Episode 9: ‘The Rabbit Hole’
Producers/Directors Gemma Jordan and Alyse Shorland
A wave of vocal, right-wing provocateurs has been elected to public office in Brazil in recent years, riding a surge of enthusiasm from their loyal YouTube viewers. Watched more than almost any TV network in Brazil, the nearly ubiquitous social video platform even helped catapult a little-known populist named Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency.
Our correspondents Max Fisher and Amanda Taub found that in a country driven to the edge by economic and political crises, YouTube’s algorithms may have played a decisive role in Bolsonaro’s rise. The site’s recommendation feature boosts fringe videos into the mainstream and can unwittingly help spread conspiracies and misinformation about dangerous diseases, jeopardizing public health.
Max and Amanda go to Brazil to meet the YouTube stars-turned-politicians and speak to the targets of their divisive and often inflammatory online attacks.
Max and Amanda’s Top 3 Takeaways
The “rabbit hole” is real. YouTube likes to compare its platform to a library, implying that it’s just a passive, neutral source of information. But new research confirms long-held suspicions that the platform’s powerful recommendation system, in an effort to keep people watching, pushes users toward extremist content.
YouTube’s “rabbit-hole” effect spreads extremism and misinformation, and is a factor in pushing some Brazilians to the far right. Our investigation found the platform leads users to extremist content and has fueled the far right’s rise to power — not only by artificially boosting the far-right channels that proved unusually effective at keeping users engaged, but also by radicalizing individual users. The impact went beyond politics. Health researchers say misinformation and conspiracies spread on YouTube.
A generation of YouTube provocateurs has risen to the highest levels of government in Brazil — including the presidency. Bolsonaro, a strident populist who had served in Congress for more than two decades, got a boost from right-wing YouTube channels, leading to his election as president last year. A wave of amateur, right-wing YouTube stars won office alongside him, many of whom credit YouTube for their rise. Many now use the same tactics of trolling and provocation that they perfected on their YouTube channels to govern the world’s fourth-largest democracy. They use the platform to harass and threaten their political enemies and sometimes ordinary citizens. With YouTube’s recommendation system often favoring videos that use controversy and provocation, victims say they are afraid for their lives.
Where Are They Now?
Updates on some of the people you meet in this episode of “The Weekly,” on FX and Hulu.
Kim Kataguiri is a federal lawmaker. The organization he founded, Movimento Brasil Livre, has distanced itself from President Bolsonaro in recent months. The group refused to join pro-Bolsonaro demonstrations in June that called for closing Congress and the Supreme Court. That decision has created a rift within the Brazilian right between MBL and the politicians and activists who remain closely aligned with the president.
Valeria Borges still lives in Niterói with her daughter. She teaches part time, and is a devoted supporter of left-wing causes. She still uses YouTube.
Gisleangela Oliveira dos Santos requested a three-month leave of absence from her job and moved to a town about a six-hour drive away from her home so that her daughter can receive daily physical therapy and more involved medical treatment. Though Gisleangela says her daughter’s condition has improved with this treatment, she still has seizures and other health issues, and they recently had to spend a night in the hospital. In the house she now rents, which does not have a television, Gisleangela watches YouTube more than ever.
Susan Wojcicki is the chief executive of YouTube, which has come under increasing scrutiny since Amanda and Max reported in June that its algorithm collated sexually suggestive videos of children and served them to users who had watched erotic content. Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, introduced a bill prohibiting YouTube and other social media companies from recommending videos featuring minors. Senators Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sent Wojcicki a letter requesting that the company do so voluntarily.
Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has come under heightened criticism in recent weeks after new evidence emerged that logging in the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest and a resource considered crucial to slowing the progression of climate change, has increased sharply since he took office. His approval ratings have plummeted, with more than half of Brazilians now saying they do not trust him.
During his campaign he praised the country’s military dictatorship, advocated torture, threatened his political opponents, denigrated women and seemed to show no regard for the country’s democratic principles.
At the height of the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil, misinformation and conspiracy theories spread online. Our Science Desk looked at the most prominent theories making the rounds on social media, along with responses from scientists.
YouTube’s automated recommendation system — which drives most of the platform’s billions of views by suggesting what users should watch next — created a vast video catalog of prepubescent, partly clothed children, a team of researchers has found.
Director of Photography Andreas Burgess
Video Editor Marlon Singleton
Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen and Liz Day
Associate Producers Lora Moftah and Valerie Schenkman
Additional Reporting Kate Steiker-Ginzberg and Mariana Simões