A recent study from Pew Research Center found that the share of YouTube (YT) users who get news or news headlines on the platform almost doubled between 2013 (20%) and 2018 (38%).
This begs the question: why would someone prefer to get their news from YouTube, a video-sharing website owned by Google that was not explicitly developed as a news platform, rather than Facebook or mainstream news?
As someone who gets his news fix on YouTube, I will explain how social media companies are harming independent content creators, and why I prefer long format, uncensored analysis that happens to be on YouTube to corporate-sponsored shows on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, ABC, and other brands that are competing in the news business industry.
At least it’s not Facebook
Don’t get me wrong — YouTube has its own radicalizing rabbit holes and I’d surely not use it if it weren’t for Video AdBlocker extensions — it’s just that even with these shortfalls, YT is one of the few platforms that gives users some control over the content they actually want to follow.
Companies like Facebook have increasingly tipped their scales in favor of those with enough ad money—which happens to be political operatives, ad agencies, self-help gurus, billionaire donors, etc. — and not independent journalists, media producers, or writers. The platform’s inherent elitism should be a red flag for anyone who values authentic engagement.
The most grotesque part of this state of affairs is that nonprofits and other mission-based organizations, which often have limited marketing funds, also use Facebook to reach their audience — essentially pouring what little money and staff time they have into a platform that not only addicts, manipulates, and deceives the public at large, but also serves as a conduit for injecting dark money into the public discourse.
Facebook brings together much of what we all despise about modern society — monopolies eating up competition, blatant political corruption, fake innovation, loss of data privacy, and the dominance of the surveillance state to name a few things. Its own engineers, founding CEO, and investors have publicly admitted that the platform they helped create has negative health effects and that psychologically manipulative practices are baked into it by design, not by happenstance.
Chamath Palihapitiya, a venture capitalist and Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, said in November 2017 that the social network is “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, has said platforms like Facebook provide a “social validation feedback loop (‘a little dopamine hit…because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post’) that’s exactly the thing a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
If this wasn’t enough, a November 2018 New York Times article (that was six months in the making) further exposed Facebook’s wheeling and dealing with Republican “opposition research” propagandists, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, and its own staff:
In October 2017, Facebook also expanded its work with a Washington-based consultant, Definers Public Affairs, that had originally been hired to monitor press coverage of the company. Founded by veterans of Republican presidential politics, Definers specialized in applying political campaign tactics to corporate public relations — an approach long employed in Washington by big telecommunications firms and activist hedge fund managers, but less common in tech…
…Facebook also used Definers to take on bigger opponents, such as Mr. Soros, a longtime boogeyman to mainstream conservatives and the target of intense anti-Semitic smears on the far right. A research document circulated by Definers to reporters this summer, just a month after the House hearing, cast Mr. Soros as the unacknowledged force behind what appeared to be a broad anti-Facebook movement…
…In at least one instance, the company also relied on Mr. Schumer, the New York senator and Senate Democratic leader. He has long worked to advance Silicon Valley’s interests on issues such as commercial drone regulations and patent reform. During the 2016 election cycle, he raised more money from Facebook employees than any other member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics…
Facebook’s manipulative practices haven’t gone unnoticed by users of the platform, who were leaving in droves even before the aforementioned article was published.
According to a survey of U.S. adults conducted in May-June of 2018, “44% of younger users (those ages 18 to 29) say they have deleted the Facebook app from their phone in the past year.” Around four-in-ten (42%) of all surveyed said “they have taken a break from checking the platform for a period of several weeks or more.”
Here’s the kicker—while many users are leaving the platform and drastically decreasing their use of it, Facebook’s ad revenue keeps increasing. In January 2018, a Gallup article reported that Facebook’s quarterly revenue “jumped 47 percent from a year earlier.” Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg was quoted saying that “changes to reduce disinformation” on the platform could create “more monetization opportunities.”
Also in January, Facebook announced that it limited organic (meaning unpaid) reach pages due to “prioritizing content from friends and family.” This push was marketed by Zuckerburg as pivoting from “finding relevant content” to “creating meaningful interactions with friends and family.” The “prioritization” made it even harder for independent content creators to reach those who follow them.
This meant that while a page might have 10,000 “followers,” its posts would only reach a fraction of them— and the only sure way to increase that reach would be to pay Facebook more ad money. This was great news if you are a part of a budding conservative media empire or work for a Koch-funded publication, but you are screwed if you don’t have the ad money, which is why Facebook is a dead end for independent media creators with no billionaire of institutional funding.
