YouTube’s trending results might not be what they seem.
A Google employee has been caught on tape in an undercover sting operation saying that in “rare cases,” employees can get a video to trend when it wouldn’t have otherwise trended as determined by algorithms. Earnest Pettie, whose Linkedn describes him as the “Brand And Diversity Curation Head” at YouTube, appears to tell an investigative reporter that he made a specific video trend through human intervention.
“In very rare cases, we will try to make up for the fact that something isn’t in the Trending tab,” he tells the undercover reporter while eating at a restaurant. “This is very rare,” he hastens to add. “But in those cases, we will like, use type sort of intervention to make sure that, like…to encourage the thing to be there basically.”
Google hasn’t responded to a detailed questionnaire sent by OfficeChai.
The hidden camera report was a part of an investigation by Project Veritas, which aimed to show corruption in the media business. The first video in the series shows a New York Times employee claiming that he used his influence at the New York Times to run stories that damaged US President Donald Trump’s business interests. The New York Times employee also claimed he could get videos to trend on YouTube and Facebook, following which the investigative reporters approached the Google employee who he’d said was his contact at the company.
The video which the Google employee allegedly artificially put into the Trending tab was a New York Times video around former FBI director James Comey’s hearings. Comey had been fired by Trump early into his Presidency, and his testimony in June this year was thought to be damaging to Trump. The New York Times has been critical of Trump ever since he announced his nomination, and the fact that it could use its clout to get its video to trend on YouTube could be seen as a worrying sign for political neutrality on the internet.
Google carries disproportionate weight as far as influencing public opinion goes — it is, quite simply, the most popular website in the world, and YouTube isn’t far behind at number two. Google, though, seems to consistently maintain that it doesn’t influence its search results or its Trending videos. YouTube’s own mission statement seems to unequivocally say that it’ll only use algorithms to decide what people end up seeing. “We believe everyone should have a chance to be discovered, build a business and succeed on their own terms, and that people—not gatekeepers—decide what’s popular,” it says. But it turns out that some Google employees — motivated either by political inclinations, or in order to return a favour — might’ve turned into gatekeepers themselves.