Concerned about having your privacy invaded? Concerned about being profiled by companies such as Google? Don’t want algorithms to analyse your preferences, assign a label to you, then treat you differently based on corporate agendas? If you watch YouTube, here’s one more thing you can do.
It all started when I built a new Linux system a while back. Apart from a new video card, the hardware was the same, but the operating system was new, all of the applications were new, and I hadn’t even had a chance to transfer any data yet. A pristine copy of Mozilla Firefox (with no add-ons) was installed so I was using that to hunt down some video drivers.
Now, as a long-time user of Adblock Plus (ABP) you get used to experiencing a relatively ad-free version of the World Wide Web. You don’t get to see how truly horrendous it has become — because of all of the advertising — until you switch to a new browser without an ad-blocking add-on/plug-in/extension. Oh my!
Then some creepy stuff started to happen. Advertising started appearing on some of the sites I visited suggesting products that I had recently purchased. The products in question (some Noctua CPU coolers and case fans) are pretty obscure — not mainstream at all. Yet there they were, down to the exact model number. It didn’t stop at products, though. YouTube videos started being recommended to me on channels that I was subscribed to.
Keep in mind that this was a brand new system with a pristine browser. I had not yet signed into Google/YouTube (or any other website for that matter). The advertising was too specific, too targeted, for it to be random coincidence.
Ok, well, we know that Google is evil and uses a lot of different ways to track you (with browser fingerprinting being especially devious and probably what they used in this case), so I installed ABP and made all those annoying ads go away again. Out of sight, out of mind, right?
Roll on a few months and I recently noticed that the suggestions on YouTube changed over the course of a single week. I’d been researching an “issue” lately (won’t say which one) and had been watching lots of videos related to it. The issue is historic (i.e. dated) so no new videos regarding it were being made — pretty much everything was over two years old. When I started researching it I was presented with a pile of relevant-sounding suggestions. As I watched the videos, and clicked the usual ‘like/dislike’ buttons, the suggestions changed.
Now, you might think that this is predictable, and that maybe Google/YouTube was ‘refining’ the results to show more videos that I would be interested in, but in this case the opposite was true. The videos with the information I was actually after were dropping out of the suggestions list. The more I ‘liked’ the videos that interested me, the fewer of them appeared in the suggestions list.
If I had watched them slowly, over time, I probably wouldn’t have noticed the change in suggestions, but I was doing this quickly, over a short period of time (kind of like binge-watching entire seasons of a particular show), and it was blatantly obvious.
Suspecting that I may be researching a topic that Google/YouTube had decided to censor, I used my search history to backtrack over the videos I had watched, unchecked the ‘like’ buttons for all (~20) of them, blew my cookies and browsing history away, rebooted, and then pursued the same line of research again using the same search terms (and started watching the videos in the same order). Bang! The original suggestions came back.
More importantly: I let the videos play all the way through (in a background tab, muted) did not click the ‘like’ button for them, and the suggested videos did not change significantly. Relevant videos were still being suggested at the end of the batch.
- ‘liking’ YouTube videos has an impact on what future videos will be suggested
- if Google/YouTube is censoring a particular issue…
- …and you ‘like‘ a video that disagrees with their position on that issue…
- then you’ll see fewer relevant videos in the suggestions list
- if you neither ‘like’ nor ‘dislike’ a video, it seems to make no difference to what videos will be suggested
- merely watching a video doesn’t seem to change the suggestions list
(Note: I did not test to see if ‘disliking’ videos affects suggestions, so I don’t know if the opposite of the above is true.)
As far as I am concerned, my experience (and test) clearly supports the hypothesis that Google/YouTube is actively censoring certain points of views on certain issues based on users clicking the ‘like’ button in YouTube.
As I want to have access to all sides of all issues, and not have a small number of people within Google manipulate what I think, I tried to come up with a way to stop Google from profiling me and then using that profile to censor what I see.
Unfortunately, I clear my browser history every-so-often, so it’s not possible for me to go back to the date I created my Google/YouTube account and delete all of my ‘likes’. Even if I had my entire history, it wouldn’t be practical to do so. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to mass-clear ‘likes’ within YouTube, either.
One option would be to delete my YouTube account and create a new one. Given that Google can track me across a brand new system install, I’m not sure how well this would actually work.
The final option is to simply accept the damage done so far, and prevent further damage from occurring. This is the route I chose. I decided to simply stop clicking the ‘like’ button.
After a few days, and having failed to control myself adequately (it’s so.. damned.. hard.. to resist.. clicking… — a real testament to how well we have been conditioned), I decided to try again and solve the problem a different way. If I couldn’t consciously stop myself from clicking the ‘like’ button, then I’d use my ad-blocker to hide the buttons themselves. If the buttons aren’t there, then regardless of what I think or want I simply can’t click on them!
So, about three minutes later, I had ABP blocking all of the ‘like/dislike’ buttons on YouTube and I haven’t been able to click anything since.
- Google/YouTube aren’t getting any more ‘likes’ from me
- that will make it harder for them to profile me
- that should mean I appear ‘neutral’ on issues Google/YouTube is censoring
- that should mean I get to see more/all of the content
- that should make it harder for Google/YouTube to manipulate what I am thinking
It’s a bit strange to not have those buttons there any more, but I’ll get used to it.
Since YouTube changed the payment formula a couple of years ago — to greatly diminish the value of ‘likes’ and make it virtually entirely dependant on ‘minutes watched’ — I’m glad this solution doesn’t meaningfully penalise content creators. In fact, now that I’m likely to watch more videos, creators (that are being censored) might actually get more income. (Maybe. Assuming their videos haven’t been demonetised already.)
Summary: If you want to make it harder for Google to profile you and manipulate how you think, and don’t have the willpower to avoid clicking ‘like’ buttons, then use an ad-blocker to get rid of the ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ buttons on YouTube.