The Making of a YouTube Radical: Why Reactionaries Hate Critique

Caleb Cain, a typical college dropout, was “brainwashed.” In his own words, the internet was his escape from a life of misdirection, where his torn family, the struggles of school, internalized depression, economic anxieties and a divided social-fabric were seen as “too authoritarian” for comfort. After ten years of searching for answers, this vulnerable boy who “fell into the wrong crowds” was gradually groomed by YouTube’s “decentralized cult” of far-right personalities hook, line and sinker.

In many ways, Cain and I shared the same journey. 

There’s a misconception that radicalization can be explained by the “hypodermic needle” theory, where the intended messages from online media are directly received and wholly accepted by audiences. Someone sits down at their computer, watches a handful of Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer videos and suddenly they’re a “hu-white advocate” for the ethnostate. Outside those already primed for racism, this is rightfully laughed off as absurd. When it comes to ideas, which can stick in the mind like a seed, there’s simply more beneath the surface.

To say otherwise is almost as absurd as guilt by association, another misconception being used to deflect criticism of gateway pundits to radical politics, which also needs clarifying. To loosely quote YouTuber Shaun: If I’m working in an office and a co-worker abuses his cat, I shouldn’t be singled out as an abuser based on this unrelated association. If, however, I happen to run a course on whether it’s ethical to abuse cats, where students perhaps used my lessons to inform their own actions, the association is suspect no matter the course’s intent or how the lessons are being conducted. Association can be confrontation just as it can be cooperation, it just depends on the context.

For white liberals and middle-men drug dealers selling the red pill, the relationship with the far-right involves these little complexities. As recently reported by The New York Times, the love affair with hate culture often forms on YouTube. Cain, as an accidental subject, viewed thousands of hours of content from leftists, liberals, conservatives, libertarians and, eventually, fascists, all intermingling in this space now known as “the culture war.” This sphere was highlighted in the controversial Data & Society report which, while flawed in methodology, tried to present the cast of characters on display.

It’s important to understand that radicalization never starts with the obvious crazies cited above. Instead, wistful moderates can be drawn in by the exciting crazies who present themselves as anything but for marketing necessity. As Times journalist Kevin Roose writes: “These people weren’t all shouty demagogues. They were entertainers, building their audience with satirical skits, debates and interviews with like-minded creators.” “Some of them were part of the alt-right,” Roose continues, “a loose cohort of pro-Trump activists who sandwiched white nationalism between layers of internet sarcasm. Others considered themselves ‘alt-lite’, or merely anti-progressive.” 

To steal another quote from Quillette’s Cathy Young: All these controversial figures often manifest as simply “allies against the ‘SJWs’ or ‘the regressive left,’ allowed to masquerade as reasonable anti-PC centrists” rather than a coalition of mainstream and fringe voices engaging with their own dangerous differences. There's very little internal talk of whether anti-Muslim advocacy is as sufficient as a Muslim ban or outright Muslim deportations, but you can see the agreement on who the pointed enemy is. A coalition purely based on opposition is almost bound to scoop up bad actors, which become propped up by smarter actors willing to legitimize their excesses.

Cain admits these right-wing videos, featuring a huge array of characters with their own unique backstories, tend to blend into one another based on these consistent targets. This is broadly defined as “the left,” which tend to lump in Jews, Muslims, feminists, liberals, neo-liberals, social democrats, socialists, anarchists, #Resisitence SJWs and anyone to the left of Obama and characterizes them as responsible for the death of “western civilization.” Anyone deemed worthy of a “helicopter ride,” the meme referring to the murder of leftist activists under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, was the enemy. Cain’s viewing history, verified by the Times and showcased in a visual collage of personalities, is a multi-varied mess showing his previous allies and their questionable links. 

“I just kept falling deeper and deeper into this, and it appealed to me because it made me feel a sense of belonging,” Cain said in his video from March. “I was brainwashed.” For several years, what started out as innocent content from Jimmy Kimmel and Phillip DeFranco turned into the likes of Stefan Molyneux, Lauren Southern, Jean-François Gariépy, Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin, Jordan Peterson, Milo Yiannopolous, Dave Rubin, Alex Jones, Faith Goldy, Steven Crowder, Ben Shapiro and several others. To illustrate my wider point, try and decide their individual ideologies as we continue. For the sake of time and clarity, we’ll focus on Molyneux, the man Cain credits as his gateway entry man.

