Another Leftist Conspiracy Theory: Auditing Radicalization Pathways on YouTube
“Some of you are confused why I give support to people I largely disagree with.
I’m against most blacklists. My family suffered from this evil tactic in the 50s so we now fight it. The fact that a new Left rebranded it as “no platforming” or “cancelation” does nothing to fool me.
What’s the ToS strikes game? Blacklisting
The “Alternative Influence Network” report? A blacklist recommendation
Operation Chokepoint? Blacklist
Trust & Safety Star Chambers? Blacklisters
Cancel Culture? Blacklisting
I’m fighting this rebirth of McCarthyism as LeftCarthyism.
When you blacklist a human for their flaws you don’t just hit that person. You destroy an entire ecosystem. You damage their children. You shame their parents. You chill their friends who know them better than you do. You chill the world of ideas.
So do think twice progressives.”
Last year, a conspiracy theorist, associated with Data and Society, authored a hit piece disguised as researched called the ‘Alternative Influence Network.’ This text contains flimsy arguments for the view that people on YouTube are radicalizing people and constitute some large scary network driving people toward the far-right. Becca Lewis did not have a clear methodology nor does her report include anomalies. She simply started with a conclusion and grouped together a bunch of YouTubers she does not like. Becca Lewis could learn much by considering the importance of entertaining ideas, even those which run contrary to one’s inclinations (even if only to challenge them from a position of strength, in the real of free and open discourse).
“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it” -attributed to Aristotle, though likely only goes back to a nineteenth century translation of the Nicomachean Ethics
Becca Lewis flirts with tech censorship of people she doesn’t like in her ‘report.’ Looking past the flawed methodology and poor arguments, one can see that Lewis is simply a mouthpiece for the pro-censorship side of the argument, propping up the specter of a terrifying, large, and influential far-right necessitating an authoritarian response to ‘protect’ the people from ‘dangerous’ opinions.
Then there was the poorly-written New York Times article about Caleb Cain. Called ‘The Making of a YouTube radical, the author Kevin Roose ended up writing about the case of a single individual who apparently watched way too many videos. By the end of the article, though Cain was pushed toward the left. He viewed right-leaning content and apparently gave it more thought than the average antifa activist but does not appear to have embraced far-right positions. He also watched videos associated with the intellectually diverse, and rather centrist/center-left, Intellectual Dark Web. Cain also viewed progressive content. This particular article does not even justify itself. Why was it necessary to write a piece on one man’s YouTube watch history? This smacks of struggles between old and new forms of media.
Now, we are in late August 2019 and a new pseudo-intellectual attack on YouTube has presented itself. Five researchers have submitted a paper called ‘Auditing Radicalization Pathways on YouTube.’ This report can be accessed through the link above and through a page on the Cornell University website. The authors of this piece are Manoel Horta Ribeiro, Raphael Ottoni, Robert West, Virgílio A. F. Almeida, and Wagner Meira. Given that there are five, I will simply refer to them as ‘the authors’ throughout the piece rather than re-name all five. The piece was submitted on 22 August and goes on for 18 pages. This piece of ‘scholarship’ is deeply flawed in a number of ways to be analyzed below.
These researchers gathered their data and form their arguments after viewing (or claiming to view) over 300,000 videos from 360 channels. The authors make the following classification in the brief summary on Cornell University’s website: “we broadly classify into: control, the Alt-lite, the Intellectual Dark Web (I.D.W.), and the Alt-right — channels in the I.D.W. and the Alt-lite would be gateways to fringe far-right ideology, here represented by Alt-right channels.” Here we can already see the contentious nature of the authors’ claims before even getting to the piece itself. The authors erroneously claim that the thinkers associated with the intellectually diverse (yet often left-leaning) Intellectual Dark Web are gateways to the far-right on YouTube. The Caleb Cain case, as irrelevant as a single case study can be, disproves that (even if that wasn’t what Roose was aiming at in his piece). Moreover, the most prominent members of the IDW are anti-authoritarian. Eric Weinstein and Jordan Peterson, in particular, constantly make arguments critiquing dominant political and media narratives. Peterson is a pragmatist philosophically and, politically, a classical liberal. Weinstein leans left — he supported Bernie Sanders in 2016. Side note, for those who think of the IDW as far-right or even right-leaning, consider who several of the other major thinkers associated with this movement supported in 2016: Bret Weinstein (Sanders), Sam Harris (Clinton), and Christina Hoff Sommers (Clinton). Dave Rubin supported Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro reportedly left the top of the ticket blank in 2016, unable to support the Trump campaign. None of the major thinkers associated with the IDW supported Trump in 2016 and most are not conservative.
The Intellectual Dark Web has emerged to facilitate the kinds of debates that should be happening on college campuses and the public sphere. From the emergence of the public intellectual with the advent of printing (Desiderius Erasmus being the first real public thinker at the outset of this first mass media technology). Following in the footsteps of the Renaissance Humanists, Enlightenment philosophers argued over the role, potential, and limits or reason during the eighteenth century. So important was free speech that the Founding Fathers of the United States included it specifically in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Now, in the Digital Age — the age of a technology surpassing even the printing press in terms of impact — the Intellectual Dark Web developed (even before it was semi-ironically given the name by Eric Weinstein).
