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YouTube Fascism in Brazil

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[5]COMMENT: In recent pro­grams [6], we have exam­ined the pro­found role of online tech­nol­o­gy [7] in the pro­mo­tion of fas­cism, as well as over­lap­ping areas of intel­li­gence activ­i­ty [8]. In that con­text, it is vital to remem­ber that the Inter­net was devel­oped as a weapon, with the focus of the tech­nol­o­gy being coun­terin­sur­gency. In Brazil, the rise of Jair Bol­sonaro’s fas­cist gov­ern­ment received deci­sive momen­tum from YouTube, which is trans­form­ing the polit­i­cal land­scape in Brazil, as it is in this coun­try.

 “How YouTube Rad­i­cal­ized Brazil” by Max Fish­er and Aman­da Taub; The New York Times; 8/11/2019. [9]

When Matheus Dominguez was 16, YouTube rec­om­mend­ed a video that changed his life.

He was in a band in Niterói, a beach-ringed city in Brazil, and prac­ticed gui­tar by watch­ing tuto­ri­als online.

YouTube had recent­ly installed a pow­er­ful new arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence [10] sys­tem that learned from user behav­ior and paired videos with rec­om­men­da­tions for oth­ers. One day, it direct­ed him to an ama­teur gui­tar teacher named Nan­do Moura, who had gained a wide fol­low­ing by post­ing videos about heavy met­al, video games and, most of all, pol­i­tics.

In col­or­ful [11] and para­noid [12] far-right rants [13], Mr. Moura accused fem­i­nists, teach­ers and main­stream politi­cians of wag­ing vast con­spir­a­cies. Mr. Dominguez was hooked.

As his time on the site grew, YouTube rec­om­mend­ed videos from oth­er far-right fig­ures. One was a law­mak­er named Jair Bol­sonaro, then a mar­gin­al fig­ure in nation­al pol­i­tics — but a star in YouTube’s far-right com­mu­ni­ty in Brazil, where the plat­form has become more wide­ly watched [14] than all but one TV chan­nel.

Last year, he became Pres­i­dent Bol­sonaro.

“YouTube became the social media plat­form of the Brazil­ian right,” said Mr. Dominguez, now a lanky 17-year-old who says he, too, plans to seek polit­i­cal office.

[15]Mem­bers of the nation’s new­ly empow­ered far right — from grass-roots orga­niz­ers to fed­er­al law­mak­ers — say their move­ment would not have risen so far, so fast, with­out YouTube’s rec­om­men­da­tion engine.

New research has found they may be cor­rect. YouTube’s search and rec­om­men­da­tion sys­tem appears to have sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly divert­ed users to far-right and con­spir­a­cy chan­nels in Brazil.

A New York Times inves­ti­ga­tion in Brazil found that, time and again, videos pro­mot­ed by the site have upend­ed cen­tral ele­ments of dai­ly life.

Teach­ers describe class­rooms made unruly by stu­dents who quote from YouTube con­spir­a­cy videos or who, encour­aged by right-wing YouTube stars, secret­ly record their instruc­tors. . . .

. . . . And in pol­i­tics, a wave of right-wing YouTube stars ran for office along­side Mr. Bol­sonaro, some win­ning by his­toric mar­gins. Most still use the plat­form, gov­ern­ing the world’s fourth-largest democ­ra­cy through inter­net-honed trolling and provo­ca­tion. . . .

. . . . But the emo­tions that draw peo­ple in — like fear, doubt and anger — are often cen­tral fea­tures of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, and in par­tic­u­lar, experts say, of right-wing extrem­ism.

As the sys­tem sug­gests more provoca­tive videos to keep users watch­ing, it can direct them toward extreme con­tent they might oth­er­wise nev­er find. And it is designed [16] to lead users to new top­ics to pique new inter­est — a boon for chan­nels like Mr. Moura’s that use pop cul­ture as a gate­way to far-right ideas.

The sys­tem now dri­ves 70 per­cent of total time on the plat­form, the com­pa­ny says. As view­er­ship sky­rock­ets glob­al­ly, YouTube is bring­ing in over $1 bil­lion a month, some ana­lysts believe.

Zeynep Tufek­ci, a social media schol­ar, has called it “one of the most pow­er­ful rad­i­cal­iz­ing instru­ments of the 21st cen­tu­ry.”

Com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tives dis­put­ed the stud­ies’ method­ol­o­gy and said that the platform’s sys­tems do not priv­i­lege any one view­point or direct users toward extrem­ism. How­ev­er, com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tives con­ced­ed some of the find­ings and promised to make changes.

