Firearms on YouTube: Exploring American Information Ecosystems

A pioneering study by researchers from the Brown University School of Public Health and Harmony Labs examines firearm-related information on YouTube

Guns currently outnumber people in the United States: 393 million to 333 million, respectively.  We have more civilian-held guns than any other country (more than the next top 25 countries combined) and the highest rate of firearm-related deaths in the developed world. In this surreal national moment, guns are the number one cause of death for American children.

Dr. Megan Ranney, deputy dean at the Brown School of Public Health and professor of emergency medicine at the University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, approaches firearm-related injury as a matter of public health instead of politics. “When we take a public health approach,” she said in a 2019 TEDx talk, “when we approach gun violence as an epidemic, we can create real solutions. We can create the potential to move beyond the old gun control vs. gun rights debate and toward a new narrative of prevention.”

Ranney points to the potency of a public health approach in the face of what seems like intractable social ills. Deaths via automotive accidents, for instance, were reduced by over 70% since the late 1960s thanks to public health measures such as the introduction of three-point seatbelts, child car seats, airbags, and education about drunk driving. HIV/AIDS infections peaked in the 1980s but have since decreased by almost 90% as a result of public health education on safer sex, viral transmission, and the social stigma that once surrounded the disease.

Ranney and a team of researchers from the Brown School of Public Health, in partnership with the media analysis nonprofit Harmony Labs, are exploring ways to introduce evidence-based public health messaging into the mix of information surrounding firearms. Their first task: collect data on firearm-related narratives that circulate in American culture and that contribute to shaping our norms and beliefs about firearm injury and prevention.

In their recently published paper in the journal Preventive Medicine, “How Americans encounter guns: Mixed methods content analysis of YouTube and internet search data,” the team describes their pioneering study into the nature and prevalence of gun-related content on YouTube. They focused on YouTube because its users reflect a broad swath of the American demographic; it is the most commonly used social media network in the US, with 81% of American adults, 95% of 18- to 29-year-olds, and 80% of American children self-reporting use of the site.  

Working with a Nielsen database, the researchers examined the browsing behavior of 72,205 consenting, compensated American adults. They identified the gun-related searches participants submitted to Google, Yahoo, and Bing, as well as the gun-related videos watched on YouTube between January 2020 and September 2021.

They found that, on an average day, 0.5% of panelists performed a gun-related internet search while 7% of people in the panel, or roughly 3.5% of all American adults, consumed some content relevant to firearms while watching YouTube.

The vast majority of internet searches by participants centered on mass and police-involved shootings, while the more common types of gun-related injury—suicide, intimate partner violence, unintentional injury—were largely ignored. This means that people are not looking for or encountering information about how to keep themselves safe from guns in these situations. And that’s a problem. But researchers also spot an opportunity in this data for tailoring public health messaging to specific ecosystems. 

Firearm-Related Information Ecosystems on YouTube

Ranney’s research team identified seven “ecosystems” on YouTube, which they define as “naturally occurring patterns of viewing by the same users.” They are: Hunting & Fishing, Gaming, Movies, Guns & Gear, Guns 4 Fun, Music, and News & Hot Takes.

Advocates for Firearm Use

Hunting & Fishing and Guns & Gear both advocate for firearm ownership. But whereas Hunting & Fishing treats firearms as “a hobby and a pedagogy” and shows videos about “shooting for sport or shooting animals,” the videos from Guns & Gear are focused on self-defense and are “explicitly about shooting (lethally or non-lethally) other people.” Consumers of these two ecosystems were more often White Non-Hispanic and older than the average YouTube user.

Social & Gameplay

Gaming and Guns 4 Fun are both oriented in play. Gaming applies specifically to video games and is highly social. It emphasizes firearms as a way to “connect with others through shared enjoyment” and features “discussions of technical specifications of firearms.” Guns 4 Fun “relates to mock guns” such as “Nerf games simulating Fortnight gaming battles.” Although the creators of these videos “celebrate their weaponry” they also clearly understand that the weapons are toys. Consumers of these two ecosystems were typically less than 30 years old. 

Guns in Pop Culture

The Movies and Music ecosystems are situated in mass entertainment. The bulk of content in Movies comes from film clips reflecting “mainstream imagination and big-screen narratives.” While the Music ecosystem generally treats guns and gun-related imagery as metaphors it also “centers on real gun violence either from the perspective” of the victim or perpetrator of the violence.

Headlines and Opinions

News & Hot Takes is occupied with current events and oscillates between “recent reports of national shootings on local news to angry political rants for and against gun control.” The tone of this ecosystem is “one of danger paired with combative arguments between partisan extremists.”

The researchers note that, with the exception of the Music ecosystem, “consumers of all ‘gun’ ecosystems were disproportionately male compared with the average YouTube user.”

“Our findings highlight the dynamic and pervasive nature of online social network discussions of and narratives about firearms,” the authors write. “It also demonstrates gaps in, and the potential value of engaging the social media universe as part of efforts to improve on, Americans’ knowledge about and prevention of firearm harm.”

What’s Next

Megan Ranney and Claire Wardle, co-director of the Information Futures Lab and professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice at Brown, are currently leading the next phase of this study. It involves designing and evaluating the effectiveness of different firearm safety video interventions, which are being created with and delivered by trusted YouTube messengers. Recent research has shown how video-based interventions on the platform can positively affect health outcomes and behavior.

Given the pervasiveness of YouTube, its ability to shape narratives and its popularity among gun owners and enthusiasts, firearm safety interventions delivered here could significantly reduce firearm-related injury and death. For Ranney’s team, this may be the best opportunity to make an impact at the national level. “Finding the right way to get the message across to potential firearm users is of paramount importance,” Ranney said. “It won’t be a quick solution to this problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.”