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YouTube video recommendations stir regrets, Mozilla finds

July 7, 2021, 11:42 PM UTC

Ever fallen down a rabbit hole on YouTube and regretted what you’ve seen?

You’re not alone. Mozilla, maker of the Firefox web browser, published a study today detailing people’s self-reported YouTube video-watching “regrets.” More than 37,000 people installed a browser extension, RegretsReporter, that the non-profit foundation created to quantify how often people end up watching videos they wish they hadn’t.

The headline finding can be considered an indictment of YouTube’s video-surfacing algorithm: 71% of all reported regrets were from videos recommended by YouTube. Compared to videos people sought out, “recommended videos were 40% more likely to be regretted,” Mozilla said. In many cases, these regrets consisted of “misinformation, violent or graphic content, hate speech, and spam/scams,” it said.

The study was subjective, of course. The methodology left it up to respondents—nearly 1,700 of them submitted 3,400 reports from July 2020 to May—to determine what constitutes a “regret.” And it’s unsurprising that people were less likely to regret videos they specifically searched for.

On the other hand, the study did shine a light on the possible ill effects of an A.I. black box many of us regularly interact with. For instance, many of the regretted videos, according to Mozilla, garnered more views than ordinary videos: a median of 5,794 daily views for regrets versus 3,312 for other videos. This would seem to corroborate another finding researchers have long warned about: misinformation travels faster than facts. (Or, as Winston Churchill once more colorfully put it, A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.)

A YouTube spokesperson countered in a statement to Fortune that the company had “launched over 30 different changes to reduce recommendations of harmful content” over the past year. “Thanks to this change, consumption of borderline content that comes from our recommendations is now significantly below 1%,” the spokesperson said.

In fairness, the study had drawbacks. It featured a small sample size. The data—so-called regrets—came secondhand and were loosely defined. And the researchers had limited visibility into the inner workings of YouTube’s algorithm.

Despite these problems, Mozilla, a frequent critic of YouTube and its sister service, Google, (and a rival to Google’s super-popular Chrome browser), should be commended. Right now there’s very little transparency when it comes to the ways Big Tech algorithms direct our digital lives. Without more transparency—even in crude form—we’re left to the whims of shadowy A.I. forces.

The solution is, as Mozilla sees it, regulation. The foundation wants policymakers to force YouTube and other companies to “publish audits of their algorithm and give people meaningful control over how their data is used for recommendations, including allowing people to opt-out of personalized recommendations.” It’s hard to disagree.

You’ll never keep healthy if you don’t know how the sausage you’ve been served gets made.

Robert Hackett

@rhhackett

robert.hackett@fortune.com

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