YouTube is home to a right-wing “alternative influence network” that can drive viewers to extremist positions on race, gender, and other topics, according to a new report from the Data & Society Research Institute.
Network members, who range from libertarians to overt white nationalists, appear on each other’s channels and promote one another in a way that can expose YouTube’s youthful viewers to increasingly right-wing positions, writes Data & Society researcher Rebecca Lewis.
“By connecting to and interacting with one another through YouTube videos, influencers with mainstream audiences lend their credibility to openly white nationalist and other extremist content creators,” she writes. On YouTube, she writes, “Social networking between influencers makes it easy for audience members to be incrementally exposed to, and come to trust, ever more extremist political positions.”
Many members of the network promote themselves as part of a countercultural movement that rejects liberal and progressive ideas. Like many other online broadcasters, they generally push personal authenticity and relatability rather than traditional media-style objectivity, and invite reactions and participation from viewers, according to the report. The broadcasters’ countercultural image conflicts with their conservative approach, Lewis argues.
“Indeed, the entire countercultural positioning is misleading: These influencers are adopting identity signals affiliated with previous countercultures, but the actual content of their arguments seeks to reinforce dominant cultural racial and gendered hierarchies,” writes Lewis. “Their reactionary politics and connections to traditional modes of power show that what they are most often fighting for is actually the status quo—a return to traditional gender and racial norms, or a belief in the individual over an understanding of group oppression.”
Many of the conservative YouTubers are adept at search engine optimization, including using traditionally progressive terms like “intersectionality” to reach a wide range of viewers. YouTube’s popularity metrics can also reward broadcasters with more viewers and income when they promote more extremist ideas, according to the report.
“For many of the political influencers in the AIN, the more extremist content they make, the more of an extremist and dedicated audience they build,” she writes. “Such audiences can, in turn, drive political influencers to deliver ever more extreme content.”
The video site’s recommendation system has also been widely criticized recently for driving viewers to more extremist political content.
In a statement to Fast Company, a YouTube spokesperson said the service has taken steps to root out hate speech:
YouTube is an open platform where anyone can choose to post videos to a global audience, subject to our Community Guidelines, which we enforce rigorously. Additionally, we’ve made updates over the past year to tighten our monetization policies and improve our enforcement against hate speech. Since this research concluded in April 2018, we’ve made more updates to which channels have access to monetization features and deployed advanced machine learning technology to tackle more hate speech in comment features. We continue to expand this work and appreciate input from all researchers.