Late last month, Virginia legislators tried to expand abortion access with a long-shot bill—HB 2491—that would strike down two medically-unnecessary restrictions. But headlines didn’t stay focused on the facts for long: mainstream media outlets soon found themselves tasked instead with debunking claims that the legislation would legalize infanticide.
Following a blundered January 31 radio interview by Virginia governor Ralph Northam about the bill, a handful of YouTube stars helped shape the story into one about “baby murderers.” Those stars included Stefan Molyneux, who promotes topics like scientific racism to his near-million followers; Daily Wire editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro; and Patriot Nurse, who counsels her viewers on preparing for a potential apocalypse and who has attributed the spread of Ebola to Africans’ hygiene and culture.
Paranoid theories and deliberately misleading narratives have thrived on far-right message boards for years. But YouTube’s sprawling ecosystem of reactionary commentators has created a passageway between these dusty corners and the world at large. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, which is notorious for delivering increasingly extremist content to viewers, is the main driver in helping their ideas reach escape velocity. Following a damning BuzzFeed report last month about conspiracy videos, YouTube finally announced a marginal tweak to the algorithm that it says will prevent such patently false content from appearing in a viewer’s Up Next queue.
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But thanks to their already-high profiles and the fact that their videos carefully skim the edges of conspiracy, few of the reactionary stars are likely to be affected. Even if YouTube’s tweak temporarily placates critics, the flow of hateful—highly lucrative—videos is likely to continue. “It takes a YouTube influencer covering these ideas for them to go beyond those communities, to Fox News commentators or hosts,” Becca Lewis, a researcher at Data & Society, a nonprofit research institute, says.
Lewis calls the community the “alternative influence network.” In a 2018 report on its metastatic spread and deepening sway, she traced connections between commentators—guests on a YouTuber’s show, people appearing in live-streamed debates, hosts with pointedly different views—to map YouTube’s reactionary right. Her network includes Molyneaux and Shapiro, as well as self-described “classical liberals” like Carl Benjamin, whose philosophies center on rejecting progressivism; more traditional conservatives like Candace Owen and Steven Crowder; and aggressively “pro-Western” hosts like Brittany Pettibone and Lauren Southern, who were part of a 2017 effort to block migrant rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea.
Perhaps the most prominent example of their power came last summer, when news outlets including Vox and the Times scrambled to debunk a conspiracy theory that white South African farmers were being murdered by the hundreds in so-called hate crimes. The idea itself was not new: white supremacists across the world have been raising a false alarm about it for more than a decade, and the fear that black Africans will violently rise up against whites has been a far-right trope since shortly after World War II. What caught the mainstream media off-guard was the abrupt rise of the preposterous story.
In 2017, Stefan Molyneux aired an interview with Simon Roche, a leading proponent of the South African farmer hoax. In June the following year, Lauren Southern, a far-right Canadian “citizen journalist,” debuted a professional-looking documentary about the subject to her followers, of whom she had 680,000. In August, the conspiracy finally went mainstream and landed on Tucker Carlson Tonight. Within a day, President Trump tweeted about it. The people the story was meant to incite had been won over before fact-checkers could clear their throats to point out it was a terrified, age-old fiction.
YouTube is the No. 2 website in the world. Nearly three-quarters of American adults use it, as do 95 percent of those under 21. A third of the latter group use it specifically for news. On the flip side, just under a third of Americans trust the media, and young people in particular have a loose, amorphous definition of news that includes people who are not reporters.
As politics continues to polarize and tech companies refuse to accept responsibility for—or moderate—the content they host and profit from, YouTube commentators, to some viewers, have become just as reputable as journalists. To the stars’ most devoted followers, they are the only news that matters.
“Ordinary people get to have a voice, and they don’t have to work through the traditional professional media establishment, the credentials, to get a following,” Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor focused on political science at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, says. “Influencers create their own platforms to speak their truth, whatever that truth is, to their followers.”
The reactionary influencer network that Lewis describes in her report originated with Gamergate, the 2014 conspiracy theory that targeted women working in the video game industry. Anti-feminists within that community, led by a software developer seeking vengeance against an ex-girlfriend, began a viciously misogynist harassment campaign under the cover of a manufactured crisis over “ethics in video games journalism.”
YouTube personalities like Benjamin turned themselves into the movement’s leaders, shifting from theoretical musing to specific analysis of a controversy steeped in both internet culture and reactionary politics.
An echo chamber formed, one that didn’t map neatly onto a left-right axis; its main concern was rejecting progressivism and “social justice warriors” or “SJWs,”—anyone who believes in the existence of things like white privilege or rape culture. “The other hallmark is opposition to the mainstream media,” Lewis says. “Much like Fox News has often claimed that the mainstream media has a liberal or elite bias, YouTubers see a social justice bias.”
Gamergate eventually petered out, but its followers had formed a coalition, primed to pivot toward the ugly politics of the 2016 presidential election. In provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer, the YouTube commentariat saw kindred spirits: people unafraid to be contrarian, who were good at delivering anti-progressive ideas with measured rhetoric and a blasé sense of humor that shocked outsiders.
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In the final weeks of 2016, a handful of journalists said that the experience of watching Trump get elected felt like a Gamergate replay, down to the people involved. “If you’re just discovering the world of angry, anonymous online dudes masquerading as victims,” Matt Lees wrote in The Guardian, “Hi, come in. Some of us have been here for a while.”
The community is hostile to criticism, real or perceived. As Lewis’s report picked up press coverage, for instance, the subjects began ripping it apart. Rebecca Hargraves, who uses her highly personal missives to extol the virtues of anti-feminism and white nationalism, linked Data & Society to George Soros. So did Molyneux, who dismissed the report as “morally reprehensible, egregious and propagandistic” in a nearly ninety-minute video.
“It ended up being a case study for how this ecosystem addresses a piece of research that it disagrees with and doesn’t want to see,” Lewis says. Although the response videos dripped with sarcasm, most of those videos also took the attention seriously. Benjamin’s warned his followers that Lewis was “advocating for open censorship” and that her report was “an ideological attack on political YouTube, because political YouTube is broadly not progressive.” It would be used over and over, he expected, by outsiders to scrutinize the community.
Stromer-Galley, the Syracuse University professor, points out that the community is constructed around an insider-outsider dichotomy: “Really powerful influencers tell a story in which they’re victims of powerful forces out to get them, that there’s a complicated network of elites out to destroy what they want.”
It’s an easy argument to make when traditional media cover YouTubers only when they’re embroiled in scandals, as in the case of PewDiePie, who lost sponsorship because of anti-Semitic jokes, and Benjamin, who was kicked off Patreon for racist comments. In the process, reporters often commit small errors about, say, the nuances of a YouTube star’s political ideology; the stars, in turn, dismiss reporters as biased, misinformed interlopers.
The field is not level, and only YouTubers understand how to play on it.
“The cynical me says that the media becomes obsessed with YouTube because it makes good stories, sensationalizing this in the same way as the influencers,” Stromer-Galley says. “Everybody’s trying to gain an audience and make a living.”