YouTube as a space for news

During the 2020 election, YouTube was a popular space for campaign-related news and information. While the platform houses videos on a wide range of topics—everything from cooking tutorials to music videos—Americans are increasing relying on YouTube as a way to get news. According to a recent Pew report, about one quarter (26%) of U.S. adults say they get news on YouTube, and of these people, seven-in-ten (72%) characterize it as “important” in their keeping up with news.

Yet understanding the role YouTube plays as a news space, especially during an election, is marked by several contradictory factors. First, YouTube includes channels from mainstream news organizations as well as alternative media and hyper-partisan channels. Second, some YouTube news channels have a large number of subscribers with videos that garner millions of views, while other channels have a smaller audience. And third, YouTube is both a video distribution platform and a social space for commenting, liking, and sharing.

These factors create a unique space for news and raise concerns about channels that propagate extreme political viewpoints and disinformation, and the potential for viewers to become more polarized, especially if algorithms recommend a steady dose of hyper partisan videos to certain users.

Partisan media YouTube channels

During the first six months of 2020, I examined video content from six partisan media channels (3 conservative and 3 liberal) and one mainstream news channel (ABC News). I drew a random sample of 50 videos from each YouTube channel and coded the videos for several factors. Overall, I found that partisan channels have several characteristics that facilitate political commentary and viewer involvement.

For example, partisan channels overwhelmingly use a “presentation” video format where the host(s) talks directly to the camera/viewers with no interactions with guests/experts (see Figure 1). Across the six partisan channels, presentation videos accounted for 72% to 96% of a channel’s videos. This is in stark contrast to ABC News, where only 22% of videos were in a presentation format (a majority of videos were in a “hosted” format featuring conversations with guests/experts).

Figure 1. The dominance of a ‘presentation’ format among partisan YouTube channels Note: L = liberal; C = conservative

Partisan channels were more likely to focus exclusively on stories about politics and government, while ABC News had a wider set of topics they also covered (see Table 1).

Table 1. Political focus among partisan YouTube channels

And lastly, partisan channels employ several practices to increase viewer involvement with video content (see Figure 2). Certain techniques—like encouraging viewers to watch additional videos or to follow the channel on other social network sites—were common and not distinct to partisan channels. The same was not true for other techniques, like making direct appeals to viewers, telling personal stories/anecdotes, and providing comment prompts. Although these practices were not as frequent, they were more likely to occur within partisan channels, and particularly those with lower number of subscribers.

Figure 2. Viewer involvement practices across YouTube channels
Note: Channels ordered from highest number of subscribers to lowest

These findings illustrate some of the ways that partisan YouTube channels differ in format, focus, and facilitating involvement. The 2020 election severed as a backdrop for these practices.

The 2020 election

During the 2020 election, YouTube faced pressure to quickly identify and limit the spread of election-related conspiracy theories. A notable case was the October 14th New York Post story about a recovered laptop that allegedly belonged to Hunter Biden (son of Democratic candidate Joe Biden) that contained information of shady business dealings involving his father. The story was criticized for a lack of verifiable evidence and for being part of a Russian disinformation effort to sway votes from Joe Biden.

In response, YouTube did not take any direct action to remove the NY Post video story, but did reaffirm their commitment to taking down conspiracy videos that promote violence. This decision stands in contrast to the efforts of Facebook, which limited sharing of the Post’s story until third-party fact checkers could verify it, and Twitter which initially blocked the story and the Post’s main Twitter account.

By Election Day, the Post’s YouTube video amassed only a modest 174,695 views, likely due to its limited circulation on Facebook and Twitter. Yet, the YouTube reach of the story is far greater than a single video. The story was fodder for many YouTube channels, particularly partisan media channels. By one estimate, over 1,983 videos about the “Hunter Biden laptop” story were published in the remaining weeks of the campaign. The most popular of these videos have millions of views, and, with the exception of the Daily Show, are from channels associated with a conservative perspective (see Table 2).

Table 2. Most popular YouTube videos about the Hunter Biden laptop story

Ultimately, many U.S. voters encountered election-related news and information on YouTube. As the Hunter Biden laptop story shows, the potential for sharing and believing election disinformation is real, especially at the hands of partisan media channels that focus on political commentary and prioritize viewer involvement. However, this potential is not equal across all YouTube users, and reflects the complicated space that YouTube now occupies as a source for news.