Outrage was hot last week following the release of “Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube,” a report by Rebecca Lewis, of the think tank Data & Society.
Critics accused her of casting an overly wide net. A key piece of Lewis’s thesis was that many of YouTube’s leading white nationalists are only one degree removed from mainstream conservatives, making far-right “radicalization” a quick cycle of clicks. On page 11, Lewis posited Ben Shapiro and Richard Spencer as a good case study of her conclusion, noting that both have created videos with the vlogger Laura Chen, a.k.a. Roaming Millennial. Chen interviewed Spencer and was interviewed by Shapiro.
Needless to say, Shapiro was less than thrilled with this particular line of logic, tweeting:
So now we've got Vox Voxxing the "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" study that connects me with Richard Spencer. Well done, as always, guys. pic.twitter.com/0syyatqsUC
— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) September 20, 2018
By the same metric, one could call Don Lemon the gateway to Sean Hannity because both have interviewed Lindsey Graham. The world of political commentators is relatively small, and important journalistic distinctions separate shared use of venues from mutual endorsement. In a sense, all political personalities “lead to” one another in that politics is simply a diverse realm of social discourse.
Yet Lewis’s report is worth reading just the same, because it helps us understand a growing subculture of rightist media that conservatives simply cannot ignore. While each individual channel may not bear collective guilt for the deeds of all others, they are indisputably of collective consequence.
I’ve been running a minor YouTube channel, J. J. McCullough, for three years, focused mostly on historical and geographic minutiae, with occasional light political content thrown in. As my channel has grown, I’ve often been recognized in public by young men for whom YouTube is the dominant media diet. It’s been an interesting learning experience.
Overwhelmingly, they fit a “type.” They are usually younger than 30, white, and college-educated. They’re intelligent and literate in current events, if a bit nerdy and awkward. When I ask them what other channels they like to watch, they inevitably cite personalities from the milder end of Lewis’s study: Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, and David Rubin. Perhaps Paul Joseph Watson and Stefan Molyneux once in a while, too, but — they will be quick to caution — just because they’re “entertaining.” What they say they crave is a bashing of the radical Left, particularly what their generation calls “the SJWs” — the social-justice warriors.
There is no scenario in which these young men do not one day become an influential force in right-of-center politics, as either voters, consumers, or perhaps even media personalities or politicians themselves. They are educated, informed, and curious, and an aversion to “SJW” leftism is the defining aspect of their ideological identity.
Lewis’s report does a good job identifying the degree to which the ideological foundations of the YouTube Right (or, as she calls it, the Alternative Influence Network, or “AIN”) are quite different from those of mainstream American conservative thought as represented by, say, the Republican party or National Review. The AIN, she writes, is essentially “reactionary” because it’s defined by “opposition to visions of social progress,” especially those embodied by “Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ movement, Muslims, and immigrants.”
AIN personalities tend to package their philosophy and policy alongside reactionary or attention-getting content, building brands that include rants, mini documentaries, and long-form interviews that can last hours. Their millions of followers tend to see them as trustworthy, authentic, and accountable — three qualities Lewis identifies as the foundations of a successful channel. Such channels also typically evince a tone of edginess — even danger. Iconoclasm is the norm. Lewis calls it a paradoxical mix of “hyper-traditional ideals with the rebellious positioning of past countercultural movements.”
This serves as an important reminder of how increasingly common it is for young people to embrace anti-Left politics out of a desire to rebel. The success of the AIN is but one symptom of a larger evolution of the conservative disposition away from Burkean instincts of caution and respect in favor of juvenile defiance and distrustfulness.
If the sin of the old conservatism was complacency, the danger of this new rebellious disposition is its propensity to “purity spiral” — to crave ever more extreme content. If edginess is the goal, then what could possibly be edgier than talking about biological differences between the races, or spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, or demanding a white ethno-state? It is in this sense that mild channels can whet appetites for the extreme.
Lewis is too quick to dismiss the roots from which this destructive mindset of bigotry and paranoia originates. As a progressive, she will not concede that some of the AIN’s extremist impulses (and ensuing popularity) may originate from valid disgust with the censorious, smothering, overreaching nature of the modern American Left. It is not equivocation to note that the far left and the far right are locked in a symbiotic reactionary relationship, to the point where it’s hard to imagine weakening one without sapping the other.
I would also posit, based on my own experience, that YouTube viewers who daisy-chain from one political channel to another, the supposed Shapiro-to-Spencer pipeline, can often wind up reaching the anti-climactic conclusion that the political world is simply a crowded space full of a lot of overconfident people making all sorts of contradictory assertions about society. Many viewers will respond not by uncritically swallowing the wildest arguments they hear; they will simply become more critical of political argument in general. I’ve seen this embodied by the rise of “skeptic” YouTube, or what Jon Kay dubs as the growing ranks of “radical centrists” — that is, channels defined by their suspicion of easy answers and revolutionary rhetoric. Such voices are far more classically conservative in disposition than what the AIN offers.
YouTube presents enormous possibilities for conservatives, but the key is learning to separate the talent from the chaff, and the defensibly motivated from the merchants of chaos.
Step One is paying attention.