BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. We just heard Jay Fonseca urged the media to get out of their bubble. That's what some concerned citizens are doing on YouTube, making content that the algorithm delivers to the opposite bubbles by design. Free of old school gatekeeping, YouTube hosts a wide political spectrum from the furthest right to the fringi-est left–reaching some of the youngest eyes and ears On The Media. Producer Micah Loewinger tells the story of three young viewers whose perspectives were changed and their identities shaped by their YouTube diets.
MICAH LOEWINGER In 2016, YouTube turned a 16 year old named Jake into a neo-Nazi.
JAKE No fascist in their right mind would therefore identify as a neo-Nazi. But if you had asked me to identify myself at the time I think I would said something stupid like a pan-nationalist wide identitarian.
MICAH LOEWINGER Based on what I've heard from others like him, Jake's radicalization was fairly standard. Like thousands of teenage boys, he was a big fan of the popular gamer PewDiePie. As YouTube's single biggest creator, he can have a pernicious effect on viewers slipping edgy or even racist jokes into otherwise whimsical videos.
[CLIP OF PEWDIEPIE].
MICAH LOEWINGER Eventually, Jake stumbled upon the racist prankster MaxMoeFoe, a white Australian YouTuber who calls up black people to mock them.
[CLIP OF MAXMOEFOE]
Jake says that as he searched for other offensive comedians, YouTube began suggesting more political content.
CARL BENJAMIN I think we should start a petition say feminism must be classified as a mental illness.
MICAH LOEWINGER Carl Benjamin, better known as Sargon of Akkad, is a smooth talking right-wing commentator who tried to leverage his 900,000 subscribers in a losing bid for a European parliamentary seat earlier this year.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Carl Benjamin posted on Twitter that he wouldn't even rape Labor MP Jess Phillips. Today he said he wouldn't apologise for what he called his crimes against political correctness. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Radicalization on YouTube is a byproduct of its business model. The more time you spend viewing videos, the more money YouTube and its creators make. So its algorithm cues up a list of related videos in a sidebar to keep you watching. This system can make it seem like fringe beliefs are more acceptable, more widely held than they are by plunging the viewer into a deep well of extremist videos–each one leading to another. And the well gets darker the deeper you go. The videos the algorithm queued up for Jake eventually brought him to the really nasty white nationalist part of YouTube where junk science is used to justify white superiority.
MALE CORRESPONDENT People who say that there really can't be any intellectual discrepancies between the races have a huge problem, in terms of science. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Of course, plenty of people encounter racist things online without turning into racists. But Jake was at an especially vulnerable time in his life. He was struggling to reconcile his socially conservative upbringing with the realization that he is gay.
JAKE You go through this overcorrection of, 'I'm going to be the most absolute opposite form of that that I can fine.' So yeah, I spent a lot of my middle teens being this overly macho angry little fascist.
MICAH LOEWINGER What interested me most about Jake's story was not how he fell down the rabbit hole, it was how he climbed out. His parents and high school teachers knew that he was going around saying horrible things about Jews and Muslims, waxing fondly on the legacy of Benito Mussolini. And they tried to intervene but it was no use. Ultimately what saved Jake was yet another YouTuber.
NATALIE WYNN So, life is basically sad and in capitalist society that sadness is a sense of isolation and anxiety that there is nothing more to life than acquiring 1990s collectors edition Tampa Bay Buccaneers slash Slim Jim, beer steins until you die. [END CLIP].
MICAH LOEWINGER Fortunately, thanks to fascism you don't have too. Natalie Wynn, better known by her YouTube moniker ContraPoints. Her videos are more like John Waters films than webcam blogs, they're campily lit and costumes solo productions. Wynn's impact on YouTube culture is so notable that the Library of Congress recently said it was archiving her entire channel.
NATALIE WYNN Fascism promises you a part in something greater than yourself, a homeland for your people, a sense of belonging to a tradition that stretches back thousands of years. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER In this video called decrypting the alt right she appears in sparkling red lipstick and wavy blonde hair in front of floral wallpaper. Alternating empathy with irony, she describes white people fall for fascist propaganda. She's a 30 year old transwoman, not someone you'd expect to win over a teenage white supremacist. But that's what happened to Jake.
