Down, Down, Down the YouTube Rabbit Hole
The right-wing Internet is toxic, reports The New York Times. But what about the left-wing Internet? And what about the Internet itself? Perhaps there’s still more reporting left to be done.
In a much-discussed June 8 article in the Times, “The Making of a YouTube Radical,” reporter Kevin Roose chronicles the experience of twenty-something Caleb Cain of Martinsburg, West Virginia.
In the Times’ telling, Cain’s story is seemingly a saga of seduction and redemption—a redemption blasted out on YouTube: “In the video, [Cain] told the story of how, as a liberal college dropout struggling to find his place in the world, he had gotten sucked into a vortex of far-right politics on YouTube.”
Hmmm, now there’s an evocative word: vortex. We might surmise that Cain could enjoy a bright future telling his story to liberal groups. Ever since The Aeneid, if not before, there’s been an appreciative audience for tales of those who have ventured into some dark underworld and returned to tell of their ordeal. (And if the vortex is created by humans, well, that’s an angle that Virgil never thought of.)
Yet in Cain’s case, there might be an even more ancient explanation for his ventures: the law of physical attraction. As the Times says of Cain’s romance with the right, “He became entranced by Lauren Southern, a far-right Canadian activist, whom he started referring to as his ‘fashy bae,’ or fascist crush.”
And if it was one woman who helped lure Cain in, it was another woman who lured him out. That other woman is Natalie Wynn, described by The New Yorker last year as “the stylish socialist who is trying to save YouTube from alt right domination.” In fact, Wynn may be a bit more than socialist: she says she is inspired by the 19th-century anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin. Yet as the Times cheerfully explains, Wynn “persuasively used research and citations to rebut the right-wing talking points [Cain] had absorbed.”
So it’s possible to regard the Cain case as simply that of a lonely heart, shuttling between distant diodes of adoration—and that’s a familiar enough phenomenon, long preceding the Internet. Indeed, one is reminded of the 1938 song “Dear Mr. Gable: You Made Me Love You,” in which teenager Judy Garland sings longingly to a framed portrait of movie idol Clark Gable.
Moreover, one thinks of George W.S. Trow’s 1980 essay about the power of electronic illusion, “Within the Context of No Context.” As Trow put it, the “pseudo-intimacy” of TV leaves viewers confused as to what’s real and what’s not: “The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no context and to chronicle it.”
Indeed, given the long string of technical innovations that have changed the way we think—going back to Gutenberg—we should be wary of over-determination. That is, we should guard against the temptation to pile up so many causative culprits that we are left wondering how anyone could ever even get out of bed. After all, humans have been bombarded with bamboozlement for eons, and even so, we have muddled through.
Yet still, the mind-vortexing techniques described by the Times are so relentless that one wonders whether we might be reaching some sort of collective tipping point. Maybe the course of human events in the 21st century is heading toward a destination never dreamt of by the hucksters and propagandists of the 20th century.
YouTube’s traffic, after all, is the second highest of any website, behind only Google—which, of course, owns YouTube—and in each and every minute, two billion users collectively upload more than 500 hours of video onto the site. Traffic is especially heavy among the young: a whopping 94 percent of Americans aged 18 to 24 use the site.
Moreover, as the Times article makes clear, YouTube is much more than just a passive receptacle; it boasts an active algorithm:
Critics and independent researchers say YouTube has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism by combining two things: a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens.
Here we might pause to protest that this “on-ramp to extremism” doesn’t seem to be “inadvertent” at all. Tristan Harris, a former Google employee-turned-critic, is quoted as saying, “If I’m YouTube and I want you to watch more, I’m always going to steer you toward Crazytown.” Not much inadvertency there.
In fact, YouTube, always steering harder, has developed a “new A.I., known as Reinforce,” that’s designed to be even more of “a kind of long-term addiction machine.”
So yes, the Times wants its readers to be most worried about addictive right-wing-ification. And yet, as the piece makes clear, the addiction machine is not only bipartisan but omnivorous:
YouTube has been a godsend for hyper-partisans on all sides. It has allowed them to bypass traditional gatekeepers and broadcast their views to mainstream audiences, and has helped once-obscure commentators build lucrative media businesses.
Ah, the notion of “traditional gatekeepers”—that is indeed a blast from the past.
Once upon a time, just about everything that appeared in public had a gatekeeper, also known as an editor or a producer. That is, anyone who wanted to communicate with the public completely unfiltered was mostly left with the option of walking up and down the street hoisting a sign. For just about everything else, there was an individual or institution that had to give the okay before the presses rolled and the camera’s red light blinked on.
The essence of this old mediating process is captured in the title of a 1979 book, Deciding What’s News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. Author Herbert Gans spent a decade observing how editors decided what news was fit to print and to broadcast.
Those editors, of course, were mostly liberals, yet at the same time, they were also institutionalists: they had their jobs and corporate brands to protect. Indeed, one could even say that, as seen through their left-tilting lens, they had a sense of the public good.
Plenty of portals still have editors, of course, although there aren’t nearly as many as there once were. Moreover, across the media, including social media, billions of people are now unmediated—at least by humans.
Yet ironically, the result of everyone’s being his or her own publisher has not been anarchy—that is, defined as nobody in charge. Instead, the social media platforms have scooped up the masses, the better to monetize them, and the result has been “algarchy”—rule by algorithms.
And so maybe, even from the Times’ point of view, the Caleb Cain story doesn’t have quite such a happy ending. Yes, Cain has renounced the right. Yet reporter Roose observes:
What is most surprising about Mr. Cain’s new life, on the surface, is how similar it feels to his old one. He still watches dozens of YouTube videos every day and hangs on the words of his favorite creators. It is still difficult, at times, to tell where the YouTube algorithm stops and his personality begins.
In that same vein, Roose recalls, “I told Mr. Cain that I found it odd that he had successfully climbed out of a right-wing YouTube rabbit hole, only to jump into a left-wing YouTube rabbit hole.”
Indeed, we learn that Cain now carries a handgun, which he says he needs for self-defense against his erstwhile right-wing pals. Of course, another argument in favor of gun ownership is not exactly what Times readers are thirsting for.
To be sure, in recent days, the humans at YouTube, under enormous political pressure, have stepped in to “de-platform,” or otherwise restrict, many right-wing sites, and there’s plenty of impetus to shut down even more. In other words, human gatekeepers are back at the gates.
Okay, so now what about restrictions on left-wing incitement and craziness? And what about the broader questions of bias and censorship? And that timeless question: who will watch the watchers? As this author has argued here at TAC, the ultimate issue is not ideology, as humans understand it, but rather technology, as understood by the machine learners, including their human familiars.
Because there’s one thing we humans have come to know: YouTube and all the rest of the social media platforms are not neutral common carriers, akin to the phone companies. They are more like publishers: their algorithms and other choices shape what we can see, can’t see—and must see. And publishers, of course, have not only legal liabilities, but ethical and social responsibilities.
And without a doubt, the greatest of Big Tech’s responsibilities is not to use its vortexes to mess with our cortexes.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.