Far­shad Shad­loo, a spokesman, said that YouTube has “invest­ed heav­i­ly in the poli­cies, resources and prod­ucts” to reduce the spread of harm­ful mis­in­for­ma­tion, adding, “we’ve seen that author­i­ta­tive con­tent is thriv­ing in Brazil and is some of the most rec­om­mend­ed con­tent on the site.”

Danah Boyd, founder of the think tank Data & Soci­ety, attrib­uted the dis­rup­tion in Brazil to YouTube’s unre­lent­ing push for view­er engage­ment, and the rev­enues it gen­er­ates.

Though cor­rup­tion scan­dals and a deep reces­sion had already dev­as­tat­ed Brazil’s polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment and left many Brazil­ians ready for a break with the sta­tus quo, Ms. Boyd called YouTube’s impact a wor­ry­ing indi­ca­tion of the platform’s grow­ing impact on democ­ra­cies world­wide.

“This is hap­pen­ing every­where,” she said.

The Par­ty of YouTube

Mau­rí­cio Mar­tins, the local vice pres­i­dent of Mr. Bolsonaro’s par­ty in Niterói, cred­it­ed “most” of the party’s recruit­ment to YouTube — includ­ing his own.

He was killing time on the site one day, he recalled, when the plat­form showed him a video by a right-wing blog­ger. He watched out of curios­i­ty. It showed him anoth­er, and then anoth­er.

“Before that, I didn’t have an ide­o­log­i­cal polit­i­cal back­ground,” Mr. Mar­tins said. YouTube’s auto-play­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, he declared, were “my polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion.”

“It was like that with every­one,” he said.

The platform’s polit­i­cal influ­ence is increas­ing­ly felt in Brazil­ian schools.

“Some­times I’m watch­ing videos about a game, and all of a sud­den it’s a Bol­sonaro video,” said Inza­ghi D., a 17-year-old high school­er in Niterói.

More and more, his fel­low stu­dents are mak­ing extrem­ist claims, often cit­ing as evi­dence YouTube stars like Mr. Moura, the gui­tarist-turned-con­spir­acist.

“It’s the main source that kids have to get infor­ma­tion,” he said.

Few illus­trate YouTube’s influ­ence bet­ter than Car­los Jordy.

Mus­cle­bound and heav­i­ly tat­tooed — his left hand bears a flam­ing skull with dia­mond eyes — he joined the City Coun­cil in 2017 with few prospects of ris­ing through tra­di­tion­al pol­i­tics. So Mr. Jordy took inspi­ra­tion from blog­gers like Mr. Moura and his polit­i­cal men­tor, Mr. Bol­sonaro, turn­ing his focus to YouTube.

He post­ed videos accus­ing local teach­ers of con­spir­ing to indoc­tri­nate stu­dents into com­mu­nism. The videos won him a “nation­al audi­ence,” he said, and pro­pelled his stun­ning rise, only two years lat­er, to the fed­er­al leg­is­la­ture.

“If social media didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “Jair Bol­sonaro wouldn’t be pres­i­dent.”

Down The Rab­bit Hole

A few hun­dred miles away from Niterói, a team of researchers led by Vir­gilio Almei­da at the Fed­er­al Uni­ver­si­ty of Minas Gerais hunched over com­put­ers, try­ing under­stand how YouTube shapes its users’ real­i­ty.

The team ana­lyzed tran­scripts from thou­sands of videos, as well as the com­ments beneath them. Right-wing chan­nels in Brazil, they found, had seen their audi­ences expand far faster than oth­ers did, and seemed to be tilt­ing the site’s over­all polit­i­cal con­tent.

In the months after YouTube changed its algo­rithm, pos­i­tive men­tions of Mr. Bol­sonaro bal­looned. So did men­tions of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries that he had float­ed. This began as polls still showed him to be deeply unpop­u­lar, sug­gest­ing that the plat­form was doing more than mere­ly reflect­ing polit­i­cal trends.

A team at Harvard’s Berk­man Klein Cen­ter set out to test whether the Brazil­ian far right’s mete­oric rise on the plat­form had been boost­ed by YouTube’s rec­om­men­da­tion engine.

Jonas Kaiser and Yaso­dara Cór­do­va, with Adri­an Rauch­fleisch of Nation­al Tai­wan Uni­ver­si­ty, pro­grammed a Brazil-based serv­er to enter a pop­u­lar chan­nel or search term, then open YouTube’s top rec­om­men­da­tions, then fol­low the rec­om­men­da­tions on each of those, and so on.

By repeat­ing this thou­sands of times, the researchers tracked how the plat­form moved users from one video to the next. They found that after users watched a video about pol­i­tics or even enter­tain­ment, YouTube’s rec­om­men­da­tions often favored right-wing, con­spir­a­cy-filled chan­nels like Mr. Moura’s.

Cru­cial­ly, users who watched one far-right chan­nel would often be shown many more.

