The wild conspiracies that flooded YouTube after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla. this month got social media researcher Jonathan Albright wondering: How did people find all these crazy videos? And once they found one, what else were they likely to stumble upon?
The answer, turned up over the weekend in one of the round-the-clock data dives, troubled Albright deeply. YouTube viewers who started searching for information on “crisis actors” — people who supposedly play roles as mass shooting survivors to push gun control — could soon find themselves tumbling down a rabbit hole of conspiracies about the the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the JFK assassination and Pizzagate, the hoax about a supposed child molestation ring run by Democratic Party luminaries out of a Washington pizzeria.
“It’s a conspiracy ecosystem,” said Albright, research director at Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “It’s growing, not only in size but in depth.”
YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The research, published in a Medium post Sunday morning, started with 256 YouTube videos on the subject of “crisis actors.” Then Albright collected what the online platform — which last week had to remove several videos claiming that one of the Parkland student survivors, David Hogg, 17, was an actor — queued up next for its viewers who watched one of the initial “crisis actor” videos.
Albright gradually followed YouTube’s recommendation engine until he had collected nearly 9,000 videos that had been watched a combined 4 billion times.
Not all of those collected were about conspiracies. Some were merely popular clips of late-night actors or viral “hidden camera” videos. But Albright found a large percentage did indeed focus on conspiracies, meaning that once YouTube users started exploring the genre, they inevitable stumble upon more and more.
Among the most popular genres in the collection were related to mass shootings, and especially the one in Las Vegas in October that killed 58 people. Typically these portrayed the attacks as politically motivated hoaxes, so-called “false flags” intended to dupe the public into believing that guns rights needed to be curtailed. The 50 most widely viewed mass-shooting conspiracy videos, Albright found, had been viewed 50 million times.
The researcher was among those who suggested last week that a coordinated online campaign likely caused the videos about Hogg to trend so prominently on YouTube. The findings over the weekend made him reconsider.
“It’s not YouTube getting gamed. It’s that YouTube has allowed this to flourish,” Albright said. “The Florida videos are now taking people to the larger conspiracy space.”
And many of them, he said are generating profit for their creators. The most heavily watched videos in Albright’s “conspiracy ecosystem” have been watched tens of millions of times.