YouTube is increasingly important for American politics. Long dominated by extremists, the demand for political media on YouTube means that there are now “channels” run by people from every point on the ideological spectrum. Increasingly cheap and simple technologies have lowered the barriers to entry, and direct payments from YouTube for popular channels has incentivized some to make careers as political YouTubers, and the 2016 election was a catalyst for many. I have identified 1,433 channels that primarily discuss American politics. My first goal is simply to characterize this population: How many videos will they produce in 2020, what topics are most prominent, what are their ideological leanings, and how popular are they? The primary research question aims to understand how these people decide what kind of media to produce: Are they mostly ideologues, hoping to promote an agenda, or are they profit maximizers who shift their messages to better accommodate their audiences? By examining the full transcript of the videos and all of the comments by viewers, I will test whether demand is driving supply: does the content of the comments left on a channel’s earlier videos predict the content of that channel’s future videos? If extremist content is mostly supplied by ideologues, the implied policy solution for YouTube extremism is to demote, suspend, or ban individuals who espouse extremist views. If that content instead comes from profit maximizers, the solution is to demonetize individual videos that espouse extremist views, eliminating the incentive for anyone to produce those videos.
Assistant Professor, Penn State University