A Far-Left Conspiracy Theory: The Alternative Influence Network of Rebecca Lewis

Recently, a researcher named Rebecca Lewis published a report called Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube. If one buys into the argument Lewis makes, there is an influential network of far-right influencers trying to gain converts via YouTube. Upon close examination however, Lewis’s report fails to stand up to even basic scrutiny. From false associations to outright false statements, Rebecca Lewis has conjured up a conspiracy theory for the far-left to discredit various libertarian, classical liberal, and conservative viewpoints through associating them with a few alt-right notables such as Richard Spencer. On datasociety.net, Lewis asks a series of fundamental questions. These questions will serve as the basis for the start of my critique of her research as it is presented in her datasociety.net[1] post and, more importantly, her report.[2] Rebecca Lewis’s report is an elaborate and rather painstaking game of ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’ The shoddy quality of her research is matched only by her radical ideological leanings. Thinkers as different as Joe Rogan (liberal), Ben Shapiro (anti-Trump conservative), and Tim Pool (left-libertarian) are cast as undesirable sources of information and linked, in a vast and questionable web, to people such as Richard Spenser (alt-right ethno-nationalist). Rebecca Lewis is the left’s version of Alex Jones.

“Does YouTube encourage its users to follow bread crumb trails to more extreme ideological content?”

This is the first in the series of questions Lewis asks us to think about with regard to her research. Indeed, the defining aspect of this report is the web of associations between various prominent people and channels on YouTube. YouTube uses algorithms to offer video recommendations based on videos the user has watched in the past. This does not constitute evidence that YouTube encourages its users to follow trails to more extreme ideological content. Moreover, several of the people mentioned in Lewis’s report have taken strong stances against radical identitarian politics. These include Jordan Peterson (who has criticized far-right and far-left ideologues) and Dave Rubin (who left the left because it was becoming increasingly authoritarian[3]).

“How do these influencers establish credibility, relatability, and authenticity with their audiences?”

Apparently not in the way Rebecca Lewis might want them to do so. Jordan Peterson cites peer-reviewed studies and has decades of experience as a clinical psychologist and university professor in a field which tilts very significantly to the left. Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad) focuses on the arguments people make in videos and print. Journalist Tim Pool often cites left-leaning sources in the arguments he makes, despite being placed clearly in the center of Lewis’s web of ‘reactionary, right-wing’ thinkers. In her conclusion, Rebecca Lewis is deeply concerned with the fact that YouTube has not increased censorship policies to limit ‘harmful content.’ “There is an undercurrent to this report that is worth making explicit: in many ways, YouTube is built to incentivize the behavior of these political influencers. YouTube monetizes influence for everyone, regardless of how harmful their belief systems are. The platform, and its parent company, have allowed racist, misogynist, and harassing content to remain online — and in many cases, to generate advertising revenue — as long as it does not explicitly include slurs.”[4] Lewis goes on to cite internet scholar Tarleton Gillespie referring skeptically to cites promoting free speech and openness. The whole conclusion reveals a strong desire for censorship. Lewis ends the report with fear-mongering, a common leftist tactic, to make the alt-right seem like it is more than a handful of pathetic losers clinging to a superficial, authoritarian politics.[5] Further questions Lewis asks are increasingly leading and tend toward promoting ‘platform accountability’ (i.e. censorship of views determined to be undesirable).

The Web: Six Degrees of Richard Spencer

Figure 1, which shows the ‘alternative influence network’ on YouTube, is based on guest appearances on various YouTube channels between 1 January 2017 and 1 April 2018. Lewis admits that the various people in this web promote a variety of political positions (though mainstream news sources and left-wing sources are noticeably absent). Much like the parlor game ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon,’ this web of alliances is merely loose associations based on people who talked to each other in a given period. Indeed, many of the conversations were not those of two people simply agreeing on everything. This chart shows, for example, a link between conservative writer Ben Shapiro and Roaming Millennial (Lauren Chen, a conservative-leaning YouTuber) and from Roaming Millennial to Richard Spencer (alt-right ethno-nationalist). It would be patently absurd to associate a conservative Jewish Zionist with a white supremacist Neo-Nazi. I mention this series of connections (Shapiro to Spencer) to highlight the ridiculousness of this shoddy report. Many of the connections on Lewis’s web are just as superficial. The inanity of the research is revealed through even a cursory reading with basic background knowledge. This chart was conjured up to discredit rather than to reflect any genuine inquiry into what is going on in intellectual circles outside the increasingly irrelevant ivory towers of academe and establishment news sources.

Rebecca Lewis’s report is inaccurate, containing misleading or false information. She relies on lose associations. The scope of her inquiry leaves out many left-leaning people and mainstream sources, thus suggesting personal bias rather than serious inquiry. Left-leaning people included in this report, such as Joe Rogan and Tim Pool, are being smeared as far-right. The perspective of the author comes off as one observing the discussions from a university or big news source watching with trepidation as traditional, bloated institutions fail to keep up with a dynamic range of (increasingly entrepreneurial-minded) individuals. This report is nothing more than an attempt to discredit by associating a wide variety of individuals (most being left-leaning, libertarian, and conservative) with a handful of alt-right extremists. Old media platforms are on the decline and many will likely collapse in the near future if they are not able to adapt.

Response to Rebecca Lewis’s Research from some of the people she mentions in her research:

Tim Pool: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-A_aNMe1Wk&t=0s

Sargon of Akkad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ypt_pnpJLzY&t=0s and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyiLcJ7Qb0Q

Styxhexenhammer666: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E81zWJI26kE&t=0s

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[1] https://datasociety.net/output/alternative-influence/

[2] https://datasociety.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/DS_Alternative_Influence.pdf

[3] This is further confirmed by the cases of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State College and Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfrid Laurier, both of whom suffered consequences for opposing authoritarian-leftist positions at their respective institutions.

[4] https://datasociety.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/DS_Alternative_Influence.pdf

[5] I would argue that adherents of ethno-nationalist, alt-right ideas cling to such absurd beliefs either because of stupidity (the inability to deal with complex realities, thus a preference for a simplified picture) or malevolence (using such ideologies as a cover for committing brutal acts based in extreme hatred and bitterness). Quite simply, the alt-right is for idiots and tyrants.