The free individual must sail between the Scylla of the far-right and Charybdis of the radical left. The metaphysical substructure of the West (Pagan in origin, though many would argue for a Judeo-Christian interpretation) has eroded considerably. Political tribalism has emerged as a kind of replacement. The basic categorization used in the recent piece about radicalization pathways builds on, and accentuates, this political tribalism. This rather low-resolution categorization has the IDW, the ‘Alt-Lite’ (whatever that is), and the Alt-Right. This latter term has become a term of tremendous abuse, as the term ‘alt-right’ has meant different things to different people during the 2010s and only came to be associated with a particularly odious ideology in the past few years. Alt-Lite appears to be a term invented partly for fear-mongering but also to utilize the nebulous nature of the term itself. Why go for outright slander through constantly labeling people alt-right (a term now associated with a very specific perspective) when one could get just as strong a reaction by building a conspiratorial vision with an ill-defined term to link together people you don’t like?
Looking at the radicalization pathways the authors explore, one can see that there are no left-leaning channels. The left is not analyzed at all. Why only focus on the threat of radicalization in one way? Isn’t the real problem one based in authoritarianism and spread of extremist views? Not all extremist views are on the right. This glaring absence speaks volumes about the ‘methodology’ of this report. It is quite in line with the shoddy arguments of Becca Lewis from 2018.
Moving on — comments. The authors mention ‘processing more than 79 million comments.’ They are taking comments from the videos as evidence for radicalization pipelines. You know who likes to comment on YouTube videos? A lot of people for a lot of reasons. yes, there are those who actually engage with the content of the video. There are also trolls and people whose comments have nothing to do with the arguments put forward. One only has to read comments from Yahoo news articles to realize how relevant they are to the story. Mention something political and some guy with too much time on his hands will spend time writing (often poorly-written) comments blaming Obama or Trump for some problem that likely has nothing to do with either of them.
So far, one can see that the categories used are defined poorly, that only radicalization to the right (whatever that is supposed to mean in the context of this article) matters, that comments are used to gauge what extent channels contribute to radicalization pathways. The authors move on to show user migration, claiming that there is migration toward ‘alt-right’ content. The graphs show light, moderate, and severe ‘infection’ on their graph of user radicalization over the past 13 years. The graphs employed are of the same questionable quality as Becca Lewis’s ‘six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ chart linking various people of differing opinions (that Lewis does not like) together (for example, linking Jewish conservative with authoritarian ethno-nationalist Richard Spencer).
While we’re on the subject of Becca Lewis and her ‘report,’ it is worth mentioning that the authors of this ‘radicalization pathways’ text cite the Alternative Influence Report (reference 25, p.11). Lewis’s work is now being cited (and rather often) as if it were real research rather than a manufactured study which conforms to the prevailing opinions of the dominant class of journalists and academics. In short, she has the ‘right’ opinions so her shoddy report is not held up to the scrutiny it should be.
Looking at the list of YouTube channels and how they are categorized, there are glaring errors. Black Pigeon Speaks is clearly not alt-right. Did these researchers really consider the points he has made in any of his videos?! The ‘alt-lite’ column includes a vast array of right-leaning, conservatarian, and anti-authoritarian channels. Milo is a provocateur and the inclusion of him on this list merely confirms that he is succeeding in trolling the left. From my understanding RobinHoodUKIP is a channel of conservative speeches and debates. Steven Crowder is a rather mainstream conservative who places emphasis on entertaining his audience. The IDW column reveals how intellectually diverse this group (or rather collection of various people of various political orientations who enjoy deep discussions) really is. Apparently Owen Benjamin is part of the IDW. I had not realized this until the authors put this report together. The authors also apparently do not realize that they have listed Carl Benjamin’s two channels in separate categories. Surely, they know that the channels are both Benjamin’s. They do claim, after all, to have viewed over 300,000 videos from over 300 channels. The authors also list Timcast, one of independent journalist and commentator Tim Pool’s channels, as part of the IDW. Tim Pool has released a video arguing against this classification. Pool is a left-libertarian political commentator with years of experience and knowledge of the ins and outs of the contemporary media landscape. His nuanced approach brings far more credibility to the table, as he critiques both sides of the isle. He also makes his personal biases known and does not try to hide them.
Perhaps we need to look deeper into the motivation of these authors.
“Sir Joseph. I grew so rich that I was sent
By a pocket borough into Parliament.
I always voted at my party’s call,
And I never thought of thinking for myself at all.
I thought so little, they rewarded me
By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!
CHORUS. — He thought so little, they rewarded he By making him the Ruler of the Queen’s Navee!” -from the Gilbert and Sullivan play HMS Pinafore
Like Sir Joseph in the famous HMS Pinafore, it seems that the five authors of this piece are affixing themselves like barnacles on the establishment for their own sake, they are doing what they think the academic elites want so that they can carve out a place for themselves. Perhaps they are hoping that any problems in their research will be overlooked because they have the ‘right’ opinions.
I can only end this piece by expressing my sheer amazement at the effort people on the far-left will put into self-serving narratives while they remain in utter bewilderment as to why Clinton lost in 2016. I do not say this as a member of either major party. I voted third party in 2016 and plan to do so again in 2020. I say this because I find it tragic that the left would rather produce rubbish and call it research than actually investigate why it has become a stale and increasingly irrelevant force. This, in a nutshell, is what the modern left has become. YouTube is not ‘radicalizing’ people or creating radicalization pathways. They are not infecting people and the people do not need protection from ideas. This is the real world, welcome to it.