Law in Popular Culture

Conspiracy theories about Justice Ginsburg gain prominence because of YouTube search algorithm

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If you had searched for the phrase “RBG” on YouTube last Wednesday, more than half of the top 20 search results would have included videos touting some strange conspiracy theories.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg missed oral arguments last week as she recovers from surgery to remove two cancerous nodules from her left lung. There are no remaining signs of cancer, and she planned to work at home for an additional week before returning to the court.

But there is a more sinister story told by YouTube videos associated with the fringe group QAnon, the Washington Post reported. Some of those videos claim Ginsburg is being kept alive with mysterious illegal drugs. The message is at odds with another fake theory circulating on Twitter that Ginsburg actually might be dead.

If you clicked on one of the conspiracy videos related to QAnon, YouTube would have presented other conspiracy videos, including one about a deep state that harbors demons.

YouTube apparently featured the conspiracy videos in search results because of a “relevance” determination that appears to be based on what’s newly posted, popular or suitable to the search, according to the Washington Post. Only one of the top YouTube search results for “RBG” last Wednesday was from a mainstream news site; it was an interview about Ginsburg’s legal career from CNN that was nearly a year old.

The search results changed to include videos from many mainstream news organizations after the Washington Post contacted YouTube for comment. The Post also pointed out that a search for “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” had more authoritative videos from news organizations.

YouTube can’t police all the videos uploaded to its site at a rate of about 450 hours of video every minute, the Washington Post explained. It has changed its algorithms to try to produce more reliable videos after news events, and it also employs moderators to look at videos flagged as problematic by the algorithms. Some searches also include text boxes that make it easier to fact-check information.

But that kind of context is often absent in videos related to breaking news events, the Post concluded.

“While we’ve made good progress,” said YouTube spokesman Farshad Shadloo in a Post interview, “we also recognize there’s more to do.”

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