Alternative Influence: Broadcasting The Reactionary Right On YouTube

Sep 23, 2018
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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

YouTube, like other major social networks Facebook and Twitter, is a place for influencers - people who forge personal relationships with devoted, mostly young fans. They use those relationships to market their favorite brands, exercise routines and makeup tricks. A new report by the think tank the Data & Society foundation tracked connections among a group of political influencers.

BECCA LEWIS: The thing that they were selling was not a product or service. It was ideology - and in some cases, far-right ideology and open white nationalism.

MONTAGNE: Author Becca Lewis watched 65 different political influencers as part of her research.

LEWIS: So they range from mainstream and conservative libertarians and even people who are liberal on certain social issues all the way to open white nationalists. Two different common threats that they share are opposition to, first of all, progressive social justice movements and, second of all, to the mainstream media.

MONTAGNE: But your concern in this report also appears to be that the audiences or those who are influenced and develop this sort of intimate connection to these people on YouTube - they're young. That's a little bit different than on Facebook or Twitter.

LEWIS: That's absolutely right. And I think that's potentially in part why when we talk about misinformation in general, you know, persuasion, advertising, we haven't been talking about YouTube as much. But that actually is where young people are getting a lot of their information. It is the second-most popular social network for intaking news after Facebook. It's the second-most popular search engine after its parent company, Google.

MONTAGNE: Can you give us an example or two basically where we can go to YouTube and hear it for ourselves?

LEWIS: One of the first YouTubers that I discovered in my research was someone named Paul Joseph Watson. And he is affiliated with the Alex Jones outlet Info Wars, which was - you know, Alex Jones' channel with recently taken off of YouTube. But Paul Joseph Watson has his own independent channel. And he actually has over a million subscribers on his channel. And a lot of his videos focus on mainstream culture and why it's actually countercultural now to be conservative, why mainstream media and entertainment are dominated by feminism and what he calls social justice warriors.

MONTAGNE: It sounds like Paul Joseph Watson is adopting the language of rebellion - that sort of traditional, youthful rebellion.

LEWIS: That holds true even for influencers who aren't in political movements. There's really this idea that YouTube is where there's authentic content being made, where there's more irreverent content being made. And in some cases, they outright talk about how it's the countercultural content that's being made. They align themselves with youth movements of the past like the 1960s New Left and the hippie movement or the 1980s punk scene.

MONTAGNE: Well, YouTube does, as a policy, take away what's called monetization. They won't allow people to make money off - who are - that YouTube deems is hate speech. So they are working to discourage it.

LEWIS: Yes, absolutely. It's not that they're not doing anything at all. I think it's just tricky that, you know, a white nationalist broadcasting on YouTube has any number of ways of monetizing their content. So when we talk about YouTube demonetizing their content, what that means is that Youtube will no longer run an ad before that content. And the content creator can't get a cut of that revenue. But if a content creator has already built a big following, they can actually advertise links to other websites where they can fundraise from devoted viewers. So that's one way that people can kind of get around the demonetization on YouTube and still make a living off of this content.

MONTAGNE: That's Becca Lewis of the Data & Society foundation. She authored their new report. It is "Alternative Influence: Broadcasting The Reactionary Right On YouTube." Thanks very much for joining us.

LEWIS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.