YouTube sharpens how it recommends videos despite fears of isolating users

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Updated 29 November 2017
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YouTube sharpens how it recommends videos despite fears of isolating users

SAN FRANCISCO: Google’s YouTube has updated its recommendation feature to spotlight videos users are likely to find the most gratifying, brushing aside concerns that such an approach can trap people in bubbles of misinformation and like-minded opinions.
The new feature, which arrived in January but has not previously been reported, uses a measure of satisfaction derived from a massive and ongoing user survey to predict and promote videos that people would rank as among the best they have watched recently.
The goal is to prevent the negative sentiments that can arise when people watch hours and hours of uninspired programs, said Jim McFadden and Cristos Goodrow, who work on recommendation technology at YouTube, which is part of Alphabet Inc.
But the change comes at a time when YouTube and other social media firms are facing heavy criticism from advertisers, regulators and advocacy groups for failing to police content and account for the way their services shape public opinion.
Russian agents exploited the recommendation systems of Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc. and YouTube to popularize propaganda and fake news during the 2016 US presidential election. The companies responded with increased user verification and fact-checking tools, but their recommendations remain focused on winning the attention and boosting the enjoyment of users.
“The risk is not that we are just siloing ourselves, but we’re able to also reinforce pre-existing, flawed viewpoints,” said Jacob Groshek, a Boston University associate professor who researches the influence of social media and “filter bubbles.”
YouTube automatically recommends videos through a machine learning algorithm that analyzes the characteristics of videos and the behavior of its 1.5 billion users to generate personalized viewing recommendations.
These recommendations, which appear on YouTube’s homepage and alongside clips, have become a centerpiece of the service, encouraging people to watch videos that are similar to ones they have spent significant time viewing in the past. Recommendations now drive 70 percent of overall “watch time” on YouTube, compared with 40 percent in early 2014, the company said.
The more time people spend watching, the more ad slots YouTube can sell. Sales of YouTube commercials are among Google’s top growth areas.
But by last year, YouTube’s prediction tool had matured, said McFadden, a software engineer at YouTube since 2011. He said the idea of pinpointing “satisfaction” came after he had watched “particularly good” videos, including a commencement speech by the late author David Foster Wallace.
“You listen to it and say this was really good,” McFadden said. But “there’s nothing really in our data about how much I like this.”
He worried that too many people felt their hours each night watching sports highlights, comedy clips and makeup tutorials were a waste.
Now YouTube is gauging satisfaction by surveying nearly 10 percent of users about which videos they enjoy. One version of the survey asks whether a video watched in the last week was “one of the best,” “great,” “about average,” “poor” or “one of the worst.”
The feedback is a fresh data point in the recommendation algorithm. Lesser emphasis is now put on actions that may be a proxy for enjoyment but are used with varying intent, such as “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” ratings.
YouTube executives acknowledge that the approach can help misinformation spread. A user who says a video describing the moon landing as a hoax was among the best they watched in the last week would cause that video, and similar ones, to be recommended more widely.
“We would love it if the satisfaction mechanism pushed down videos about ‘we never landed on the moon’ but people will report satisfaction on quite a variety of things,” Goodrow, vice president of engineering at YouTube, said in an interview.
The company releases neither recommendation nor satisfaction data about individual videos.
Johanna Wright, vice president of product management at YouTube, said in an interview that the company is taking steps to combat misinformation, including giving greater prominence to well-known media organizations in search results on trending topics.
Next year, YouTube is planning to have a similar initiative around science videos to surface “the established belief on the topic” on science videos, she said.
Still, YouTube’s chief goal is to maximize viewing time. Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said recently that there was little the company could do absent a bigger societal change.
The problem of filter bubbles will persist, Schmidt told an international security conference Nov. 18, “until we decide collectively” that users should see content from “someone not like you.”
Critics reject the notion that YouTube is powerless.
Guillaume Chaslot, a member of its recommendations engineering team who left Google in 2013 and is working to launch a nonprofit group to investigate social media algorithms, said YouTube could experiment more or release data about recommendations to researchers.
He worries though that YouTube will not act until public outcry grows severe or existing tactics impair watch time.
“Users are not asking YouTube to optimize for truth,” Chaslot said.


Google employees demand more oversight of China search engine plan

A Google sign is seen during the China Digital Entertainment Expo and Conference (ChinaJoy) in Shanghai, China August 3, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 August 2018
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Google employees demand more oversight of China search engine plan

  • Hundreds of employees have called on the company to provide more “transparency, oversight and accountability
  • Employees have asked Google to create an ethics review group with rank-and-file workers, appoint ombudspeople to provide independent review and internally publish assessments of projects

SAN FRANCISCO: Google is not close to launching a search engine app in China, its chief executive said at a companywide meeting on Thursday, according to a transcript seen by Reuters, as employees of the Alphabet Inc. unit called for more transparency and oversight of the project.
Chief Executive Sundar Pichai told staff that though development is in an early stage, providing more services in the world’s most populous country fits with Google’s global mission.
Hoping to gain approval from the Chinese government to provide a mobile search service, the company plans to block some websites and search terms, Reuters reported this month, citing unnamed sources.
Whether the company could or would launch search in China “is all very unclear,” Pichai said, according to the transcript. “The team has been in an exploration stage for quite a while now, and I think they are exploring many options.”
Disclosure of the secretive effort has disturbed some Google employees and human rights advocacy organizations. They are concerned that by agreeing to censorship demands, Google would validate China’s prohibitions on free expression and violate the “don’t be evil” clause in the company’s code of conduct.
Hundreds of employees have called on the company to provide more “transparency, oversight and accountability,” according to an internal petition seen by Reuters on Thursday.
After a separate petition this year, Google announced it would not renew a project to help the US military develop artificial intelligence technology for drones.
The China petition says employees are concerned the project, code named Dragonfly, “makes clear” that ethics principles Google issued during the drone debate “are not enough.”
“We urgently need more transparency, a seat at the table and a commitment to clear and open processes: Google employees need to know what we’re building,” states the document seen by Reuters.
The New York Times first reported the petition on Thursday. Google declined to comment.
Company executives have not commented publicly on Dragonfly, and their remarks at the company-wide meeting marked their first about the project since details about it were leaked.
Employees have asked Google to create an ethics review group with rank-and-file workers, appoint ombudspeople to provide independent review and internally publish assessments of projects that raise substantial ethical questions.
Pichai told employees: “We’ll definitely be transparent as we get closer to actually having a plan of record here” on Dragonfly, according to the transcript. He noted the company guards information on some projects where sharing too early can “cause issues.”
Three former employees involved with Google’s past efforts in China told Reuters current leadership may see offering limited search results in China as better than providing no information at all.
The same rationale led Google to enter China in 2006. It left in 2010 over an escalating dispute with regulators that was capped by what security researchers identified as state-sponsored cyberattacks against Google and other large US firms.
The former employees said they doubt the Chinese government will welcome back Google. A Chinese official, who declined to be named, told Reuters this month that it is “very unlikely” Dragonfly would be available this year.