemian Grove, in the choice dining rooms at the best restaurants, resorts, hotels, and estates, in the many conference rooms at the White House, the NSA, the CIA, or wherever. And, yes, they consciously plot – though they call it “planning” and “strategizing” – and they do so in great secrecy, often resisting all efforts at public disclosure. No one confabulates and plans more than political and corporate elites and their hired specialists.”
Google and YouTube: radicalization profiteers?
In an op-ed last week for The New York Times, author Zeynep Tufekci argued that YouTube appears to be cynically using an algorithm that directs traffic to more galvanizing content than that which is allegedly sought by users. Trump videos lead to holocaust denials; Hillary versus Bernie leads to “leftish conspiratorial cast” videos; videos promoting vegetarianism subsequently autoplay vegan content, and so on.
Using alarmist language, Tufekci then accuses YouTube and parent company Google of cynically playing on humans’ natural curiosity about “incendiary content” for the sake of raising ad revenue, warning:
YouTube leads viewers down a rabbit hole of extremism, while Google racks up the ad sales … This state of affairs is unacceptable but not inevitable. There is no reason to let a company make so much money while potentially helping to radicalize billions of people, reaping the financial benefits while asking society to bear so many of the costs.”
Wikimedia Foundation caught unawares
Given the storm of accusations against social media companies in the ongoing tumult of #RussiaGate and the “fake news” witch-hunt, Wojcicki’s announcement of a partnership with Wikipedia could be a desperate bid for damage control.
According to Vice magazine’s Motherboard, the Wikimedia Foundation’s staff weren’t even tipped off to Google or YouTube’s plans. The foundation noted that “neither Wikipedia nor the Wikimedia Foundation are part of a formal partnership with YouTube. We were not given advance notice of this announcement.”
Wikimedia Foundation executive director Katherine Maher hinted that Google and YouTube were slyly appropriating the donated labor that keeps the crowdsourced encyclopedia operational, tweeting:
While we are thrilled to see people recognize the value of @Wikipedia’s non-commercial, volunteer model, we know the community’s work is already monetized without the commensurate or in-kind support that is critical to our sustainability.”
Silicon Valley’s transformation from ‘Anonymous’ to profit-driven Ministry of Truth
In the past several years, the digital economy has evolved from a distracting repository of chain mails, Minion memes, and videos of WorldStar street-brawls or cats playing with balls of yarn to omniscient advertising behemoths equipped with vast AI- and cloud-based services that contain the most intimate details of our lives – from sexual fetishes to information on our bodily functions.
As search engines’ and social networks’ power to mediate information access grows – along with their ability to gather vast amounts of user data and intelligence – the anxiety has also increased for vested interests and governments unable to cope with the disruptive effect of the once-freewheeling “online marketplace of ideas.”
Pressure from Western policymakers and beltway pundits is clearly having its intended effect on the billionaire Silicon Valley executives who, not long ago, evangelized a libertarian gospel of “internet freedom” from their basements. Now, for the sake of shareholder profits and maintaining their digital monopolies, tech industry leaders are appearing all too eager to trade in their Guy Fawkes masks for the peaked cap and truncheon of an online police force.
Top Photo | YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, speaks during the introduction of YouTube TV at YouTube Space LA in Los Angeles, Feb. 28, 2017. (AP/Reed Saxon)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.