The algo­rithm had unit­ed once-mar­gin­al chan­nels — and then built an audi­ence for them, the researchers con­clud­ed.

One of those chan­nels belonged to Mr. Bol­sonaro, who had long used the plat­form to post hoax­es and con­spir­a­cies. Though a YouTube ear­ly adopter, his online fol­low­ing had done lit­tle to expand his polit­i­cal base, which bare­ly exist­ed on a nation­al lev­el.

Then Brazil’s polit­i­cal sys­tem col­lapsed just as YouTube’s pop­u­lar­i­ty there soared. Mr. Bolsonaro’s views had not changed. But YouTube’s far-right, where he was a major fig­ure, saw its audi­ence explode, help­ing to prime large num­bers of Brazil­ians for his mes­sage at a time when the coun­try was ripe for a polit­i­cal shift.

YouTube chal­lenged the researchers’ method­ol­o­gy and said its inter­nal data con­tra­dict­ed their find­ings. But the com­pa­ny declined the Times’ requests for that data, as well as requests for cer­tain sta­tis­tics that would reveal whether or not the researchers’ find­ings were accu­rate.

‘Dr. YouTube’

The con­spir­a­cies were not lim­it­ed to pol­i­tics. Many Brazil­ians search­ing YouTube for health care infor­ma­tion found videos that ter­ri­fied them: some said Zika was being spread by vac­cines [17], or by the insec­ti­cides [18] meant to curb the spread of the mos­qui­to-borne dis­ease that has rav­aged north­east­ern Brazil.

The videos appeared to rise on the plat­form in much the same way as extrem­ist polit­i­cal con­tent: by mak­ing alarm­ing claims [19] and promis­ing for­bid­den truths [20] that kept users glued to their screens.

Doc­tors, social work­ers and for­mer gov­ern­ment offi­cials said the videos had cre­at­ed the foun­da­tion of a pub­lic health cri­sis as fright­ened patients refused vac­cines and even anti-Zika insec­ti­cides.

The con­se­quences have been pro­nounced in poor­er com­mu­ni­ties like Maceió, a city in Brazil’s north­east that was among the hard­est hit by Zika. . . .

When Zika first spread in 2015, health work­ers dis­trib­uted lar­vi­cides that killed the mos­qui­toes that spread the dis­ease.

Not long after YouTube installed its new rec­om­men­da­tion engine, Dr. Santana’s patients began telling him that they’d seen videos blam­ing [21] Zika on vac­cines — and, lat­er, on lar­vi­cides. Many refused both.

Dr. Auriene Oliviera, an infec­tious dis­ease spe­cial­ist at the same hos­pi­tal, said patients increas­ing­ly defied her advice, includ­ing on pro­ce­dures cru­cial to their child’s sur­vival.

“They say, ‘No, I’ve researched it on Google, I’ve seen it on YouTube,” she said.

Med­ical providers, she said, were com­pet­ing “every sin­gle day” against “Dr. Google and Dr. YouTube” — and they were los­ing.

Mard­jane Nunes, a Zika expert who recent­ly left a senior role in the health min­istry, said that health work­ers across Brazil have been report­ing sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences. As more com­mu­ni­ties refuse the anti-Zika lar­vi­cide, she added, the dis­ease is see­ing a small resur­gence.

“Social media is win­ning,” she said.

Brazil’s med­ical com­mu­ni­ty had rea­son to feel out­matched. The Har­vard researchers found that YouTube’s sys­tems fre­quent­ly direct­ed users who searched for infor­ma­tion on Zika, or even those who watched a rep­utable video on health issues, toward con­spir­a­cy chan­nels.

A spokesman for YouTube con­firmed the Times’ find­ings, call­ing them unin­tend­ed, and said the com­pa­ny would change how its search tool sur­faced videos relat­ed to Zika.

An ‘Ecosys­tem of Hate’

As the far right rose, many of its lead­ing voic­es had learned to weaponize the con­spir­a­cy videos, offer­ing their vast audi­ences a tar­get: peo­ple to blame. Even­tu­al­ly, the YouTube con­spir­acists turned their spot­light on Deb­o­ra Diniz, a women’s rights activist whose abor­tion advo­ca­cy had long made her a tar­get of the far right.

Bernar­do Küster, a YouTube star whose home­made rants had won him 750,000 sub­scribers [22] and an endorse­ment [23] from Mr. Bol­sonaro, accused her of involve­ment in the sup­posed Zika plots.

The very peo­ple work­ing to help fam­i­lies affect­ed by Zika, their videos implied, were behind the dis­ease. Backed by shad­owy for­eign­ers, their goal was to abol­ish Brazil’s abor­tion ban — or even make abor­tions manda­to­ry.

