What “Authoritative” means to YouTube

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki described YouTube’s COVID-moderation policy to CNN in April

anything that would go against WHO recommendations would be a violation of our policy [and will be removed].

These statements give us a window into the closed process of how YouTube assesses trustworthiness — not by evaluating content, but by the institutional status of who is publishing it.

They have promoted this view consistently:

… for subjects such as news, science and historical events, where accuracy and authoritativeness are key, the quality of information and context matter most — much more than engagement. That’s why we’ve redoubled our efforts to raise authoritative sources to the top and introduced a suite of features to tackle this challenge holistically
YouTube Blog (Dec 2019)

We’re not trying to settle that, choose a side or anything like that, what we’re trying to do is make sure that the people who are expressing those point of view and offering those positions are authoritative and credible

Quality news or quality journalism relies on having a journalism department, you have to have actual journalists and fact-checkers and people like that. In that situation and in others — maybe science or in medicine quality — it has a lot to do with the authoritativeness and the credibility and the expertise of the people who make the video.
Cristos Goodrow (VP of Engineering, Jan 2020)

These statements align with the recommendation bias towards traditional media. The graphs below show which types of channels are estimated to be advantaged by the algorithm (how it is calculated) and their portion of views over the last 19 months.

recommendation advantage and % of views for channel categories

NOTE: These are based on anonymous users and is just an estimate of what the true recommendation impressions would be.

Despite the recent uptick to non-mainstream recommendations, there is still a sizable advantage given to mainstream news & TV. In practice, the status of a channel is a blunt heuristic to bias recommendations with, and removing WHO-contradictory is something else.

Removal of videos that contradict who now?

It's hard to take what Suzan said seriously, but it wasn’t an off-the-cuff kind of statement. Maybe she was trying to placate CNN with her heavy-handedness, but the idea was sophomoric. She wants to outsource truth about the pandemic to a single organization — as if they had an infallible grasp on the capital-T-truth.

Given how uncertain science is about a new virus, there should be plenty of room for robust disagreement on this topic. But the policy is worse than that — the WHO has been spreading misinformation themselves.

Here is WHO communication that I believe is false or misleading:

No clear evidence of human-to-human transmission
Twitter — Jan 14 — 🔥 false 🔥

No evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection
WHO Website — April 24 — misleading

The wide use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not supported by current evidence and carries uncertainties and critical risks
WHO Website — April 6 — misleading

to prevent COVID-19 transmission effectively in areas of community transmission, governments should encourage the general public to wear masks
WHO Website — June 5 — probably good advice

it seems to be rare that an asymptomatic person actually transmits onward
WHO Press Briefing — Jun 8 — probably false

Taking Susan’s policy literally, this how it applies to videos about masks.

I’m sure there is good work the WHO enables behind the scenes. But in terms of their status as a trustworthy source of news for the public — they have failed to achieve the level of truthiness Wojcicki was expecting.

The downside to “raising authoritative voices”

The authoritativeness of a channel is a blunt instrument for deciding when a video should be promoted, demoted, or removed. It reminds me of how BMI (body mass index)is abused. BMI is a useful heuristic for healthy weight and is easy to use for a whole population given the availability of height and weight data. But if you then apply this heuristic to individuals — you do worse than looking at their body shape. To give you a visceral analogy, this is the BMI-based health advice given to batman-beefcake Christine Bale:

I’m not even sure the authoritative-heuristic is as good as BMI. The partisan skew of mainstream media has been increasing. Most mainstream media organizations align with one of the political tribes. It's hard to imagine a more polarized media environment than the American mainstream. This is a survey from pew conducted in 2019 asking about the trust in specific organizations on their political news content.

On topics and events that are key to partisan narratives, traditional media news sources seem just as likely to misrepresent or provide misleading content. Some YouTube creators are less ideologically activated, and more trustworthy than popular “authoritative” sources like MSNBC.

Consider the following videos and YouTubes’ recommendation policies towards them:

  1. The Next News Network video is promoting a wild conspiracy theory, which would exacerbate polarization and distrust. YouTube policy gets this right, and the algorithm does not promote it.
  2. David Pakman — an independent YouTuber — is correcting a false narrative created by mainstream media, and one that by now most people have settled as the true story. But this video is dramatically disadvantaged by the YouTube algorithm. In our example, David Pakman presents a balanced view on a contentious topic. He goes out of his way to provide the viewer with a clear and unbiased account of the events that transpired between the students of Covington Catholic school, the Black Hebrew Israelites, and Nathan Phillips.
David Pakman — Untrustworthy/Overweight

3. In this video, Rachel Maddow is speculating that Trump is being blackmailed by Russia to do their bidding and reminding us that he is in control of the military. Her ongoing paranoid coverage of a Trump-Russia collusion should be treated the same way as the Next News Network video. But YouTube — with their authoritative voices heuristic — boost Rachel’s content.

The chart below compares the impression advantage between Hannity fox segment, and Maddows MSNBC segment and the other channels — all with similar audience sizes.

It is clear that YouTube’s policy of promoting authoritative content is ignoring conspiracies when they are on mainstream and ignoring good information when it is independent.

Independent YouTube creators have some advantages. If you need a large audience, you are stuck covering topical events in a way that appeals to either Red Team or Blue Team. YouTubers don’t need a huge audience and are able to find topics (e.g. trans issues, accelerationism) or aesthetic niches (thorough and logical, or stylish and sensitive). YouTubers also have similar incentives around grabbing attention and appealing to tribal audiences, but it’s not a matter of survival.

To YouTube, authoritative content means high-status institutional content. Unless you are a large media organization with departments, they will not be recommending your channel as much. There is no way to build a reputation for being trustworthy and proving accurate information and well-informed commentary as an independent creator. It doesn’t matter that Fox and MSBC regularly promote misinformation and conspiracy theories. They are media institutions, YouTube creators aren’t, and this is the current policy.

Software Engineer. Insatiable reader and podcast listener. Interested in biotech, psychology, philosophy, economics.