Pulling Back the Curtain: An Exploration of YouTube’s Recommendation Algorithm

Pulling Back the Curtain: An Exploration of YouTube’s Recommendation Algorithm

Authors: Aoife Gallagher, Lucy Cooper, Rhea Bhatnagar, Cooper Gatewood

Published: 18 June 2024

This is the executive summary of ISD’s Pulling Back the Curtain series which explores different aspects of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. The series consists of four separate investigations examining the recommendations sent to eight U.S.-based YouTube accounts registered with varying ages, genders, and interests over one month. This report summarizes the findings across all four investigations and provides an overview of the project and platform policy recommendations. 

The first investigation looks at teenage gamer accounts. The second examines accounts with an interest in “male lifestyle gurus”. The third investigation explores accounts with an interest in “Mommy vloggers”, while investigation four looks into the recommendations sent to users with an interest in Spanish language news. 

Aoife Gallagher is a Senior Analyst on ISD’s Digital Analysis Unit, focusing on the intersection between far-right extremism, disinformation and conspiracy theories and using a mixture of data analysis, open source intelligence and investigative techniques to understand the online ecosystem where these ideas flourish and spread. Previously, Aoife was a journalist with the online news agency, Storyful. She is the author of the book Web of Lies – The Lure and Danger of Conspiracy Theories and co-author of the ISD reports The Genesis of a Conspiracy Theory and Ill Advice: A Case Study in Facebook’s Failure to Tackle COVID-19 Disinformation.  

Lucy Cooper is a Digital Research Analyst at ISD US. Lucy holds a BA in political science from Barnard College of Columbia University, where she focused on political behavior, voting and elections in the United States. She has previously worked on political campaigns in Michigan and as a research assistant.

Rhea Bhatnagar is a Digital Research Analyst at ISD US where she focuses on online extremism, hate and disinformation in the US and globally. Prior to joining ISD, Rhea worked for Media Matters for America as an Internet and Misinformation Researcher, where she concentrated in platform accountability and the spread of international online misinformation. Her research has previously been cited in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Columbia Journalism Review. Rhea holds an undergraduate degree in International Affairs with a concentration in Conflict Resolution from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Cooper Gatewood was a Senior Manager within ISD’s Digital Analysis Unit, focusing on quantitative research into the spread of hateful and polarising narratives online, and how they are leveraged by extremist actors. Cooper also developed monitoring and evaluation frameworks to measure the impact of many of ISD’s intervention projects. Cooper contributed to ISD’s research on disinformation campaigns, particularly those aimed to influence and disrupt election processes. Cooper holds a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University and a Masters of International Security from Sciences Po and is fluent in Spanish and French, as well as speaking proficient Japanese.

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Investigation 4: Spanish-Language News Consumers

This is the fourth investigation in ISD’s Pulling Back the Curtain series which explores different aspects of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. The series consists of four separate investigations examining the recommendations sent to eight U.S.-based YouTube accounts registered with varying ages, genders, and interests over one month. This report examines the recommendations sent to two accounts with an interest in Spanish langauge news.

Investigation 3: Mommy Vlogger Personas

This is the third investigation in ISD’s Pulling Back the Curtain series which explores different aspects of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm. The series consists of four separate investigations examining the recommendations sent to eight U.S.-based YouTube accounts registered with varying ages, genders, and interests over one month. This report examines the recommendations sent to two accounts with an interest in Mommy vloggers.