For an outsider, many of these names can easily fly over their head. One man’s radical is another man’s savior, one ideology can be mistaken for another and the liars among them tend to have many faces. YouTube’s recommendation algorithms, which reportedly accounts for over 70% of all time spent on the site, is just as clueless about making these distinctions. The complaining moderates, who counter Cain by arguing they’re no ally to the radicals, also fail in making distinctions. It appears these failures are also by design, whether the goal is financial or ideological or simple lightening in a bottle.

“There’s a spectrum on YouTube between the calm section, the Walter Cronkite, Carl Sagan part, and Crazytown, where the extreme stuff is,” said Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, YouTube’s parent company. “If I’m YouTube and I want you to watch more, I’m always going to steer you toward Crazytown.” But how does one arrive in Crazytown? Why is asking the questions of pipeline radicalization controversial? Are there innocent people caught in the cross-fire? Or are some of these complaints just red-herrings in a sketchy industry requiring more coverage?

It wasn't always overt hatred through the looking glass, however. Molyneux, the radio host and a self-styled “philosopher” who had his own radical shift in politics, does offer a grand display for humanization. For Cain, the two shared an abusive childhood background, financial hardships, education troubles and insecurities with modern society, all the while distinct in their status. As a shy recluse, Cain was hooked by the “smart” and “passionate” way Molyneux can present seemingly harmless arguments of “self-improvement” through a “sales funnel” towards harmful political agendas. Once Cain saw it was a “funnel to fascism,” he started to get nervous.

“He was willing to address young men’s issues directly, in a way I’d never heard before,” Cain told the Times. These issues, while not inherently objectionable, would spark interest in Molyneux’s much more divisive charges. “Feminism is a form of socialism with panties” making “profound changes in marriage and gender relations for the worse,” Molyneux claims, later delving into the much more murky waters of how “low IQ, rapey” migrants, which he links to both race and culture, are coming with a “horrifying civilization ending” force against the west. Cain cited the 22 alleged rapes in Cologne, Germany as his point of reference to apply the claim more broadly.

Whether Molyneux and company intended underlying hate is irrelevant, Cain’s audience takeaway was still that conservatism was insufficient to “save the free society” of western civilization he saw at risk from those dumb migrant rapists. He found this utopian fantasy required “stronger borders, social cohesion and raising the birth rates” of “intelligent people” to avoid “degeneracy” such as sexual assaults. Keep in mind, this is somewhat of a leftist concern considering #MeToo, #TimesUp and several other causes seeking to address such a crisis. It makes sense why a liberal could be suckered into believing stereotypes like this. 

Cain would later find himself listening to Jared Taylor, the white nationalist editor of American Renaissance and frequent praised guest on Molyneux’s program, who assured viewers Taylor’s race content was both “highly recommended” since it’s “very data-driven” and “not ideological.” Cain was enthralled by their shared framework of an “immutable hierarchy” which remained ever linked to the original craving of a “strong sense of self”. For a swindled liberal, these hateful claims can be sold under the guise of a seemingly benevolent empathy, as Molyneux demonstrated in his Rubin Report interview by calling the IQ claim “unbelievably heartbreaking.” 

This is a reoccurring appeal to emotion people like Cain can find convincing. Months later, seeking to describe his love for Poland, which he claims is 99% white, Molyneux tried to omit any disdain for the marginalized by instead focusing on his love for the white majority, which of course carries that disdain regardless. “I go to Poland… I don’t need security, the streets are incredibly clean, crime is almost non-existent, nobody gets called a racist, there’s no talk of white privilege, no identity politics, no diversity nagging… I’ve spoken out against white nationalism… [but] I’m listening…” Cain admits he never thought of his racism as racism, but simply “uncomfortable truths” which, aside from being misleading, were justification to “expel the traitors” seeking to harm the very free way of life he loved. “I felt like it was giving me power and respect and authority.” It’s a convincing song for those not hearing the lyrics for what they are: authoritarian.

Reactionaries could have given a thoughtful reaction to Cain’s story. If someone went to you and found a funnel to fascism, where Richard Spencer can praise associations as “gateway drugs” or “first steps” to the alt-right, even when those relationships are somewhat contestable, it would be “unbelievably heartbreaking” to know you fostered this journey if those charges actually carry meaning. Instead, Molyneux laughed off Cain’s brainwashing as “insulting to real victims of brainwashing”. 

