Algorithm change catapults Fox News to top spot on YouTube

The Google-owned company tweaked its recommendations formula to reduce the introduction of conspiracy theories to its audience. In doing so, it gave Fox News a big boost.
(Logo: YouTube/Google, Background image: Pexels, Graphic: The Desk)

Facing a wave of criticism over user-generated hoax videos and other questionable materials, Google-owned streaming website YouTube tweaked its content discovery algorithm so users would be encouraged to click on news stories and other videos published by what the company considered to be more-reputable sources.

But in doing so, the company gave a huge boost to the Fox News Channel, an outlet that mixes hard-hitting, fact-based journalism with its heavily-promoted brand of opinion content that dances on the edge of conspiracy.

YouTube quickly became the top streaming video site on the Internet thanks to algorithms that keep people hooked into the service: When a person searches for a video, YouTube populates the results page with a mixture of professional and user-generated content — video clips from established companies like CNN, CNET and Vox Media appear alongside clips produced by average, everyday people. After a person watches a video, a similar algorithm kicks into gear, recommending other videos a person might want to watch.

In the same way mainstream news outlets gamed search engine optimization to seize the top search results on Google, Bing and Yahoo, skilled YouTube content creators have figured out how to work the video service’s algorithm to generate huge numbers of video streams — and, in some cases, make large amounts of money. That’s proven problematic over the years as multiple reports have surfaced of slick-produced conspiracy theories and other fake news videos going viral on the platform.

Starting in 2017, Google reformulated YouTube’s algorithm to surface news video clips from more legitimate outlets, including officially-recognized local and national news partners. Last year, the company completely overhauled its algorithm with a specific focus on stomping out conspiracy theory videos, according to a report published this week by Bloomberg Businessweek.

Both efforts had an unintended consequence: It caused the conservative-leaning Fox News Channel to rapidly and quickly develop an audience for its politics-based opinion programming.

The Fox News Channel’s YouTube videos were viewed more than 248 million times last month, data scientist Mark Ledwich told Businessweek. That was nearly 75 million times more views than the Fox News Channel’s closest rival, the Comcast-owned progressive cable news outlet MSNBC.

Among the videos recommended by YouTube were clips featuring deniers of climate change and opinion host-driven soliloquies downplaying the importance of the deadly COVID-19 health pandemic.

Related: Haystack News is solving the YouTube “fake news” problem

A Fox News Channel executive said the algorithm changes on YouTube’s end were only partially responsible for the network’s success on the platform.

“Our success on YouTube can be attributed to a multitude of factors,” Jason Ehrich, the head of Fox News Media’s audience development, told Businessweek by email. Those factors include a dedicated team at the Fox News Channel who are specifically tasked with producing and publishing video clips for YouTube, the outlet reported.

Clips franchised from conservative pundit Tucker Carlson’s highly-rated prime-time TV show are some of the most-watched videos on the network’s YouTube page. Eight of the top 10 clips on the Fox News YouTube channel were from Carlson’s program last month, Businessweek said.

That domination came at a time when companies were pulling their advertisements off Carlson’s program following his disparaging remarks of the Black Lives Matter movement. Disney, T-Mobile, Poshmark and Papa John’s were among the companies that agreed to stop advertising during his TV program.

Carlson’s show wasn’t pulled from the network, and clips from the program racked up millions of views on YouTube. While the exact figure is unknown, the Fox News Channel likely earned hundreds of thousands of dollars in digital advertising revenue from Carlson’s video clips alone.

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