JAKE It started off as hate watching then it became, you know, 'Mmm, I don't hate her. She's funny.' And once you get rid of that hate you can then start to actually listen to what she's saying. She goes about creating her videos in a very specific way. I couldn't tell you what it is about them but you do not feel like you are being attacked. That's when I started to de-radicalized so to speak. Identifying less and less with right-wing ideology.
MICAH LOEWINGER So what was that je ne sais quoi, that mysterious something then enabled her to defeat Jake's indoctrination. Well, that's partly location.
NATALIE WYNN Young people are not watching MSNBC or CNN or Fox. They're watching YouTube.
MICAH LOEWINGER Natalie Wynn describes a great war on YouTube going back the better part of a decade. A battle for the hearts and minds of millions of Gen Zers and millennials. Today she's lauded as the matriarch of the left-wing offensive, a budding community known as LeftTube or inexplicably, bread tube.
NATALIE WYNN Comfort ye, comfort ye, my subscribers. So sayeth your goddess. For it is I, the digital Messiah. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Left Tubes most popular creators, ContraPoints, Hbomberguy, Shaun, PhilosophyTube and Lindsay Ellis, drawing hundreds of thousands of devoted subscribers and enough money to make a living. And they don't just talk about the far-right. They make mini art films about video games and literature. Outlets like Vice, The New Yorker and L.A. Times have held up Natalie Wynn in her cohort as an antidote to the political hate on YouTube. But she's not keen on that social media savior narrative. I was skeptical too. So I looked for proof. I interviewed 10 Gen Zers years who credit ContraPoints and other LeftTubers with pulling them out of the alt-right rabbit hole. In fact, discovering LeftTube sometimes even sent them careening far in the other direction towards Marxism and anarchism. So I asked Natalie Wynn about that term de-radicalization. What people think it means and maybe what it really means.
MICAH LOEWINGER I think they imagine somebody who wakes up from being in a spell in their politics reset to the center.
NATALIE WYNN Yes.
MICAH LOEWINGER But what I've witnessed is more people swinging from the far right to the left.
NATALIE WYNN That actually is a more typical story. People who are fairly centrist views suppose that they are the default. But oftentimes people are into far-right politics in the first place, that's because of some deep dissatisfaction they have with life in the modern world. For the far-left and the far-right are in agreement are that society is drastically flawed and we need revolutionary or radical action to change things.
MICAH LOEWINGER For the YouTube left that's meant celebrating egalitarianism and calling out the ills of capitalism. And for the YouTube right, tt's meant mocking the so-called social justice warriors who say those things.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT I would like you to use my pronouns if you could. They are I, me and mine.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT So now you're mocking the LGBTQ community now.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT I have lots of LGBTQ friends and they don't get professionally offended at everything. There is male and female. There are two biological genders. Science exists. [END CLIP]
NATALIE WYNN People purporting to use facts and logic to debunk social justice warriors.
MICAH LOEWINGER Meanwhile, LeftTubers have become sophisticated storytellers breaking down complex ideas using a popular format called the video essay.
NATALIE WYNN That was really pioneered by people who to film criticism on YouTube. So people like Lindsay Ellis.
MICAH LOEWINGER Lindsay Ellis is known for deeply researched essays and blockbusters new and old with a progressive take on character and plot.
LINDSAY ELLIS All of the Guardians Of The Galaxy conceit is about terrible people made terrible by abuse learning to care about society as a whole by learning to empathize with each other. None of these characters were born bad. These people can change. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Evan Heimbaugh, a 19 year old white guy from Atlanta, told me that Ellis made him rethink propaganda he picked up from far-right YouTube. He'd grown up in a well-to-do libertarian household, where there was little reflection on systemic inequality. Evan's transformation began with Lindsay Ellis's analysis of Peter aka. a Star Lord, a Guardians Of The Galaxy character played by Chris Pratt.
[CLIP FROM GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY]
GAMORA Either one of you could have gotten us through that field had you flown with what's between your ears instead of what's between your legs.
STAR LORD If what's between my legs had a hand on it, I guarantee I could have landed this ship with--.
