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thenewyorktimes2393 karma

This is one of the main things I went to Nigeria to understand. From the victims' perspective, the issue is black and white: These scammers are bad. Now none of us believe that their crimes are justified, but speaking to them does add more nuance to the story. When I met these young men in Nigeria, they were remorseful. They understood their scams did harm. But they said the money made them numb to that guilt. "Definitely there is always conscience,” one scammer told me. “But poverty will not make you feel the pain.”

It also seems that they are so disconnected from their victims, that it is easier to ignore the emotional toll of their actions. They never meet these people in real life, and often lose contact with them after the victim realizes they have been scammed.

But I will say some scammers did try to justify their actions by saying that their Western victims can afford to lose money or that they are greedy. And another bizarre rationale that they gave me and has even been repeated in Nigerian hip-hop songs: Cybercrime has meant fewer young men are resorting to violent crime.

thenewyorktimes1829 karma

That's a really important question and we spent a lot of time on it. We did not want this to just be a story about how YouTube spread opinions or views that happened to jump out to us, and we wanted to set an extremely high bar for calling something extremism or a conspiracy. After all, one of the great virtues of social media is that it opens space for political discussion and for questioning the official story.

For this story, we only wanted to focus on conspiracy videos whose claims were manifestly false and demonstrably caused real-world harm. Unfortunately, so many videos met this criteria that we never had to worry about the many, many borderline cases. Everyone is familiar with anti-vaccine conspiracy videos, for example — absolutely rampant on YouTube in Brazil, and often served up by YouTube's algorithm to users who so much as searched for basic health terms. And there were many others like this. Videos claiming that diseases like Zika were manufactured by George Soros as an excuse to impose mandatory abortions on Brazil, and therefore parents should ignore medical advice about the disease. Videos that told parents to ignore their doctors' advice on how to safely feed a developmentally disabled child, and to instead use "home remedy" methods that would put the child at potentially fatal risk. And so on.

Doctors, health experts, and former government officials told us that these videos were creating multiple public health crises. And I know it might be easy for internet-savvy folks on here to blame the people who were misled by the videos for going to YouTube for information, but remember that parts of Brazil are quite poor and that YouTube and Google are two of the biggest and most respected American tech companies in the world. YouTube doesn't come with a big disclaimer telling users that the content on the site could threaten your child's life. Some of the conspiracy videos are faked to look like news broadcasts or like doctors giving medical advice.

As for extremism, we did not want to be in the business of deciding which views count as mainstream and which count as extremist. (Though many of the folks we wrote about in Brazil are not at all shy about identifying themselves as well outside the mainstream. So we approached this as a relative, rather than an absolute — is your content becoming consistently more extreme? In other words, if you start on YouTube by watching someone who says that taxes are a little too high and that gay people have too many protections, but then the algorithm consistently pushes you toward videos that call for a military takeover and accuse teachers of secretly indoctrinating children into homosexuality, then we would conclude that your YouTube experience has become more extreme. We documented this consistently enough that we felt comfortable saying that YouTube was pushing users toward extremism. And we asked a lot of Brazilian users themselves whether they considered this characterization fair, and they did.

thenewyorktimes1371 karma

Sure. What happened? I have heard from many couriers that they get put in "timeout" for half an hour or an hour if they decline too many orders, but what was the deactivation about?

thenewyorktimes1116 karma

That's exactly right. The good news is that the inputs and outputs all happen in public view, so it's pretty easy to gather enormous amounts of data on them. That allows you to make inferences about how the black box is operating but, just as important, it lets you see clearly what the black box is doing rather than just how or why it's doing it. The way that the Harvard researchers ran this was really impressive and kind of cool to see. More details in our story and in their past published work that used similar methodology. I believe they have a lot more coming soon that will go even further into how they did it.

thenewyorktimes1034 karma

I really like this question. I would hope that the everyone in law enforcement has an understanding of the broader impact that high profile cases have on public confidence -- not because I think that public opinion should shape our law enforcement outcomes (then real life would be like some Twitter hellscape...) but because that awareness could encourage law enforcement to provide more transparency in decision making.

That said, it's hard for law enforcement to acknowledge when they are aware of optics, as they're supposed to be neutral arbiters of the law. So there's strong incentive for them to not acknowledge that awareness.