Researching Radicalization on YouTube
Between January 2018 and October 2020, “Q says” was mentioned 3,829 times by 52 YouTube channels identified as belonging to alt-right or radical communities. Research into YouTube has always been difficult, but a new tool developed by Erik Van Zummeren, a student in NYU Tisch’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), launching Friday, October 30, is allowing journalists and researchers to gain new insights into a previously hidden piece of the internet.
This new tool, called Raditube, works by indexing the automated subtitles of videos from approximately 350 prominent alt-right and far left channels and employs behind-the-scenes infrastructure—including YouTube’s public API—to make the data accessible and searchable. The subtitle text is retrieved via a search engine, allowing users to see how a particular search term is being discussed within the tracked channels, and to access datasets and data visualizations to inform their research. This research has been limited to text-based platforms like Facebook and Twitter in the past, as it’s difficult to parse information from thousands of hours of video content and YouTube’s personal recommendation engine obscures how the platform works. But with this new tool, it would be possible for a researcher to find videos mentioning QAnon-related conspiracy theories, compare their context, and understand how these concepts evolve over time—for example.
“Even though a lot of radicalization takes place on YouTube, it remains a place that is rather difficult to research due to its audiovisual character. Yet, we know that a lot of public debate is taking place on YouTube. Many right-wing figures have gained prominence outside of mainstream media, purely on YouTube, yet that content is moderated by just one company. It’s crucial to facilitate access to that information so we can gain a better understanding of how debate is being shaped through the platform and how algorithms help misinformation spread through various communities,” said Van Zummeren.
Right now, the tracked channels are curated by Van Zummeren alone, which can become challenging when channels are removed for inflammatory content—before popping up in new forms—on a daily basis. He is working to create partnerships in the future to allow researchers to curate their own tracked channels and adapt the platform for their individual needs.