Country/area: United States

Organisation: Insider Inc.

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 14 Dec 2020

Credit: Madison Hall, Kat Tenbarge

Project description:

This project combined data analysis and reporting to answer a fundamental question about new platforms, the consequences of misbehavior, and the behaviors they facilitate and even reward. YouTube is one of the most popular and widely-viewed platforms in the world, and the people who build channels and careers on it weild significant influence on and off the platform. Powerful people who engage in sexual misconduct, unfaithful business dealings, and controversial and erratic behavior typically face consequences in their careers — but in this investigation, Insider discovered that the rules don’t apply on YouTube.

Impact reached:

This project brought to light an imbalance that exists in online fame: after a certain audience threshold, it becomes impossible for someone on the YouTube platform to actually suffer consequences based on their actions, and that the historical guardrails of fame and infamy no longer apply to YouTube’s most powerful users. Indeed, to the contrary: people became more famous, more viewed, more followed and more notorious after controversies that would have, in any other medium or any other field, led to considerable social consequences.

Insider found that controversial and instigating content led, on balance, to long-term increases in subscribers and views, and to audience growth. Insider found that rather than causing people to lose credibility, inappropriate behavior among YouTube’s most famous users led to considerably more attention and eyeballs on the people who did them, and even a momentary lapse in followers following a controversial moment was reliably quickly filled back by more and more fans. 

Techniques/technologies used:

Insider combined on-the-ground reporting and synthesis of years of issues and controversies that followed YouTube influencers and backed them up with day-by-day data points of their subscriber base and views. These were presented in an interactive, clearly-labeled format that made these situations clear to both digital native readers familiar with the people involved as well as people wholly unfamiliar with the internecine fights of YouTube’s elite and the metrics they use to define acclaim. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

The most difficult part of this project was the assiduous reporting, reconstructing years of controversy and difficulty and assembling a cohesive and clear timeline to align to the material changes in the fortune of the readers. Data journalism is not merely data, but is indeed journalism, and the process by which subject-matter experts were consulted to build a working timeline of fame and what people do with it was the subject of considerable effort and research.

What can others learn from this project?

We hope journalists come away with a refreshed understanding that infamy is not too far from notoriety, and that the very techniques that high-profile internet celebrities use to stoke controversies are the very same techniques they use to expand the purview of their own influence. Covering people accurately when the individual benefits directly from negative attention is a challenge from the meekest influencer to the highest office in the United States, and what Insider sought to demonstrate was the power that even unflattering coverage can have if the individual it entails is comfortable capitalising on it. In particular, Insider hopes that coverage of misconduct and unscrupulous business dealings are handled with the serious focus they deserve, as failing to do so we found directly empowers the very people who did those things and incentivizes further behavior. Lastly, we hope that platforms and the algorithms they create attract further attention, as a key reason that controversial behavior leads to increases in influence is because the behavior is rewarded financially. 

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