GAMORA Peter, we almost died because of your arrogance. [END CLIP]
EVAN One of the things that got to me was when she defined toxic masculinity as a theme in regards to Star Lord's character growth. I kind of wrestled a little bit because it's one of those terms that has immediate visceral reaction. But then she goes to actually define the term.
EVAN The simplest way to describe it is men feeling the need to prove their perceived masculinity through unhealthy means harmful to others but just as often harmful to themselves. That's when it kind of occurred to me that maybe some of the things I thought I knew weren't exactly true. So I started watching more of the media center BreadTube content and that was kind of my doorway into it.
MICAH LOEWINGER Evan told me that the Guardians of the Galaxy essay made him cry. Once he'd watched a few more. The algorithm began recommending videos by other BreadTube creators. A sort of reverse alt-right rabbit hole. ContraPoints introduced him to a variety of LGBTQ issues. Hbomberguy debunked Sargon's anti-SJW talking points. Shaun helped him learn about how our current form of capitalism has hurt people of color. Now Evan is a political organizer.
EVAN Politically, I'm an anarchist. So I was de-radicalized from the right and then I was re-radicalized back to the left. At that point, my thought was like and just like not do anything else like be politically active. And now I'm working on a campaign in Atlanta. We're trying to get the Cobb County jail shut down.
NATALIE WYNN There is this assumption that logic will triumph. Well, I don't believe that.
MICAH LOEWINGER Natalie Wynn.
NATALIE WYNN I have a, I suppose, a very dark view of how democracy works. This is a circus not a forum. Narrative, spectacle style is the real force of persuasion a lot of the time and this is something I have heard from a number of people. My persona seemed unexpectedly cool and self-deprecating and edgy. In other words, just drastically the opposite of what you expect from a so-called social justice warrior. None of this has anything to do with logic or evidence.
MICAH LOEWINGER The power of Wynn's aesthetic was in her ability to build and strengthen what many Internet commentators called the parasocial relationship. The illusion that we viewers really know are YouTube stars. That we can, video by video, pick up on their hopes and fears.
OLIVER THORN I know that there are times when I, when I just want to die. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That's Oliver Thorn, the face and mind of a channel called PhilosophyTube, telling the story of a really dark time in his life. The video was difficult to watch but really compelling. He told me that his feel for narrative and presentation come from his theater background.
OLIVER THORN Peter Brook has this concept of dead theater. It's technically very good and all the acting is great and the script is great and so on, but it doesn't shake you. It doesn't move you or motivate anybody to do anything. And he says the missing ingredient, what dead theater lacks is what is expensive. People want to see something that costs you something to produce, something that is brave or raw.
MICAH LOEWINGER This notion of cost helped me understand the success of LeftTube single biggest spectacle of the year and the effect it had on one woman.
JOAN When I came to college and I saw people that were a little alternative I was like, 'oh my god I am besaid on all sides by shaved head, rainbow hair and SJWs.' And spent the whole time waiting for someone to put me in free speech prison and it didn't happen. That caused a little bit of cognitive dissonance.
MICAH LOEWINGER Joan's a college student from Nova Scotia, Canada. She was at a crappy, depressed moment in her teens when she started watching anti-SJW videos. She didn't know it at the time but they really shaped how she saw the world. Joan would troll gun reform activists just to let off steam spending like 10 hours a day on 4chan. She came across some Left Tube videos but mostly dismissed them because, well, there are a bunch of social justice warriors. That is until she learned about--
HARRY BREWIS It's time for the Donkey Kong 64 nightmare stream. [END CLIP]
JOAN That was the turning point for me.
MICAH LOEWINGER Harry Brewis known as Hbomberguy on youtube told his 400,000 subscribers that he would broadcast his play of this excruciatingly long vintage video games on twitch, the live streaming platform.
JOAN He was going to play in its entirety on stream Donkey Kong 64.
MICAH LOEWINGER To raise money for a UK charity that had attracted a lot of ire in the British press.
