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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 [1] 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 [2] “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.” [3] 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,” [4] or otherwise restrict, many right-wing sites, and there’s plenty of impetus [5] 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 [6] 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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Down, Down, Down the YouTube Rabbit Hole"

#1 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On June 12, 2019 @ 2:22 am

I ask myself, though I know the answers, (which should prove that I’m not just looks)
when are people in this society gonna see what’s in from of them:
the media, from the N.Y. Times to the internet pages of wherever your email is at:
is not left!
Here is what is real- they are socially liberal and politically/foreign policy wise neo-con right wing and quite capitalistic for themselves. Look at how these days, so-called ‘journalists’ on all the so-called ‘news’ stations are wealthy with huge paychecks!
What’s up with that?
How much did Walter Cronkite get paid, for example, in the old days? Hardly millions.
cnn peddles the neo-con lines, yet they are so socially liberal and the talking heads on that stupid station are mostly dumb as your wall.
Can you dig what I’m saying?

#2 Comment By Mont D. Law On June 12, 2019 @ 7:07 am

“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.”

You people are insane. Make these companies publishers and right wing access will literally disappear overnight. The government has zero say in what publishers publish. If these companies are nests of cultural marxist traitors, why would they giver any right-wing creator the time of day. And I don’t know why any conservative would support this. It’s suicide.

#3 Comment By mrscracker On June 12, 2019 @ 10:50 am

Well, I really enjoy Utube. It sure beats TV.

I’m more interested in travel, history, gadening & recipes.

Utube “picks out” both left & right wing videos for me to look at. Maybe that says more about me, but I don’t mind scrolling through them. And you know, there is a search option on Utube. You’re not limited to what they give you to scroll through. You can find amazing stuff on Uube. Especially history.

#4 Comment By Rob G On June 12, 2019 @ 11:40 am

“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”

Well, really they’re sort of a combination of the two, which, when you add their size and scope, makes regulating them difficult. Like common carriers they are neutral in regards to access, but the fact that they also produce and regulate content makes them somewhat akin to publishers. As Shoshana Zuboff demonstrates in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, they’re a unique unprecedented thing.

#5 Comment By OMM 0910 On June 12, 2019 @ 11:22 pm

And if it was one woman who helped lure Cain in, it was another woman who lured him out.

Natalie Wynn is a tranny.

#6 Comment By Rick Steven D. On June 13, 2019 @ 7:01 am

“…not to use it’s vortexes to mess with all of our cortexes.”

Terrific, Scott. Hilarious. And you sounded a bit glib about the great George WS Trow. But this last sentence could’ve been written by the man. Or Marshall McLuhan, for that matter. The idea of an algorithm as a determinant of actual human behavior would have probably given the dear old media prophet himself something like a grand mal seizure.

Did Trow’s prescience about media, his prophetic intuition on what it was doing to the culture, and us, drive him insane? A recluse in Naples, all ties cut, and eventually found dead? He may have had undiagnosed mental illness, of course. But was Trow the first victim of this all-consuming vortex? And please don’t be glib about my usual sturm und drang…

#7 Comment By Rick Steven D. On June 13, 2019 @ 7:04 am

Uh, James, sorry.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On June 13, 2019 @ 9:33 am

Sorry, YouTube not “Utube”. My mistake.

This morning I watched a video about a man who recreated his grandfather’s log cabin piece by piece & he explained the purpose of everything inside the home. He made his own coat racks from sawed-off cedar limbs & demonstrated the proper way to sweep an old timey sand yard.
I thought it was amazing.
After that I watched P.Allen Smith visit the gardens of Monticello & Mt. Vernon & explain the methods used by Jefferson & Washington to grow fruits & vegetables.
So I’m grateful for whatever algorithm provided those. It saves searching.

#9 Comment By Rick Steven D. On June 14, 2019 @ 10:48 am


As ever, you are the slightly-contrary voice of reason. I love YouTube as well. Its funny I have seen you misspell it before but I thought it was deliberate 🙂

And I’m sure this is freaking bleeding obvious, but I believe that if you use the internet for the right reasons (not for gossip, verbal abuse, political gas-lighting, or lust) it is an absolutely amazing thing, for learning, culture, etc. Maybe you have to be a certain age (I am 54) to really appreciate this.

I always think of myself in 1978, 13 years old, a mixed-up kid on Long Island. There is a still famous record store called Whirling Discs that I would walk into town and spend a few hours in. Never had enough money to buy more than one or two records, maybe every other month or so.

But I still remember walking up and down those aisles and just staring at those album covers all lined up. It was hypnotic. It was like they spoke to me (DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN; CE’ST CHIC; THIS YEAR’S MODEL; DONNA SUMMER LIVE AND MORE; 52ND STREET; EASTER; DOUBLE VISION; GERM-FREE ADOLESCENTS; HERE, MY DEAR; BOYS IN THE TREES; WHO ARE YOU)

As Rod Serling once said in his great closing narration to Walking Distance, 1959, “And perhaps across his mind, there will flit the little errant shape of a wish.” Well, my forlorn little wish, all of those years ago, was to be rich one day, and find out the great sounds behind every single one of those album covers. Never actually thought it would happen, but there you go.

Well, via YouTube, my wish came true. Amazing. And I’m not a big down-loader, I’m a bit cheap. BUT LIKE EVERY ALBUM I EVER WANTED TO LISTEN TO IS AT MY FINGERTIPS, FOR FREE. And in stereo, via my hookup. Amazing, really.

And that’s just one example. I took a complete Yale University course in Late Antiquity on YouTube a few years ago, free of course. Over a couple of weeks, just doing the chores around the house, I listened to the audio-book of Mrs. Trollope’s tour of Andrew Jackson-era America, The Domestic Manners of the Americans, which I always wanted to read but never got around to. Free, public domain, via YouTube. The other day, I watched two great old Monty Woolley/Gracie Fields comedies from the 1940s, neither of which I had ever heard of, and I’m a big old movie buff. Both hilarious, and free on YouTube. Amazing.

Sorry to go on and on like this, but I’m sure you can as well. Thanks, as always.