No president has ever seemed as keen on conspiracy theories as Donald Trump, the newly inaugurated president of the United States of America. But do people who watch conspiracy videos on YouTube automatically end up in the pro-Trump camp? And do some conspiracies point to Trump more than others?
Research by Alex Gekker, Nikolaus Pöchhacker, Talía Castellanos, Manon van Hoek and Nienke Zoetbrood
Barack Obama’s birth certificate is fake. He was born in Kenya and is actually a Muslim. These rumours started circulating during Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and were happily taken over by Donald Trump. “He doesn’t have a birth certificate”, Trump said on Fox News in 2011. “Or if he does, there’s something on that certificate that’s very bad for him.” After he finally acknowledged that Obama is, in fact, an American-born citizen, he pointed towards his opponent Hillary Clinton, falsely claiming that she had started the controversy over Obama’s birthplace.
It is not the only rumour that Trump helped spreading. In what has been called the era of ‘post-truth’, the brand new 45th president of the United States shows a preference for all sorts of conspiracy theories. The father of Ted Cruz, one of his republican rivals, was involved in the assassination of Kennedy. Thousands of Muslims celebrated 9/11 in New Jersey, and climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese.
Trumps preference for conspiracy theories did not seem to scare his supporters. On the contrary. American writer Arlie Russell Hochshield even wrote in the Washington Post that many older, white, tea party enthusiasts supported him precisely because of his tendency to spread conspiracy theories.
During five years of research in southwest Louisiana for her book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, she met many people who believed in doubtful theories. “About Obama being born outside the U.S.” one lady told her, “everyone I know believes that”. Others believed in the existence of the New World Order, or more local rumours that Homeland Security was behind the bombing of the Boston marathon.
Long before Trump shared his conspiracies with the world through Twitter, conspiracy theories fell on the fertile ground on the Internet. Over the last fifteen years, conspiracy theories have spread like “wildfire” there, says Jovan Byford in his book “Conspiracy Theories: a Critical Introduction”. One place has proven particularly fertile: YouTube. At the moment there are already more than 2.7 million results for the search words “conspiracy theory” only.
It is easy to spend hours on YouTube, clicking on videos that are recommended to you, diving deeper and deeper into the depths of YouTube. How does this work? The goal of YouTube’s recommendation system is to bring you personalised video recommendations. Put simply, the recommendations are based on two sources: content data such as the title, description and key words of the videos, and user activity data. This means videos you have previously watched or liked. That way, YouTube gives you a selection of videos you are most likely to watch.
A small comparative experiment shows that the videos you are recommended are largely based on the watched video and less on user activity. In the research team, each member logged in on their personal accounts and watched the same video. Although they had previously watched different videos and were subscribed to a broad variety of YouTube channels, 5 out of 12 recommendations ended up being the same.
Say that someone who is interested in conspiracy theories decides to watch some of these videos on YouTube. How likely is it that he or she is recommended videos of Donald Trump? This way, the team researched if the recommendation system of YouTube points conspiracy theorists towards pro-Trump videos.
How did they get there? First, 20 influential conspiracy theories were identified. For instance the 10 most enduring conspiracy theories according to Times, such as the assassination of JFK, the cover-up of 9/11 and the theory that the moon landing was actually fake. Also, 10 more contemporary conspiracy theories were included in the list. These range from theories on vaccines causing autism, GMO’s and Big Pharma.
Of the main conspiracy theories, the team then identified 20 corresponding videos. They were selected based on view count and authenticity. Using the youtube tool of the Digital Methods Initiative, these “seed” videos were crawled with the depth of one. This means that the team received the recommendations of the 20 original videos, and the recommendations thereof. The different networks of recommendations were then integration into one common graph.
Inspecting the structure of the graph, the team identified the conspiracy theories connected to political actors: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama. Additionally, they analysed the content of the videos mentioning these actors in order to find out whether the overall message of the video was negative, neutral or positive towards the politician. Also, they researched what the general content of the videos were.
Watching conspiracy videos, do you receive recommendations of videos of Donald Trump? Yes, is the short answer. You do. Although the number is limited, through the recommendation system you are only one or two clicks away from being recommended a Trump video. In the graph below, you can see the yellow seed videos, which were the original seed videos. The red lines is where you are recommended videos of Trump.
There is a difference between the original videos, however. Some conspiracy theories are more closely related to videos about Trump then others. Apparently, people who watch videos on the conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney is dead, do not get any recommendations of Trump videos. But people who watch videos on Big Pharma, GMO’s and climate change are more likely to see Trump popping up at their recommendations list. The last one is not surprising: after all Trump himself has claimed that climate change is a hoax.
Donald Trump was not the only politician to appear in the network analysis. Also videos on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were recommended. However, when looking at the content of the videos one thing became clear: all videos were pro-Trump, and anti-Clinton or Obama. Watching conspiracy videos, the recommendation engine of YouTube thinks that you are likely to click on videos that support Trump, too. And that you are likely to click on videos claiming that Clinton is actually a reptilian shapeshifter. (You do not believe that? Well, check it out yourself.)
One type of videos especially recommended videos of Trump: videos on the New World Order and the Illuminati. People who believe in the New World Order think that the mysterious Illuminati are planning to establish a totalitarian, world government. Watch a video on the new world order, and you are very likely to end up with recommendations of Trump videos, as becomes apparent from the visualisation below. The yellow circle is the original “seed” video of the conspiracy of the New World Order. The red circles are recommendations to pro-Trump videos.
In fact, Trump even plays an active role in the conspiracy theories. “Donald Trump exposes The Illuminati MUST SEE!!!” is the name of one of the recommended videos. It has been watched more than 7 million times. Where one might expect a typical conspiracy video – poor quality, booming voices proclaiming doomsday scenarios – the opposite is true. The video, uploaded by “illuminatiforrealz” in 2015, consists of footage of an interview with Donald Trump performed by a journalist of the Wall Street Journal.
This is not the only case in which a conspiracy theory watcher ends up with recommendations of main stream Trump-supporting videos. Expanding the network of recommendations one step further, the first recommendation of this video is “WATCH Donald Trump Savagely Destroys The Illuminati With the Best Speech You Will Ever See!” (over 1 million views). Against all expectations that this title brings, it is a video of Trump’s speech at the annual fundraiser dinner of Catholic charities. Uploaded by the “President Donald Trump 2017 supporters TV”.
The line from conspiracy theories to mainstream Trump support on YouTube proves to be very thin indeed.
The question remains what will happen once Trump has been president for some time. Will he still be seen as the outsider who can defeat the New World Order? Or has the most powerful man in the United States become part of the establishment himself, in the eyes of conspiracy theorists? More future wanderings through the depths of YouTube will have to point it out.