Unwilling to learn this lesson, Facebook’s executives continue their 2-year free fall as they try to maintain a facade of promoting “meaningful engagement” as long as there’s someone (probably an organization you currently support) pumping ad money into it.
Journalists have pointed out that Facebook inflates its analytics numbers to draw more ad money from users — according to Paste, “Facebook inflated its video numbers by as much as 150 to 900%.” The article goes on to list how Facebook’s trickery led to media company layoffs, since companies which pivoted to video didn’t get the intended returns. “Hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs while shiny-object-chasing publishers are no closer to creating cohesive video strategies to replace the traffic those writers were producing,” writes Heidi N. Moore in the Columbia Journalism Review, regarding the hidden human costs of Facebook’s misleading metrics.
News companies’ cautionary tales illustrate the dangers of following Facebook’s lead. They also expose how social media companies limit our creativity — much like Twitter’s “haiku-style communication” and Instagram’s “picture perfect” experience, Facebook forces its users to use strictly defined ways of expression, which is great for aggregating and selling our personal data, but horrible for our collective well-being.
With that said, many continue to use the platform and some (like me) have to use it as part of their job — which one day should be considered an abusive practice. This is why it’s important to expose Facebook’s predatory practices and damaging health effects, and demand a fundamental change of its business model.
Liberal Media’s Failure to Represent Progressive Viewers
In many ways, the failure of Facebook’s pay-to-play model mirrors that of commercial news media — and I suspect a lot of people avoid it for the same reasons. Don’t get me wrong. I used to regularly watch Keith Olbermann during the Bush years (I even remember a show in which the great George Carlin praised Olbermann). During Obama’s presidency, I was one of many who tuned in to watch Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes.
While those commentators dropped the ball on holding the Democrats and Obama accountable on drone warfare, journalist persecution, issues of working people, and other failed hopes, they provided some opposition to the 24/7 race-baiting, anti-progressive rhetoric coming from Fox.
The liberal elite had a clear choice in the days following Trump‘s embarrassing win over Clinton — they could’ve performed an autopsy of the elections and provided a clear alternative to Trump’s agenda, or they could’ve continued to reap the short-term benefits of catering to Trump’s base for ad revenue, while losing support from disgruntled progressive supporters.
As is tradition, the mainstream media followed the money, which meant focusing solely on Trump’s antics, while pursuing vacuous issues like “Russian interference” that are of much less importance to the U.S. public than universal healthcare, $15 minimum wage, gun control, abortion rights, a Green New Deal, and other pressing issues that deserve more coverage in the mainstream press.
“Did the Russians interfere in our elections? An issue of overwhelming concern in the media. I mean, in most of the world, that’s almost a joke,” said the world-renowned political dissident, linguist, author, and professor Noam Chomsky in an interview with Democracy Now! in July of 2018.
“First of all, if you’re interested in foreign interference in our elections, whatever the Russians may have done barely counts or weighs in the balance as compared with what another state does, openly, brazenly and with enormous support,” Chomsky noted, implying that Israel’s interference in the U.S. political process is much more intrusive than anything Russian troll farms might have done.
This is not to say foreign interference in our elections is not an important topic, it’s just that basing your whole media strategy around it for two entire years, without any sign of clear evidence or definition of what constitutes “collusion,” is rather suspicious. By branding themselves as the #Resistance, right after cashing in on Trump’s ad appeal, liberal pundits exposed their role in the news business industry as self-appointed gate keepers whose main purpose is to set the limits of discourse on the Left, rather than cover the issues people actually care about.
Mainstream media’s lack of coverage on the devastating U.S.-backed war in Yemen, failure to portray the severity of climate change, lack of nuance regarding Facebook and Twitter’s censorship practices, disinterest in the unprecedented and unconstitutional attacks against Julian Assange, and two billion dollar airtime giveaway to Trump during the 2016 elections, are just some of the examples that illustrate the media establishment’s pro-corporate bias.
But it gets worse. In addition to playing Russian roulette with its progressive viewers, liberal outlets have followed Fox in revamping their smearing of progressive candidates and commentators.
For example, the late Ed Schultz, a popular news commentator, has suggested he was fired from MSNBC for wanting to cover Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Democratic presidential candidacy announcement. In one interview, Schultz described how he was told by Phil Griffin, MSNBC’s president, that he should cancel coverage of Bernie’s announcement 5 minutes before Schultz was supposed to go live. “I think they were in the tank for Hilary Clinton, and I think it was managed, and 45 days later I was out of MSNBC,” said Schultz, who passed away on July 5, 2018.
