Filling the void Alex Jones left behind

YouTube’s attempt to burst the (far-)right bubble is a chance for Fox News

by Jonas Kaiser & Adrian Rauchfleisch

For once Alex Jones was right. After a tumultuous week that saw Spotify, Apple, and Facebook blocking Alex Jones’ Infowars from their services, YouTube followed suit and removed Jones’ channel. The prominent conspiracy theorist warned that this would happen, although at the time it seemed to be more a publicity stunt than anything else.

Jones rose to prominence with a mixture of far-right talking points and outlandish conspiracy theories (or lies). He infamously claimed that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a “false flag” operation orchestrated “by government-backed ‘gun grabbers’” and that the grieving parents were ‘crisis actors’; a claim he is now being sued for. And while one might scoff at such ideas, the day Jones’ channel was removed, he had over 2.4 million subscribers. It is important to note that Jones’ channel does not exist in isolation; rather, it is a part of an interconnected (far-)right and conspiracy theory filter bubble that exists on YouTube. As we have shown in a prior analysis, YouTube’s channel algorithm recommended few channels more than Alex Jones’, thus making his channel effectively a centerpiece in the two (far-)right & conspiracy theory communities that we identified, and which Jones’ channel connected.

But now that Jones’ channels are gone (in addition to The Alex Jones Channel, three other Infowars related channels have been removed), the question remains: will someone else step into the void his channels left behind. Is there another Alex Jones? Or did YouTube not only remove Infowars but in doing so, burst the (far-)right filter bubbles? In a new analysis, conducted mere hours after YouTube removed Jones’ channels, we found (with visualizations) that while the two (far-)right communities remain, Fox News has profited the most by YouTube’s actions.

To determine who benefited most from Jones’ departure, we followed YouTube’s channel recommendation algorithm. Each connection between two channels is one recommendation; if we then visualize these recommendations, we can draw a map of YouTube’s communities: some focus on gaming, others on tech videos, others on music, and others politics. In our last analysis in March, Alex Jones was by far the most recommended channel in the two right-wing communities (164 recommendations). Only The Young Turks (187) in the liberal community and the Swedish YouTube star PewDiePie (182; ~65 million subscribers) had more. These numbers have shifted dramatically: PewDiePie has now 282 recommendations, while The Young Turks have 179. But as our network maps show: the new most recommended channel in the (far-)right and conspiracy community and heir to Alex Jones’ prominence in the community is Fox News with 233 recommendations (formerly 123). However, we can also see the importance Jones’ channel had as bridge between the conspiracy theory and (far-)right communities. Whereas in March the two communities were closely together, in August the two, although still connected, are visibly separated.

Figure 1. Comparison of the U.S. YouTube channel network in March and August 2018 (node size per indegree; i.e. the more recommendations a channel receives within the network, the larger its name is)

Against this background, the deletion of Jones’ channel can be understood as a surgical strike. While the two communities still exist, both have lost a valuable bridge to their content. Jones’ channel served as an entry way into the (far-)right and conspiracy bubble (also dubbed “the three degrees of Alex Jones” as YouTube recommended Jones’ channel on Fox News’ channel page) and from there it would either go into the (far-)right or the conspiracy community. And while Fox News filled the void Jones left behind, the question remains if this will hold. Trading the far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for the establishment Fox News might seem like a good thing for the public sphere on YouTube at first and a step towards deradicalization, but many channels in the right-wing community are more in line with Jones than with Fox News. For them, Fox News may be just too tame and mainstream, a shadow of what Jones was. Since YouTube’s algorithms also take user behavior and topic overlap into account, it might very well be that Fox News’ spot at the top will be short-lived. If Fox News wanted to maintain its current position, it may start creating YouTube-only videos directed at its (far-)right audience. Jones’ removal is definitely a weakening of the (far-)right communities on YouTube. The question is for how long.

For YouTube, deleting Alex Jones’ channel was a braver move than it was for Facebook, Spotify or Apple: as the Facebook stock crash showed, social media platforms are usually judged by their shareholders for their growth and engagement and not for their civic concerns. Removing one of YouTube’s most notorious and divisive channel creators, i.e. one who would guarantee traffic and interactions, did thus not only put YouTube in the same spot as Facebook or Twitter, but also now begs the question if the social media giant is willing to police its content more consistently. In the battle between business and user interests, it seems like the user side won. This time.

The whole affair shows the power platforms like YouTube have. Although Jones’ removal from the platform will not prevent him or others who have been deleted from reaching their audiences, as most were prepared for such a move and have already switched to alternative platforms. But it will be difficult for them to still reach a similarly broad audience and keep their revenue stream. However, Jones’ core audience will most likely follow him wherever he goes.

Jonas Kaiser (@jonaskaiser) is a DFG postdoctoral fellow and affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and associate researcher at the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet & Society.

Adrian Rauchfleisch (@OuzhouAdi) is an Assistant Professor at the Graduate Institute of Journalism at the National Taiwan University and the co-founder of the think-tank Zurich Institute of Public Affairs Research.