The Alt-Right Are Savvy Internet Users. Stop Letting Them Surprise You
Far-right YouTube is the internet age equivalent of conservative talk radio: It’s a place for ultra-conservative commentators to react vehemently, personally, emotionally to the news of the day and the creeping horrors of American progressivism. But while the commentators—who range in ideology from mainstream libertarian to openly white nationalist—certainly owe a debt to Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity in their tone and style, their strategy is all Pewdiepie and Jeffree Star and Team Ten. Which is to say, they play to YouTube’s algorithms, just like anyone who is trying to become a star.
A recent study from Data & Society, Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube, details how far right YouTubers manufacture authenticity and countercultural appeal, game the attention economy to boost their views, and use that influence to build a supportive (and sometimes lucrative) network for themselves.
If you’re familiar with the influencer economy, those beats will sound familiar. Stripped of ideology, Alex Jones’ business model isn’t so different than a Kardashian’s—he just sells different vitamins. Far-right YouTube is ultimately just YouTube; the racists and conspiracy theorists who have found homes there aren’t just crazy cranks, they’re influencers. It might seem odd that people can relate to racist ranters in the same intimate way others relate to makeup gurus, but it isn’t. Regardless of whether you're spewing hate or showing off your Target hauls, YouTube's reward systems work based on behavior, indiscriminately of content—something no amount of fact-checking will fix.
Often, the digital machinations of far-right groups are depicted as happening under the cover of shadowy places like 4chan, but far-right YouTubers aren’t hiding anything—they’re defending “race realists” (read: unabashed racists) and men’s rights activists on the second most popular social media forum for news. “It gets less mainstream attention because there’s this assumption that people only want to mess with formal news outlets,” the paper's author Rebecca Lewis says, referring to Russian misinformation and the bots and trolls trying to bamboozle reporters. “But there’s actually this whole separate world that doesn’t follow any of the conventions of news, but is where people are getting their information.”
She calls it YouTube’s Alternative Influence Network, and it is hardly a depopulated internet backwater. By Lewis’s count, this network is made up of about 65 political influencers across 81 channels who represent a spectrum of right-wing ideologies, but are united by their dislike of things like political correctness and “social justice warriors,” and their approach to spreading ideas. Instead of co-opting the techniques of journalists, these far-right YouTubers are imitating other influencers. They establish their authenticity like any vlogger: Look directly into a camera you set up in an intimate location like your bedroom, address your audience like friends, and weave big ideas together with anecdotes from your own life.
Once your cred is established with your audience, you can use that clout to call your detractors out as “fake” and expect, not just to be believed, but also to gain countercultural appeal. That’s how Pewdiepie weathered damning exposes of his anti-Semitism, and how Tana Mongeau turned being snubbed by Vidcon into an opportunity to lure thousands of teens to her own event, the scandalously ill-planned Tanacon. It’s also how far-right YouTubers convince their viewers to disregard the mainstream media.
But YouTube determines what content gets promoted and monetized. YouTube’s Alternative Influence Network has also learned to sell their ideas like other YouTubers sell products: They post testimonials about how much good far-right politics has done for them, they use their own celebrity to give their ideas some glamor, hijack keywords to make sure they come up in your searches, and engineer small scandals to make themselves newsworthy.
And because YouTube has tied its financial incentives, not only to hours spent watching YouTube, but also audience growth, everyone on the platform is trying to attract an infinite number of viewers. Once you cross the threshold of 1,000 subscribers (and 4,000 hours watched), you’re eligible for YouTube’s Partner Program, and can start earning a small cut of the money made from running ads on your videos. The cut increases as your channel grows. Despite their controversial and (one would think) brand-unfriendly topics, some of these far-right YouTubers have graduated to even higher echelons of the platform’s reward system. Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson received the coveted Gold Play Button plaque YouTube sends to creators who have reached one million followers without violating community standards. Others have sponsorships from big names like the Koch Brothers.
That’s the attention economy: It doesn’t matter what you’re saying, as long as people are listening and willing to buy things. Which leaves watchdogs short on solutions. Without YouTube’s help, it’s going to be difficult to stop people with bad ideas from using a platform exactly the way they’re supposed to.“Fact checking won’t solve this, and neither will source verification. Their appeal is that they’re outside these mainstream systems,” Lewis says. “We’re asking Facebook and Twitter to address systemic problems baked into their platforms. It’s important we do the same with Youtube.”
Even with YouTube’s help, any solution that isn’t an eternal game of content moderation whack-a-mole is years away. So it’s time to stop being surprised when the far-right is good at the internet. It’s time to expect to see them trending, and hold platforms accountable when they do.