YouTube ruining Katie Bouman’s black hole triumph shows the platform’s worst excesses

Even when the story is objectively wholesome and pure, YouTube’s algorithm will find a way to ruin it. 

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The story behind the first picture of a black hole is one that’s hard not to love. A 29 year-old computer scientist named Katie Bouman developed an algorithm in 2016 that combined the data from multiple telescopes of a single black hole and stitched all of that data together, which then created the first ever image of the mysterious cosmic structure. After years of data collection, the image was finally unveiled earlier this month and pictures of an excited Bouman seeing the black hole for the first time went viral across social media. She’ll now be starting a post-doctorate at the prestigious scientific institution, Caltech, and has made a name for herself as one of the most influential women in science history.

 

Bouman’s success was the heart-warming story that BuzzFeed social videos are made for. But almost immediately, while we were all busy deciding whether or not to fight or fuck the black hole, the story about Bouman started to diverge from the wholesome, factual narrative. Rather than the story of her triumph, hard work, and historic scientific leap, YouTube's algorithm started pulling through a misogynistic, unverified video about Bouman as the top result of searches for her name. Beyond being a video full of baseless claims about the 29 year-old scientist, the video came from a relatively unknown account with few subscribers – beating out verified accounts like Mashable, TED, and the Washington Post. Beyond this video, the search results also began to pull through videos from right-wing commentator Jordan Peterson – arguing that the patriarchy and things such as the gender pay gap didn’t actually exist.

 

YouTube’s algorithm problem is nothing new. The same algorithm leads many users to get racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic content just by allowing the auto-play function to take them to suggested new videos, and the same algorithm marks content as “trending” when it’s not. YouTube's algorithm is infamous for bringing some of its most insidious content onto people's front pages and for keeping actually trending content from ever reaching it. The video about Katie Bouman was no different – clips claiming Bouman did "just 6% of the work” but got “100% of the credit” made it to many people's “popular videos” page and stayed the top of searches for “Katie Bouman” for hours. 

This video reportedly surfaced thanks to a Reddit conspiracy, in which several users bandied together clips to create the video that hit the top of the search results. This is an entirely common practice amongst alt-right groups on Reddit, who have done the same to get pro-Trump news trending, to discredit prominent women in various fields, and to push the philosophies of right-wing thinkers such as Peterson.

And while YouTube was a major part of the problem, YouTube wasn’t alone. Users on Hacker News – a “social” news website owned by renowned start-up incubator, Y Combinator, which aggregates news stories and allows people to comment on them – were sharing stories about Bouman and trying to pick them apart in order to prove that Bouman hadn’t actually done much work. The trolling got so bad that some of Bouman’s colleagues had to step in to reassure the public that, yes, she was due credit for the work.

In a statement on Twitter, YouTube argued in a series of tweets that the sexist video criticising Katie Bouman made it to the top of their search results by mistake and was taken down in a matter of minutes.

“Sometimes, when a search is performed, there are a lot of fresh results. Our algorithms will, in some instances (when the query is news related), trigger to surface more authoritative sources,” YouTube said. “In this specific case, within minutes, videos from news sources started rising to the top. These are all part of the changes we've made to our algorithm to combat misinformation.”

Despite this statement, though, multiple news sources claimed that they had performed the search since YouTube shared this statement and were still getting the video in question as the top result. But this wouldn’t be the first time that YouTube has claimed innocence while its algorithm simultaneously pushed the worst of YouTube’s content. And even with a story as wholesome, inspiring, and pure as Katie Bouman’s black hole image, the internet’s most notorious platforms will find a way to ruin it.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.