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Caleb Cain was a college dropout looking for direction. He turned to YouTube. Soon, he was pulled into a far-right universe, watching thousands of videos filled with conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism. A sampling of the more than 12, videos that Caleb Cain watched going back to , many but not all of which were from far-right commentators. Martinsburg, W.

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The Making of a YouTube Radical

Caleb Cain was a college dropout looking for direction. He turned to YouTube. Soon, he was pulled into a far-right universe, watching thousands of videos filled with conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism. A sampling of the more than 12, videos that Caleb Cain watched going back to , many but not all of which were from far-right commentators.

Martinsburg, W. The threats, Mr. Cain explained, came from right-wing trolls in response to a video he had posted on YouTube a few days earlier. In the video, he told the story of how, as a liberal college dropout struggling to find his place in the world, he had gotten sucked into a vortex of far-right politics on YouTube.

Cain, 26, recently swore off the alt-right nearly five years after discovering it, and has become a vocal critic of the movement. Some young men discover far-right videos by accident, while others seek them out. Some travel all the way to neo-Nazism, while others stop at milder forms of bigotry. The algorithm is responsible for more than 70 percent of all time spent on the site.

The radicalization of young men is driven by a complex stew of emotional, economic and political elements, many having nothing to do with social media. But critics and independent researchers say YouTube has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism by combining two things: a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens.

In recent years, social media platforms have grappled with the growth of extremism on their services. Many platforms have barred a handful of far-right influencers and conspiracy theorists, including Alex Jones of Infowars, and tech companies have taken steps to limit the spread of political misinformation. YouTube, whose rules prohibit hate speech and harassment, took a more laissez-faire approach to enforcement for years.

This past week, the company announced that it was updating its policy to ban videos espousing neo-Nazism, white supremacy and other bigoted views.

The company also said it was changing its recommendation algorithm to reduce the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. According to the Pew Research Center, 94 percent of Americans ages 18 to 24 use YouTube, a higher percentage than for any other online service.

Like many Silicon Valley companies, YouTube is outwardly liberal in its corporate politics. It sponsors floats at L. President Trump and other conservatives have claimed that YouTube and other social media networks are biased against right-wing views, and have used takedowns like those announced by YouTube on Wednesday as evidence for those claims. In reality, YouTube has been a godsend for hyper-partisans on all sides.

It has allowed them to bypass traditional gatekeepers and broadcast their views to mainstream audiences, and has helped once-obscure commentators build lucrative media businesses. It has also been a useful recruiting tool for far-right extremist groups. A European research group, VOX-Pol, conducted a separate analysis of nearly 30, Twitter accounts affiliated with the alt-right.

It found that the accounts linked to YouTube more often than to any other site. I visited Mr. Cain in West Virginia after seeing his YouTube video denouncing the far right. We spent hours discussing his radicalization. To back up his recollections, he downloaded and sent me his entire YouTube history, a log of more than 12, videos and more than 2, search queries dating to These interviews and data points form a picture of a disillusioned young man, an internet-savvy group of right-wing reactionaries and a powerful algorithm that learns to connect the two.

It suggests that YouTube may have played a role in steering Mr. Cain, and other young men like him, toward the far-right fringes. It also suggests that, in time, YouTube is capable of steering them in very different directions. The right-wing content Mr. Cain also watched many videos by members of the so-called intellectual dark web , like the popular comedian Joe Rogan and the political commentator Dave Rubin.

During , Mr. Cain began watching more videos from left-wing channels. Cain also watched many videos by members of the so-called intellectual dark web , like the popular comedian Joe Rogan and the political.

From an early age , Mr. Cain was fascinated by internet culture. As a teenager, he browsed 4Chan, the lawless message board. He played online games with his friends, and devoured videos of intellectuals debating charged topics like the existence of God.

The internet was an escape. Cain grew up in postindustrial Appalachia and was raised by his conservative Christian grandparents. He was smart, but shy and socially awkward, and he carved out an identity during high school as a countercultural punk. He went to community college, but dropped out after three semesters. Broke and depressed, he resolved to get his act together.

He began looking for help in the same place he looked for everything: YouTube. One day in late , YouTube recommended a self-help video by Stefan Molyneux, a Canadian talk show host and self-styled philosopher.

Like Mr. Cain, Mr. Molyneux had a difficult childhood, and he talked about overcoming hardships through self-improvement. He seemed smart and passionate, and he wrestled with big questions like free will, along with practical advice on topics like dating and job interviews. Cain was a liberal who cared about social justice, worried about wealth inequality and believed in climate change.

But he found Mr. Cain said. In and , as Mr. Cain dived deeper into his YouTube recommendations, he discovered an entire universe of right-wing creators. A two-day sample of Mr. Feminism was a recurring theme. In one video, an English professor argued that feminism limited basic liberties. By the end of the binge, Mr. Cain had watched explicitly racist videos, including some from channels that have since been banned.

Over time, he watched dozens of clips by Steven Crowder, a conservative comedian, and Paul Joseph Watson, a prominent right-wing conspiracy theorist who was barred by Facebook this year. They were entertainers, building their audience with satirical skits, debates and interviews with like-minded creators. Some of them were part of the alt-right, a loose cohort of pro-Trump activists who sandwiched white nationalism between layers of internet sarcasm.

These creators were active on Facebook and Twitter, too. But YouTube was their headquarters, and the place where they could earn a living by hawking merchandise and getting a cut of the money spent on advertisements that accompanied their videos.

Few of them had overt ties to establishment conservative groups, and there was little talk about tax cuts or trade policy on their channels. To Mr. Cain, all of this felt like forbidden knowledge — as if, just by watching some YouTube videos, he had been let into an exclusive club. If alienation was one ingredient in Mr. Molyneux were another, the third was a series of product decisions YouTube made starting back in For years, the algorithm had been programmed to maximize views, by showing users videos they were likely to click on.

But creators had learned to game the system, inflating their views by posting videos with exaggerated titles or choosing salacious thumbnail images. That way, creators would be encouraged to make videos that users would finish, users would be more satisfied and YouTube would be able to show them more ads. The bet paid off. Within weeks of the algorithm change, the company reported that overall watch time was growing, even as the number of views shrank. A month after its algorithm tweak, YouTube changed its rules to allow all video creators to run ads alongside their videos and earn a portion of the revenue they generated.

Previously, only popular channels that had been vetted by YouTube were able to run ads. It treated a white nationalist monologue no differently from an Ariana Grande cover or a cake icing tutorial. But the far right was well positioned to capitalize on the changes. Many right-wing creators already made long video essays, or posted video versions of their podcasts.

Their inflammatory messages were more engaging than milder fare. And now that they could earn money from their videos, they had a financial incentive to churn out as much material as possible. A few progressive YouTube channels flourished from to Watson, the conspiracy theorist, tweeted in Several current and former YouTube employees, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity because they had signed confidentiality agreements, said company leaders were obsessed with increasing engagement during those years.

One problem, according to several of the current and former YouTube employees, is that the A. Eventually, users got bored. And they began testing a new algorithm that incorporated a different type of A. The new A. Reinforce was a huge success. In a talk at an A. Chen said. After being shown a recording of Ms.

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