YouTube recommendations are out of control, Mozilla says

Users do not feel like they have control over YouTube’s recommendations, and they are right, according to new research by Mozilla.

Hitting a “dislike” or “not interested” button will not necessarily prevent YouTube’s algorithm from recommending users unwelcome content like misinformation or violent videos. In fact, its user control tools fail most of the time, Mozilla’s research reveals.

Mozilla said that Youtube’s control tools had a “negligible” impact on preventing unwanted recommendations. Only less than half were prevented in cases when users turned to YouTube to root out unwelcome content.

“YouTube continues to recommend videos that people have clearly signaled they do not want to see, including war footage and gruesome horror clips,” Jesse McCrosky, data scientist at Mozilla, said in a statement.

He said that users were “at the mercy” of YouTube’s recommender algorithm. Many suspected that to be the case all along, according to an accompanying survey Mozilla has published as part of the research findings.

A total of 62.3% of survey respondents said they felt that YouTube control tools did nothing to change their recommendations or had mixed results.

“We learned that people don’t feel YouTube’s user controls are effective tools for managing the content they see. Our research validates these experiences,” Becca Ricks, senior researcher at Mozilla, said.

The findings say it is “especially troubling” that YouTube is pushing content violating its own community guidelines on misinformation, violence, hate speech, and spam.

Anecdotal instances mentioned in the research include one user asking YouTube to stop recommending war footage from Ukraine – just to be offered even more gruesome content shortly afterward.

Examples of video pairs that YouTube recommended despite user controls. Image by Mozilla.

Mozilla, a non-profit behind the Firefox browser, says it is entirely up to YouTube to fix the problem. It says YouTube, the second most visited website in the world, should “put people back into the driver’s seat” and allow users to shape their experience on the platform.

The research involved data from more than 20,000 participants who used Mozilla’s RegretsBrowser extension. Just over 2,700 of them participated in the accompanying survey. The study also included data from more than 500 million YouTube videos.