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When we met in early March, Jonathan Albright was still shrugging off a sleepless weekend. It was a few weeks after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had killed 17 people, most of them teenagers, and promptly turned the internet into a cesspool of finger pointing and conspiracy slinging. Within days, ultraconservative YouTube stars like Alex Jones had rallied their supporters behind the bogus claim that the students who survived and took to the press to call for gun control were merely actors. Within a week, one of these videos had topped YouTube’s Trending section.
Albright, the research director for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, probes the way information moves through the web. He was amazed by the speed with which the conspiracies had advanced from tiny corners of the web to YouTube’s front page. How could this happen so quickly? he wondered.
When the country was hungry for answers about how people had been manipulated online, Jonathan Albright had plenty of information to feed them. With the midterm elections on the horizon, he’s working to preempt the next great catastrophe.
So that weekend, sitting alone in his studio apartment at the northern tip of Manhattan, Albright pulled an all-nighter, following YouTube recommendations down a dark vortex that led from one conspiracy theory video to another until he’d collected data on roughly 9,000 videos. On Sunday, he wrote about his findings on Medium. By Monday, his investigation was