Arabian: Tune In or Be Tuned Out

YouTube has changed the dynamics of political discourse. The left should take it seriously.

by Kami Arabian | 2/25/21 2:00am

YouTube is a “Gutenberg revolution” of sorts. Since its launch in 2005, the site has provided its over two billion users with a platform to communicate their ideas, but unlike its predecessors — books, radio and television — YouTube has no barrier to entry. With just internet access and a camera, anyone from anywhere, with any opinion, can go viral. In recent years, conservative channels have flooded the platform with their political opinions. While these channels are not uniform by any means — they range from promoting libertarianism to shameless white supremacy — they are united in their opposition to a common enemy: the left.

Ben Shapiro is the poster child of this movement. His views are classically religious-conservative, but he sets himself apart by taking advantage of YouTube’s algorithms. He’s attracted millions of young viewers with vidoes titled “Ben Shapiro SMACKS DOWN Black Lives Matter: ‘It has nothing to do with race,.’” and “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism And Pro-Abortion Arguments,” which have 2.3 million and 4.5 million views respectively. Why such odd titles? As you may have guessed, the reason is simple: clickbait. Shapiro himself stated in an interview with The Economist that “If I can use the methodologies of gaining eyeballs to get people to look into deeper content, then I’m going to do that.” YouTube’s recommendation algorithm creates an incentive to be as outrageous as possible, since if Shapiro can convince a user to click on one of his videos, autoplay will keep that user engaged for hours on end. 

Further down the intellectual spectrum, there’s Jordan Peterson. With 3.5 million subscribers and over 200 million views, Peterson’s claim to fame was his challenge — which he posed in the form of YouTube videos — to Canadian Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and to the Criminal Code which added gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination. Citing clinical expertise, Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, frames his arguments through the lens of psychological and biological theory, which resonates with his audiences — conservative and non-conservative alike. In Peterson’s videos, he has been broadly critical of social justice movements, stating “Kindness is the excuse that ‘social justice warriors’ use when they want to exercise control over what people think and say.” 

Peterson and Shapiro have turned “owning the libs'' into an effective business model, winning over millions of hearts and minds in the process. But where are the “libs” in all of this? More or less absent. 

There is a disappointing lack of a left-leaning presence on video and audio platforms. Few channels come to mind — the Pod Save America podcast and The David Pakman Show on YouTube — but these are the exception, not the rule. The left may have these large channels, but the right has absolutely flooded the platforms with huge numbers of small-to-medium sized channels. Back in 2016, one software engineer discovered that whether a user began with a video promoting Donald Trump or a video promoting Hillary Clinton, autoplay was several times more likely to recommend a video promoting Donald Trump. 

The conserative dominance of YouTube becomes especially alarming when we consider the fact that YouTube is the second most visited website on the internet — behind Google. In fact, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2018 found that 94% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 used the website on a regular basis. I’m one of them: I listen to content as I drive to work or jog around campus, and I know that many of my friends do as well.

Of course, I am not advocating for the left to emulate the right’s reactionary approach to politics. On the contrary, I am advocating for a left that has significantly expanded its audience and can offset the raging fury of conservative YouTubers through a restrained and intelligent counter-dialogue. According to far-right YouTuber Paul Joseph Watson, the left is currently being dished a “monumental ass-whupping” on the platform — and it pains me to say that he is correct. Let’s work to change that.