By Amanda Fuchs
Ask any high school student today what a VHS tape is and they may not have the answer. Gone are the days of walkmans, cassette tapes, and TVs with only six channels. As young adults in 2017, we have been exposed to eleven generations of iPhones, the development of virtual reality technology, and the rapid growth of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Although comparatively, YouTube may seem like a less impressive development, its humble beginnings in 2005 gave way to an entirely new world of media — one that Russia took advantage of throughout the 2016 Presidential Election.
In attempting to understand how and why teenagers consume media differently, I turned to some of my friends and peers at Beacon to get their take on the matter. As a high school student, I constantly debate doing work or allowing Netflix to seamlessly begin a new episode of “The Office” — unsurprisingly, I am not alone here.
“I tend to watch Netflix for long durations of time instead of doing more productive activities, [like] homework for instance,” remarked Lauren Hay, a junior at Beacon. “As we are exposed to more forms of technology, we become more and more intrigued by what it offers.” This can diminish the appeal of seemingly more mundane activities like reading a book or writing an essay, and not just for high school students.
When asking my 13-year-old sister, an 8th grade student, how YouTube and other platforms affect her concentration on other activities, her answer was a no-brainer: “I will spend hours watching video after video instead of doing what I have to do,” she confided. Her story, like Lauren’s, exemplifies how easy a distraction media can become.
The effects of this phenomenon are visible on a greater scale. According to The New York Times, YouTube is “the world’s most-visited video site,” so it was unsurprising that RT, a government-controlled Russian news channel, began using the service a few years back. The New York Times reports that in 2013, “RT became the first news organization to surpass one billion views on YouTube.” On the surface, the channel seemed incapable of threatening U.S. interests; the content posted was simply news, available for anyone who chose to watch. Underneath this, however, was something much darker — an attempt to swing the 2016 Presidential Election in favor of Donald Trump. As November 8th, 2016 grew closer, RT featured numerous stories that negatively portrayed Hillary Clinton – listed by The New York Times to include “claims of corruption…ties to Islamic extremism, frequent coverage of emails stolen by Russian operatives…and accusations that she was in poor physical and mental health.” As of today, RT has 2,229,262 subscribers. That’s a lot of influence!
It seems obvious that something needs to be done to prevent this, but what? Of course, YouTube videos need to follow the YouTube Community Guidelines, enforcing censorship against “nudity, copyright violations and promoting violence against a group based on race or religion.” Yet this doesn’t cover the removal of propaganda, despite the incredible ramifications it may have. Chris Dale, a spokesperson for YouTube, says that the company strives to carry “a wide variety of news channels” and represent “an array of viewpoints across the political spectrum.” This may be important, but at what point does enabling the publication of polarizing and polarized material go too far?
Ultimately, YouTube is an incredible tool, one that brings people together, starts movements, and spurs global change. However, nothing is ever perfect, and YouTube is no exception. Through talking with Beacon students and others who, like me, feel changed by the accessibility of media, as well as looking at YouTube’s ties to Russia, it seems as though the media giant may be inciting more bad than good. Although we may never know exactly how much weight RT’s videos had in our election, it is important to look at this event as a cautionary tale, so that we can prevent something like this from occurring again.