YouTube Tweaks Search Results as Las Vegas Conspiracy Theories Rise to Top
By Jack Nicas
YouTube this week surfaced videos peddling misinformation, hateful messages and conspiracy theories to users tracking major news events -- prompting the site to change its search results to promote more authoritative sources.
For example, the fifth result when searching "Las Vegas shooting" on YouTube late Tuesday yielded a video titled "Proof Las Vegas Shooting Was a FALSE FLAG attack -- Shooter on 4th Floor." The video said there were multiple shooters in Sunday's mass shooting, a claim dismissed by law enforcement. Posted by a channel called the End Times News Report, it amassed more than 1.1 million views in about 27 hours.
The fourth result when searching "NFL anthem protest" on Wednesday was a video that claimed Anheuser-Busch InBev NV was considering pulling its sponsorship of the National Football League over national anthem protests -- and urged viewers to push the company to do so. The claim had been widely debunked days before.
In response to criticism on social media of some search results this week, a person familiar with YouTube said the company is accelerating the rollout of planned changes to its search engine. On Wednesday night, the video service began promoting more authoritative sources in search results, especially pertaining to major news events, the person said. YouTube doesn't disclose how it determines which sources are authoritative.
YouTube, a unit of Alphabet Inc.'s Google, has long been full of fringe content. But as the world's largest video site and a growing rival to television, with more than 1.5 billion monthly users, YouTube's feeding of such spurious content shows how the site can contribute to the spread of misinformation. Google also faced criticism this week after the "top news" section of its search results misidentified the Las Vegas shooter by featuring a thread from a fringe message board.
Many large brands pulled spending on YouTube earlier this year after news reports revealed their ads were running before hateful and extremist videos. As a result, the site removed many videos and pull ads from others. There didn't appear to be ads on the fringe news videos this week.
Controversial content has been on the site for years, and is highly ranked in search results. The second result for a search for "9/11" on Wednesday was a nearly 10-year-old video that presents conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; it has been viewed 42.5 million times.
The high search ranking of the End Times News Report video claiming there was a second shooter in Las Vegas helped it gain 371,000 views over four hours late Tuesday. On Wednesday, YouTube removed the video.