YouTube Searches Favor Videos That Attack Public Education, Scholar Finds

Digital Learning

YouTube Searches Favor Videos That Attack Public Education, Scholar Finds

By Jeffrey R. Young     Jul 11, 2018

YouTube Searches Favor Videos That Attack Public Education, Scholar Finds

This article is part of the guide: The World Is Watching: How YouTube Shapes Education.

When a scholar did a YouTube search for the term “public education” recently, the results painted a bleak picture of the nation’s schools and state colleges.

Among the top results: a slick animated video called “Problems in Public Education,” a rant arguing that all public education “kills creativity,” and a video essay titled “public ‘education’ has become indoctrination and distraction.” And that was just on the first page.

The researcher in question, Burhanettin Keskin, happens to be an education professor at the University of Mississippi, and so he decided to do an analysis of how public education is portrayed on YouTube.

His study, published in the peer-reviewed journal SAGE Open earlier this year, formalized what he had found in that initial search: that the majority of videos on the first few pages of searches for “public education” painted a negative view of the subject. “A substantial amount of these videos contained blunt attacks on public education,” Keskin writes in the paper.

The professor believes that YouTube’s search algorithm is favoring extreme views against education. And that, he worries, could be influencing internet users around the globe. As he concludes in the paper: “The severe negativity of such videos continues to pose barriers for teachers and public education overall.”

Keskin himself is a proponent, and a product, of public education. To avoid bias in his research, he had an independent coder rate the videos. And he made sure the YouTube searches were done without logging into a specific YouTube account and with a web browser whose history had been cleared.

The researcher notes that the exact nature of how YouTube’s algorithm works is a mystery, since Google, which owns YouTube, considers its workings a trade secret. It is also constantly changing, and results will likely vary for each user once they are logged in. But many of the videos that emerged in the professor’s research are clearly popular, with many of them attracting hundreds of thousands of views.

In an interview this week, Keskin notes that one of his goals is to call attention to how tech giants may be skewing the debate about all kinds of public-policy issues, including education.

“These big companies like Google—whether they know it or not—they shape and have an impact on the social construction of reality,” he says. “People say ‘it’s coding’ or ‘the algorithm does it,’ but it’s a not a neutral act.”

Others have raised similar questions about search algorithms. In a 2017 TED talk, “technosociologist” Zeynep Tufekci described her experience on YouTube, which she noticed was recommending increasingly extreme videos to her as she did her political-science research. As she watched videos of Trump rallies to write about them, for instance, suggestions on YouTube pushed her to white supremacist arguments. “I once watched a video about vegetarianism on YouTube, and YouTube recommended and auto-played a video about being vegan,” she said in her talk. “It’s like you’re never hardcore enough for YouTube.”

Tufekci’s argument is that YouTube’s algorithm is not intentionally biasing veganism, or any other political view. But she guesses that shocking arguments may simply be the most successful at keeping users engaged. “The algorithm has figured out that if you can entice someone into showing them something more hardcore, they’re more likely to stay on the site watching video after video—going down that rabbit hole while Google shows them ads,” she said.

Just this week, YouTube announced a $25-million effort to boost what it calls “authoritative” news in search results, in preparation for the upcoming U.S. midterm congressional elections.

In a press conference, Neal Mohan, chief product officer at YouTube, said that the changes will be unveiled in the coming weeks, and that when users search for breaking news events, they may soon see text articles as well as videos. Since videos take longer for news organizations longer to produce, Mohan suggested, often the most thorough sources are in text form, according to a report about the event by The Financial Times.

But Mohan also said YouTube has no plan to remove videos, even ones expressing fringe viewpoints. “News events are going to be questioned, rightly or wrongly, people will have a conspiratorial opinion,” Mohan said. “We want users to make decisions for themselves.”

In March, YouTube announced another effort to fight misinformation in its videos, by featuring Wikipedia articles next to some videos to offer broader context. “People can still watch the videos but then they actually have access to additional information, can click off and go and see that,” said Susan Wojcicki, chief executive of YouTube, in announcing the effort.

Negative View of Teaching?

But policy and breaking news searches are not the only way YouTube’s algorithms may be shaping public perceptions of education.

In another study, Keskin performed a similar analysis about how teachers are portrayed in popular YouTube videos. This time, he searched for the word “teacher” and coded whether the content of the videos in the first three pages of search results were positive, neutral or negative. An article about the research appeared in a peer-reviewed Turkish academic journal (search for Keskin’s name to find the article, which is in English).

The findings indicate that about 60 percent of the videos were negative, and about 17 percent were positive. A large number of the portrayals were sexual in nature, with about 29 percent including sexuality in their content, title or cover image.

“If a naïve person, as in someone knowing nothing about the teaching profession or teachers, were to conduct a search on teachers, the videos he or she would discover would be very disturbing in terms of the nature and role of educators,” the professor wrote. “This person would be inclined to think that what goes on in schools is largely a sexual matter, and that teachers are sexual predators.”

What can professors do about such portrayals? In his paper, Keskin offers a few suggestions:

“Teacher education departments in the higher education institutions should pay close attention to prepare future teachers effectively so that the teachers are equipped with the knowledge to address adverse teacher image abundant on the Internet,” he writes. “Such programs should also emphasize the critical thinking, as it is pivotal in establishing media literacy.”

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