Echo Chambers, Rabbit Holes, and Algorithmic Bias: How YouTube Recommends Content to Real Users

  • Joshua Tucker
joshua tucker headshot for echo chambers, rabbit holes and algorithmic bias seminar

Join the Program on Democracy and the Internet (PDI) and moderator Nate Persily, for the next seminar in the Fall Seminar SeriesEcho Chambers, Rabbit Holes, and Algorithmic Bias: How YouTube Recommends Content to Real Users with Joshua Tucker, Professor of Politics, Director of the Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia, Co-Director of New York University's Center for Social Media and Politics(CSMaP), Affiliated Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies, and Affiliated Professor of Data Science.

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.

This session is part of the Fall Seminar Series, a months-long series from the Program on Democracy and the Internet, designed to bring researchers, policy makers, scholars and industry professionals together to share research, findings and trends in the cyber policy space. Both in-person and virtual attendance is available; registration is required. Lunch will be provided for in-person attendees. 

About the Speaker:

Joshua A. Tucker is Professor of Politics, an affiliated Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies, and an affiliated Professor of Data Science at New York University.  He is the Director of NYU’s Jordan Center for Advanced Study of Russia. He is one of the co-founders and co-Directors of the NYU  Center for Social Media and Politics (CSMaP) and the Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) laboratory.