A new report shows that young children are being directed to films and videos on YouTube about school shootings and other gun-related content. The algorithm of the video platform seems to frequently promote violent content, including videos that violate YouTube’s rules, to accounts of kids who had expressed an interest in video games.

TTP Report Uncovers YouTube Algorithm’s Failure

Two years ago, YouTube’s vice president of Engineering Cristos Goodrow said that the firm had “made delivering responsible recommendations our top priority,” asserting that its algorithms weren’t directing users toward extremist content.

However, a report by The Campaign for Accountability’s (CFA’s) Tech Transparency Project (TTP) shows otherwise.

In order to understand the connection between YouTube videos and gun violence, the researchers at TTP set up four profiles that portrayed a pair of boys aged nine and fourteen, respectively.

The team then viewed a playlist of over 100 videos, many of which were about video games. While the older accounts viewed videos about more overtly violent games like “Grand Theft Auto V,” “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and “The Last of Us,” the younger accounts watched a playlist of videos on well-known video games like “Roblox,” “Lego Star Wars,” and “Among Us.”

Researchers monitored hundreds of videos that were suggested daily to the hypothetical kids on YouTube’s homepage for the following month. While the other accounts did not interact with the violent recommendations, one of each pair of accounts decided to watch at least 50 of the suggested videos.

The study’s findings revealed that the accounts that interacted with some of the algorithm’s recommendations that included videos of gun modifications and movies depicting school shootings were given nearly ten times as many recommendations in the future.

“The study found that YouTube pushed content on shootings and weapons to all of the gamer accounts, but at a much higher volume to the users who clicked on the YouTube-recommended videos,” the report read.

“These videos included scenes depicting school shootings and other mass shooting events; graphic demonstrations of how much damage guns can inflict on a human body; and how-to guides for converting a handgun to a fully automatic weapon,” TTP added.

The report further notes that videos of a little girl firing a gun were also recommended, along with guides for making handguns “fully automatic” and other modifications. In addition to violating the platform’s policies, some of these videos were being monetized by adverts.

It’s Not The Kids, It’s The Algorithm

CFA’s executive director, Michelle Kuppersmith, said it was such a bad practice for Youtube to glorify such content, let alone recommend it to children. “Unfortunately, this is just the latest example of Big Tech’s algorithms taking the worst of the worst and pushing it to kids in an endless pursuit of engagement,” he said.

On the other hand, Katie Paul, director of TTP, blamed the video platform for the recommendations saying “It’s not the video games, it’s not the kids. It’s the algorithms.”

In response, YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez said the Tech Transparency Project report is “difficult for us to draw strong conclusions from,” citing a lack of clarity in some aspects of the study’s methodology.

More precisely, Hernandez said it is unclear whether researchers used resources accessible to parents who manage a child’s account. According to YouTube policy, accounts for users under the age of 13 must be linked to a parent’s account, a rule the researchers said they followed in the report.

“We offer a number of options for younger viewers, including a standalone YouTube Kids app and our Supervised Experience tools which are designed to create a safer experience for tweens and teens whose parents have decided they are ready to use the main YouTube app,” she said.

“We welcome research on our recommendations, and we’re exploring more ways to bring in academic researchers to study our systems.”

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