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Youtube comments currently look like this:

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When you upvote a comment, the "thumbs up" symbol becomes blue for you and one point gets added to the score immediately, making it look like this:

enter image description here

When you downvote a comment, the "thumbs down" symbol also becomes blue for you. However, nothing is subtracted from the comment score. Nor does YouTube display the downvotes separately. Instead, it looks like this:

enter image description here

What does YouTube actually do with the downvotes?

I'm assuming it's something considering they have a downvote button at all. (As opposed to the "up only" approach of SE comments, for example, which would be the logical choice if downvotes didn't do anything anyway.)

Does it have anything to do with which comments get displayed and which don't? Is it some sort of under-the-hood stuff that most users won't understand?

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Like so much that Google does, only Google can answer. I can find no official pronouncement of what it is for, but there's a lot of people complaining about it.

One conjecture suggests that Google uses it as a signal so it knows what comments to automatically filter. Quoting from the Official YouTube blog:

First off, we’ve improved the ranking system that reduces the visibility of junk comments. It’s working—the rate of dislikes on comments has dropped by more than 35 percent across YouTube.

This makes sense to me. For one thing, nobody likes to see their stuff downvoted. (Witness all of the tempests in a teacup that pop up constantly all over Stack Exchange.) I also think the "thumbs down" is a slightly different signal than "thumbs up". If one person votes up and one person votes down on a comment, meh. But if 50 people vote up and 35 people vote down, that would indicate to me that there may be something significantly wrong with the comment. I think people are inclined to vote up something that they agree with or they find mildly amusing, but probably won't go for the vote down unless it really "bothers" them. (I think this is especially true of a vote down doesn't affect the "score".)

Of course, without an official pronouncement from Google, all you're going to get is speculation.

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I suspect they do impact visibility. I noticed that when I comment with a minority opinion, my comment gets less or possibly no views. Considering the general sentiment in the particular comment section I expect my comment to be downvoted a lot. It then just seems to disappear, although I can still see it.

First off, we’ve improved the ranking system that reduces the visibility of junk comments.

It looks like if enough people disagree with you, your comment will be considered a "junk comment". Here on the stackexchange network it works much like that also but at least it is transparent (everyone can see the ranking) and with technical matters, often wrong is just wrong. With political matters it is not so great when some voices are amplified and others are stifled by a random company with some business case.

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Looks like I found this thread late, but my comments seem to get buried by YouTube. I can scroll through hundreds of comments, all with at least one upvote. And then there are my comments with nothing. I think their algorithm buries comments from accounts that get too many downvotes. In my case, it's probably members of an opposing political party getting offended by the comments I post.

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  • This is what I am noticing. Either downvotes have an impact on the visibility to others or a filter is used to hide comments based on certain "controversial" words. The worrying thing is, its not just "bad" words. I comment a lot. It's only since I have been commenting on the political stance of the US and Europe on the war in Gaza that I noticed my comments get no response. I expect downvotes in a "hostile environment" but getting nothing (upvotes or responses) in a very active and vibrant comment section indicates comments are just silently redirected to null or something. Oct 20, 2023 at 10:26
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I recognise that they effect the score own comments. What's happening is the internal number changes but the user who down votes can't see the effect. I have observed this with my own YouTube account when my posts get a few up votes and then zero displayed. Turn on comment notifications and you can see the effect. The comments are broken in a lot of ways

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