He never offers introspection whether his arguments, his framing, his guests, his sources, his ideals and entire sense of self necessitates a radical mindset. For a guy who values arguments, it’s ironic how he can’t fathom when or how they stick in viewers’ heads. “I don’t even know what to say to that,” Molyneux said of this “decentralized cult,” ignoring the pathology as he continued to scroll. In turn, he diverted to the simple argument of ‘no u.’ He echoes my own entry man, Sargon, who claims Cain was instead being brainwashed by “communists” on “BreadTube,” the so-called new leftist anarchist YouTube sphere. The name is a reference to Peter Kropotkin’s 1892 manifesto “The Conquest of Bread.” These “communists” are rather leftists such as Destiny, ContraPoints, PhilosophyTube and several others. 

This claim is, of course, overblown. You could say all politics is a trade of grooming for new support. Aside from the irony of counter-blaming radicalization, the merits are faulty when the mindset isn’t towards fascism, the complete rule over the people through violent means, or leaving the races in a race to the bottom, but rather a simple left-libertarianism, which tends to focus on class-consciousness where diversity and socio-economic reforms allow people to freely co-exist in a mutual agreement upward. Hierarchy necessitates the exploitation and unjust violence needed to maintain it. The same can’t be said of equity, now brought to you by milkshake protests.

This isn’t to avoid problems with leftist radicalization. There remains the issue of ANTIFA’s mob justice which, based on the flawed judgement of passionate activists, leads to weaponized bikelocks, punches and property damage being wielded against innocent people. The stench of communist revisionism, from Stalin to Castro, continues to plague the libertarian-anarchist movements of today. These excesses do require more investigation than partisans on the right can muster. Former reactionaries, such as Cain and myself, are willing to acknowledge these faults. We’re no deniers of radicalism, but rather canaries in the coal mine warning how propaganda pornographers sell their snuff on easy minds. Just like porn, it never begins with the hardcore crazies, but those who ease the viewer towards that logical end.

YouTube, whether intentionally or not, knew how to turn even this love affair into a money-maker. Since March 2012, YouTube’s engineers made it so its recommendations algorithm was no longer programmed to maximize views by showing users videos they were likely to click on. In response, YouTube recommendations favoured watch time over the number of views, which lead to a reported overall increase in site engagement and income, even despite centralized view declines. Decentralization, spreading the rabbit hole for users, was the key to its success. The Times even cites another 2017 report which found that YouTube’s watch time grew 50% over three consecutive years.

Progressive YouTubers made their gains under this system, but were soon “dwarfed” by creators on the right seizing populism for their own during 2015. The newspaper cites several current and former YouTube employees, verified though under the condition of anonymity due to confidentiality agreements, who said company leaders were “obsessed” with increasing engagement during those same years. The executives “rarely considered” whether the company’s algorithms were “fueling the spread of extreme and hateful political content.” Intentions matter, but the overall result, bolstering the far-right populists to power, is a stain on YouTube’s record in assisting radicalization.

YouTube has tried repairing this record with no anti-hate policies. “While we’ve made good progress, our work here is not done, and we will continue making more improvements this year,” a YouTube spokesman, Farshad Shadloo, said in a statement to the Times. No doubt this is a dodge. Given the recent history of carelessly selective enforcement, where Black Pigon Speaks is removed and reinstated despite smearing ethnic migrants as rapists while ShoeOnHead has videos removed laughing at homophobes freaking out about gays existing in cartoons. 

Ultimately, the platform is stuck between being an ineffectual monopoly, allowing big money for little work as ToS is handled by AI, or being a legitimate platform willing to filter out the echo chambers of its users and enforce comprehensive rules as a community. There is no clear answer how to stop big tech’s monetized radicalization, but making the most of the message space, calling out those who abuse the platform for unearned gains based on snake oil ideologies, is necessary to fight the right’s tribalist pull. 

Reactionaries, running scared that their business model has been exposed, rely on denying the stories of their swindled fans pulled to close to fascism. “YouTube is the place to put out a message,” Cain concludes. “But I’ve learned now that you can’t go to YouTube and think that you’re getting some kind of education, because you’re not. You have to reach people on their level, and part of that is edgy humor, edgy memes. You have to empathize with them, and then you have to give them the space to get all these ideas out of their head.”

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