HARRY BREWIS All the proceeds from the stream will go to Mermaids, a charity which works to provide resources and support to young people with gender dysphoria. Because as a person living in Britain, I find the media discussion surrounding this issue in my country, especially in its tabloids, to be woefully misinformed. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER The controversy is a little bit like the Planned Parenthood funding debate here in the US. Last year, a group of conservative activists pressured the government to withdraw funding from the Mermaids charity. So the twitch stream starts on January 18th 2019. For 59 hours straight--
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MICAH LOEWINGER During the stream you can see the cost of the stunt on Hbomberguy’s sleep deprived face. Meanwhile Natalie Wynn, Oliver Thorn and a bunch of activists called in to share their own experiences and support the cause.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT I remember from like parenting a trans kid how many people just said to me, 'well can't you just make him be a boy?' I'm like, 'no, no you're not getting, she's a girl.' [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Live donations flood the screen–five dollars, $100, $500.
OLIVER THORN I think he expected to raise like a thousand pounds. Ah, yeah, the stream absolutely took off and after 24 hours, he'd raise like 30 grand. After like 48 hours he'd raise even more money. And then Chelsea Manning came on the stream.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Update, Chelsea is here.
HARRY BREWIS What, what?
MALE CORRESPONDENT Chelsea Manning is here.
HARRY BREWIS What? [END CLIP]
OLIVER THORN And then Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came on the stream.
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ It's a no brainer. Trans rights are civil rights, are human rights. [END CLIP]
OLIVER THORN And by the end of it, we raised almost $400,000. And I think Harry broke the world record for the most amount of money ever raised by streaming a video game.
MICAH LOEWINGER Meanwhile, Joan is like having her mind blown. After the stream she posted on an LGBTQ forum with a message about some confusing feelings.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
JOAN I tend to like envy girls a lot or whatever and feel very self-conscious about my broad shoulders. A few people reply. One person linked a subreddit called R/eggIRL.
MICAH LOEWINGER As in egg IRL, as in egg in real life, is a forum on Reddit with 37,000thirty users dedicated to means about trans people coming to grips with their gender identity.
JOAN The term egg is trans terminology for a closeted trans person. It was the first hand experience of trans people told to me through the art of memes. And if that is not something from the 21st century, I'm not sure what is. I spent hours just scrolling through the subreddit looking at means going, 'oh God, oh, I'm trans aren't I?'
MICAH LOEWINGER Joan has just started coming out to her friends at school and says her goal is to fully perceive herself as a woman. Inspired by ContraPoints, she switched her major to journalism so she can learn the skills to start her own channel.
JOAN What Natalie has done with her channel is inspiring and I would like to make videos that people find convincing and could help them if they're in a situation similar to mine.
MICAH LOEWINGER Joan shows the impact of YouTube's like Natalie Wynn. She and the larger LeftTube movement have thrown an escape rope to those who've slipped down the alt-right rabbit hole. But Wynn says she's ready for her channel ContraPoints to evolve.
NATALIE WYNN This is a very different world than we are and two years ago. No one took YouTube politics seriously. There's a million videos about all these topics. We've got this covered. There are so many people working on it now. I haven't mentioned the alt-right new video in more than a year now. Where are they? After Charlottesville, they completely lost the momentum of the neo-Nazi wing of the whole thing. The prominent alt-right journalist Lauren Southern just announced that she's leaving public life. We have Alex Jones band across most platforms. We have this strong LeftTube presence that has, in a lot of ways, surpassed some of the right-wing creators. So it's just a very different situation.
MICAH LOEWINGER Left Tubers understand their audience and how they consume information far better than mainstream journalists do. They don't have the reflex of TV news to cover the outrage of white supremacy by extending their platform to it. Like on Tuesday, when CNN interviewed Richard Spencer on national TV suggesting why his ideas are bad while sharing them with millions. Natalie Wynne and other LeftTubers have no journalistic training. They don't answer to a newsroom editor or journalism's unshakable faith in logic and evidence. But when it comes to fighting fascism, they seem to have it figured out. For On The Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's it for this week's show. On The Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Asthaa Chaturvedi and Xandra Ellin. We had more help from Chloe Nosan. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Han. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC is vice president for news. On The Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
UNDERWRITING On The Media is supported by the Ford Foundation The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.