How does YouTube mediate current events? An analysis of YouTube comment sections in the context of conflict

Group members: Bastian August, Deena Loman, Sophie Pattynama, Brogan Latil, Chenxuan Zhang

1. Introduction

While YouTube is primarily understood for its entertainment purposes, its political power is increasingly acknowledged (Housseinmardi et al. 2021). The comment section is one example through which YouTube reflects this political power as information undergoes interpretation and negotiation, where truth and knowledge are constantly in flux (Uba & Jansson 2020, 252). Rather than focusing on truth construction, or the fashionable consideration of ‘post-truth’, this paper aims to study the mediatory characteristics of YouTube comment sections agnostically - not as sites of truth vs. non-truth, but as sites of user participation (Jenkins 2007). By delineating specific cases of comment sections, the study builds on a corpus of literature that has previously acknowledged YouTube as a space of participatory culture (Chau 2010; Traynor et al. 2020; Trott 2022). Therefore, this report’s primary focus is to examine how YouTube comment sections reveal qualities of commenter participation, specifically surrounding instances of conflict.

To investigate the topography of comment sections, two cases are used: the Russia-Ukraine War and the Chinese White Paper Protests. Firstly, on the 24th of February 2022, BBC News (2022a) reported that “Russia initiated a large-scale military attack on Ukraine [...] on the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin”. This was justified by the Russian president Vladimir Putin as a military operation, and argued that the invasion was a movement of self-defense (BBC, 2022a). To frame this ‘operation’, Putin put the emphasis on ‘de-Nazifying’ Ukraine. Several months later, further international outrage was triggered by the explosions of the Nord Stream-2 pipeline which supplies energy between Russia and Europe (Oltermann, Beaumont and Sabbagh, 2022). Whether this was sabotage or an accident is continuously debated, which is exemplified in comment sections on YouTube. Secondly, the White Paper Protests were initially triggered by a residential apartment fire in Urumqi, China, killing a disputed number of Uyghur citizens (BBC, 2022b). Citizens argued that the Zero-Covid restrictions prevented emergency forces from reaching the scene of the fire (BBC, 2022b). Thus, the white papers used in the ensuing protests symbolize the resentment regarding the Zero-Covid regulations and the censorship by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (Wong and Williams, 2022).

These two distinct case studies lead this paper to a deeper analysis of the narratives and user practices that are derived in these comment sections. Therefore, the research questions in this paper ask:

RQ 1 - As sites of participatory culture, what do commenting sections on YouTube look like in cases of conflict or contentious subject matter?

RQ 2 - What classes of participation make up these spaces?

The two distinct case studies allow for a deeper understanding surrounding YouTube ’s role in mediating current events. In this paper, the narratives and user practices present in the comment sections of the selected YouTube videos are collected and analyzed. By doing so, it will be studied how these conflict-centric videos call forth modes of participation. This research is socially relevant by emphasizing the power that platforms have in distributing and reinterpreting information and knowledge (Arthurs et al. 2017). Furthermore, YouTube specifically has an increasing ability to encourage participation and interaction between users. For instance, Ha and colleagues (2022) state that comments containing conspiracy theories on YouTube get more interactions (likes, replies, etc.) which then are pushed to the top of a comment section due to YouTube ’s algorithms.

In this study, Stuart Hall’s (1973) ‘encoding and decoding’ framework (Figure 1) is applied to the communicative processes evident in the YouTube comment section. In alignment with this framework, a video can be seen as a message encoded into media by its creators. Hall refers to the initial encoding of a message into media as ‘message I’. The decoding of that message by perceivers leads to another interpretation of it, which can be described as ‘message II’. In our case, this is happening in the comment section under the video which creates a cycle of new messages getting produced (encoded) and then interpreted (decoded) by the responders. In other words, the messages are refurbished through commenting practices. The degree of difference between ‘messages I’ and ‘II’ depends on the perceiver’s interpretation and understanding of the initial message. Further, reactions to the messages are agreement, negotiation, and opposition, which then shape the communication processes that ensue. The ‘meaning-structures’ of the sending and receiving persons try to make sense of the messages. This is constructed through experiences, knowledge, social institutions, and the technical structures that shape the user’s process of interpretation (Hall 1973). This process of encoding/decoding can lead to different narratives arising in the comment sections of videos on YouTube, and these comments can then lead to new narratives arising from their reply threads. In this study, we situate this process in the sphere of participatory culture, as defined by Henry Jenkins (2007).

Figure 1: Model 'Encoding and Decoding' (Hall 1973, p. 4)

2. Methodology

2.1 Data Collection

Our two cases - the Russia-Ukraine War and White Paper Protests - were selected due to their recent or ongoing presence in the news as well as their controversial qualities. To study comment sections, eight total videos were chosen based on substantial view counts, subscriber counts, and the size of their comment sections relative to related videos. As the focus of the report concerns comment ecosystems, it was necessary to choose videos with lively comment sections - however, this criteria does not include a plurality of perspectives, geolocations, and languages.

This methodology was constructed to examine how comment sections reveal participatory topographies based on the inference that a high view and comment count provides a substantive, multi-dimensional object of study. As such, the video selection includes choosing two events per case. Additionally, each event would include (1) a video from a traditional news outlet and (2) a non-traditional media outlet, meaning a vlogger, amateur, or individual’s channel. Furthermore, to examine whether the channel has a footprint outside of YouTube, or if it is exclusively YouTube based, a deeper assessment of the channel from which the video was selected was employed. Based on the preliminary research, it was discovered that there was scarcity concerning non-traditional videos regarding the White Paper Protests. A reason for this scarcity may be due to the unavailability of footage, and also the ongoing censorship of YouTube by the CCP (Wong & Williams, 2022). This asymmetry between Russia-Ukraine and White Paper Protests related content, and thus the scale of their datasets, is one limitation of our methodology. Based on this information, Figure 2 shows the data used for this research.