Skepticism about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election in the United States led to a historic attack on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021 and represents one of the greatest challenges to America's democratic institutions in over a century. Narratives of fraud and conspiracy theories proliferated over the fall of 2020, finding fertile ground across online social networks, although little is know about the extent and drivers of this spread. In this article, we show that users who were more skeptical of the election's legitimacy were more likely to be recommended content that featured narratives about the legitimacy of the election. Our findings underscore the tension between an "effective" recommendation system that provides users with the content they want, and a dangerous mechanism by which misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracies can find their way to those most likely to believe them.
To what extent does the YouTube recommendation algorithm push users into echo chambers, ideologically biased content, or rabbit holes? Despite growing popular concern, recent work suggests that the recommendation algorithm is not pushing users into these echo chambers. However, existing research relies heavily on the use of anonymous data collection that does not account for the personalized nature of the recommendation algorithm. We asked a sample of real users to install a browser extension that downloaded the list of videos they were recommended. We instructed these users to start on an assigned video and then click through 20 sets of recommendations, capturing what they were being shown in real time as they used the platform logged into their real accounts. Using a novel method to estimate the ideology of a YouTube video, we demonstrate that the YouTube recommendation algorithm does, in fact, push real users into mild ideological echo chambers where, by the end of the data collection task, liberals and conservatives received different distributions of recommendations from each other, though this difference is small. While we find evidence that this difference increases the longer the user followed the recommendation algorithm, we do not find evidence that many go down `rabbit holes' that lead them to ideologically extreme content. Finally, we find that YouTube pushes all users, regardless of ideology, towards moderately conservative and an increasingly narrow range of ideological content the longer they follow YouTube's recommendations.
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