YouTube has emerged as a critical source of news for people in the U.S. as independent and traditional media sources attract massive audiences on the video-sharing site. But the growing influence of Google’s video platform also heightens concerns about its struggle to control rampant disinformation and harassment.
In a study the Pew Research Center released today, 26% of U.S. adults said they now get their news from YouTube. That includes 23% via videos posted by news organizations and 23% from independent YouTube channels. Researchers surveyed 12,638 U.S. adults for the report.
“The study finds a news landscape on YouTube in which established news organizations and independent news creators thrive side by side — and consequently, one where established news organizations no longer have full control over the news Americans watch,” the authors wrote.
The report defines “external news organizations” as both traditional media like the New York Times and digital-native outlets like BuzzFeed. Independent channels can include celebrities like John Oliver alongside “YouTubers,” the 30% who have built their following almost entirely on the platform.
While the report paints a picture of a thriving news ecosystem, it also notes some disturbing differences between traditional and independent sources. Independent channels, for instance, tend to be built around personalities, rather than a broader news organization. And those independent channels are far more likely to focus on conspiracy theories around subjects like anti-vaccine topics or Jeffrey Epstein’s death.
The report analyzed 3,000 videos posted from the 100 top YouTube news channels in November and December 2019 and found that 4% involved conspiracy theories of some kind. But among independent channels, 14% of videos were primarily dedicated to conspiracy theories, and up to 21% made some mention of them. Only 2% of videos by traditional news organizations mentioned conspiracy theories.
“Coverage of conspiracy theories was almost entirely concentrated among videos from independent channels and virtually absent from videos produced by channels affiliated with news organizations,” the study says.
In addition, 37% of videos from independent channels tended to view their subjects through a negative lens, versus just 17% from news organizations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that negativity seemed to drive more views, which has made this subset of independent channels particularly problematic for YouTube. Back in June, YouTube banned the channels of white supremacists Stefan Molyneux, Richard Spencer, and David Duke, who had ranked among the top news sites when the study was conducted.
YouTube has for the past few years been trying to crack down on problematic content by taking down channels that violate its policies. The company has been using a mix of human and AI-driven content moderation to attack the problem. But critics are calling for greater action.
A split in attitudes toward YouTube mirrors the political divide seen on other social platforms. The study found that Republicans and Republican-leaning independents tend to believe censorship and political issues are bigger problems on YouTube than Democrats do.
Still, these controversies don’t seem to be impacting the attitudes of average viewers. Less than 30% felt they had “big” problems with the news they get from the site. Even fewer people cited harassment or lack of civility as concerns. Instead, YouTube viewers generally saw access to sources “outside the mainstream” and the variety of opinions available as big pluses.