MSNBC’s treatment of Schultz is similar to the company’s firing of Phil Donahue who was let go in 2003 for his stance against the Iraq War. Here’s how Donahue described MSNBC’s treatment of him during the run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq (a quote from a 2003 Democracy Now! interview):
I think what happened to me, the biggest lesson, I think, is the — how corporate media shapes our opinions and our coverage… This was not an assistant program director who decided to separate me from MSNBC. They were terrified of the antiwar voice. And that is not an overstatement. Antiwar voices were not popular. And if you’re General Electric, you certainly don’t want an antiwar voice on a cable channel that you own; Donald Rumsfeld is your biggest customer. So, by the way, I had to have two conservatives on for every liberal. I could have Richard Perle on alone, but I couldn’t have Dennis Kucinich on alone. I was considered two liberals. It really is funny almost, when you look back on how — how the management was just frozen by the antiwar voice. We were scolds. We weren’t patriotic. American people disagreed with us. And we weren’t good for business.
Instead of valuing journalists like Donahue, the liberal commercial media readily give their platforms (usually through their op-ed sections and guest spots) to “centrist” media influences who normalize right wing talking points regarding free speech on campus, climate denialism, fervent millitarism, and other anti-intellectual perspectives. This is what normalizing Trump looks like and, as far as I can see, the liberal media has been eating it up from the very beginning.
While I still follow some reporting from Maddow, Hayes and other mainstream commentators, I’d never trust someone paid by General Electric, Comcast, or Koch Industries to curate the news for me — the same way I won’t let Facebook’s algorithms decide what I should read, watch, and buy.
Is an Ad-Free News Experience Possible?
When it comes to news analysis and commentary, there are few outlets that can beat YouTube in terms of uninterrupted long form discussions. Still, YouTube’s mysterious algorithm, ad-based model with intrusive “pre roll” ads, and disturbing Kid’s YouTube corner make the platform just as dangerous and manipulative as those mentioned throughout this article.
According to Guillaume Chaslot, a French computer programmer who was fired from Google in 2003, “there are many ways YouTube can change its algorithms to suppress fake news and improve the quality and diversity of videos people see. “I tried to change YouTube from the inside,” he says in an interview for The Guardian, “but it didn’t work.”
Chaslot has since developed a program that explores bias in YouTube that you can view here — Algotransparency.org. While “each study finds something different,” reports from Chaslot’s work suggest “YouTube systematically amplifies videos that are divisive, sensational and conspiratorial.”
For these reasons, my preference for YouTube is purely out of necessity, rather than optimism in the platform’s future and capabilities. The only reason why I still visit YT is because the shows I follow — The Jimmy Dore Show, Secular Talk, Democracy Now!, Democracy at Work, Empire Files, On Contact, and others — aren’t on any mainstream channels, despite their growing audience and relevance.
Most importantly, the topics brought up on those programs —often concerning issues of the poor, our impending climate catastrophe, U.S. militarism, Big Money in elections, exploitative corporate practices, and so on — are either insufficiently covered, or not covered at all, by the “liberal media.”
Yet, even on YouTube, those kinds of perspectives pale in comparison to the choices liberals and right wingers have in terms of political content. I circled the shows I follow on the map of YouTube below:
I believe people should be able to express their ideas on a leveled playing field. My problem with our current news environment is that the content we see on social media is curated for us through a process that favors neoliberal ideology and psychological manipulation. The sentiment that inspired me to write this article was a rhetorical question often asked by the popular comedian Jimmy Dore: “And you wonder why people get their news from YouTube?”
Why do people get their news from YouTube? Because modern society has yet to embrace a news environment that is based on transparency and accountability, rather than ad revenue and partisanship. This is why people are choosing to get their news from a “jagoff comedian” who records a show in his garage, rather than scripted and overly produced manifestations of Wall Street.
It’s a shame some of the greatest intellectuals in the U.S. — Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, for example — are deemed unsuitable for mainstream news audiences. It is scandalous that Pulitzer prize-winning political commentator and activist Chris Hedges is blacklisted for having a show on Russia Today — one of many attempts by Google, Facebook, and Twitter to “divert readers away from left-wing, progressive and anti-war websites, including Truthdig.”
The underlying truth behind today’s call for innovation in digital journalism, social media, and independent news is that people are looking for a “no bullshit” online news experience. This is why my affiliation with YouTube will end as soon as there’s an ad-free alternative to it and I don’t have to mix the content I want with what is served to me by mysterious algorithms. I believe many fellow progressives feel the same.
Until then, I will get most of my news from YouTube, because at least it’s not Facebook.