Cataloging the conspiracies on offer on YouTube is a fool’s errand, but let’s try: fake moon landing, flat Earth, 9/11 stuff, the Illuminati, anti-vaxxer propaganda, medical quackery, QAnon, Nikola Tesla and the pyramids, fiat currency, global cooling, lizard people, robot overlords, time travel, and many even odder things you’ve probably never heard of.
Last month, YouTube said it would stop recommending “content that could misinform users in harmful ways—such as videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat, or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.”
But the conspiracy videos continue to burble up in the great seething mass of moving pictures. Earlier this week, in a report on the continued success of conspiracy videos on the platform, The New York Times’ Kevin Roose observed, “Many young people have absorbed a YouTube-centric worldview, including rejecting mainstream information sources in favor of platform-native creators bearing ‘secret histories’ and faux-authoritative explanations.”
YouTube likes to say that this problematic stuff is “less than one percent of the content on YouTube.” This is, undoubtedly, true, simply because there is so much stuff on YouTube. It is an explosion of creativity, wild and invigorating. One exploration from 2015 found that fully half of its videos had fewer than 350 views, and that 90 percent had fewer than roughly 11,000 views. That is to say, YouTube is driven not by the tail of barely viewed videos, but by the head of wildly popular stuff. At the scale of a YouTube, every category of content represents less than 1 percent of the content, but that doesn’t mean a smallish number of videos can’t assemble a vast audience, some of whom are led further into the lizard-person weirdness of the fringe.