As far-right and con­spir­a­cy chan­nels began cit­ing one anoth­er, YouTube’s rec­om­men­da­tion sys­tem learned to string their videos togeth­er. How­ev­er implau­si­ble any indi­vid­ual rumor might be on its own, joined togeth­er, they cre­at­ed the impres­sion that dozens of dis­parate sources were reveal­ing the same ter­ri­fy­ing truth.

“It feels like the con­nec­tion is made by the view­er, but the con­nec­tion is made by the sys­tem,” Ms. Diniz said.

Threats of rape and tor­ture filled Ms. Diniz’s phone and email. Some cit­ed her dai­ly rou­tines. Many echoed claims from Mr. Küster’s videos, she said.

Mr. Küster glee­ful­ly men­tioned, though nev­er explic­it­ly endorsed, the threats. That kept him just with­in YouTube’s rules.

When the uni­ver­si­ty where Ms. Diniz taught received a warn­ing that a gun­man would shoot her and her stu­dents, and the police said they could no longer guar­an­tee her safe­ty, she left Brazil.

“The YouTube sys­tem of rec­om­mend­ing the next video and the next video,” she said, had cre­at­ed “an ecosys­tem of hate.”

“‘I heard here that she’s an ene­my of Brazil. I hear in the next one that fem­i­nists are chang­ing fam­i­ly val­ues. And the next one I hear that they receive mon­ey from abroad” she said. “That loop is what leads some­one to say ‘I will do what has to be done.’”

“We need the com­pa­nies to face their role,” Ms. Diniz said. “Eth­i­cal­ly, they are respon­si­ble.”

As con­spir­a­cies spread on YouTube, video mak­ers tar­get­ed aid groups whose work touch­es on con­tro­ver­sial issues like abor­tion. Even some fam­i­lies that had long relied on such groups came to won­der if the videos might be true, and began to avoid them.

In Brazil, this is a grow­ing online prac­tice known as “lin­chamen­to” — lynch­ing. Mr. Bol­sonaro was an ear­ly pio­neer, spread­ing videos in 2012 that false­ly accused left-wing aca­d­e­mics of plot­ting to force schools to dis­trib­ute “gay kits” to con­vert chil­dren to homo­sex­u­al­i­ty.

Mr. Jordy, his tat­tooed Niterói pro­tégé, was untrou­bled to learn that his own YouTube cam­paign, accus­ing teach­ers of spread­ing com­mu­nism, had turned their lives upside down.

One of those teach­ers, Vale­ria Borges, said she and her col­leagues had been over­whelmed with mes­sages of hate, cre­at­ing a cli­mate of fear.

Mr. Jordy, far from dis­put­ing this, said it had been his goal. “I want­ed her to feel fear,” he said.

“It’s a cul­ture war we’re fight­ing,” he explained. “This is what I came into office to do.”

‘The Dic­ta­tor­ship of the Like’

Ground zero for pol­i­tics by YouTube may be the São Paulo head­quar­ters of Movi­men­to Brasil Livre, which formed to agi­tate for the 2016 impeach­ment of the left-wing Pres­i­dent Dil­ma Rouss­eff. Its mem­bers trend young, mid­dle-class, right-wing and extreme­ly online.

Renan San­tos, the group’s nation­al coor­di­na­tor, ges­tured to a door marked “the YouTube Divi­sion” and said, “This is the heart of things.”

Inside, eight young men poked at edit­ing soft­ware. One was styl­iz­ing an image of Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni for a video argu­ing that fas­cism had been wrong­ly blamed on the right.

But even some peo­ple here fear the platform’s impact on democ­ra­cy. Mr. San­tos, for exam­ple, called social media a “weapon,” adding that some peo­ple around Mr. Bol­sonaro “want to use this weapon to pres­sure insti­tu­tions in a way that I don’t see as respon­si­ble.”

The group’s co-founder, a man-bunned for­mer rock gui­tarist name Pedro D’Eyrot, said “we have some­thing here that we call the dic­ta­tor­ship of the like.”

Real­i­ty, he said, is shaped by what­ev­er mes­sage goes most viral.

Even as he spoke, a two-hour YouTube video was cap­ti­vat­ing the nation. Titled “1964 [24]” for the year of Brazil’s mil­i­tary coup, it argued that the takeover had been nec­es­sary to save Brazil from com­mu­nism.

Mr. Dominguez, the teenag­er learn­ing to play gui­tar, said the video per­suad­ed him that his teach­ers had fab­ri­cat­ed the hor­rors of mil­i­tary rule.

Ms. Borges, the his­to­ry teacher vil­i­fied on YouTube, said it brought back mem­o­ries of mil­i­tary cur­fews, dis­ap­peared activists and police beat­ings.

“I don’t think I’ve had my last beat­ing,” she said.