New media pushes viewers to political extremes


Courtesy of ediebloom

Businessman texting on his phone on a street bench.

Nathan Cirian

The internet, since its commercial introduction in 1991, has changed everything it has touched.

Political discourse has been no exception.

Where people go for their political engagement has changed over time, and one video sharing platform, YouTube, has created channels through which people can develop their political positions based on personally tailored facts for multiple ideologies.

This can then translate into one’s beliefs and actions. To this, Iowa State has also been no exception.

Dirk Deam, senior lecturer in political science, said many media sources today have become niched, meaning a person can find like-minded people to suit various ideologies and frames of reference.

“This content is not the same as news,” Deam said.

The largest beneficiaries of this niched content have been those on the right, largely because their numbers on YouTube overshadow their opponents in terms of viewership, subscribers and the amount of creators in general.

Many popular right-wing channels on YouTube hold anywhere between 500,000 to 2 million subscribers. These numbers allow them to influence the algorithm on YouTube that suggests videos to those who visit the website.

Most of these groups fall within or intersect with the white supremacist ideology, the so-called “alt-right,” a term coined by Richard Spencer that he attributes to protecting the “white identity” from “political correctness” and “social justice.”

In a report on the influence of the “alt-right” on Youtube, it was found that a network of right-wing content was created and may eventually introduce viewers to more radical personalities and ideas.

While left personalities also exist, their position was created, in part, as a counter to right-wing YouTube.

A large majority of the content coming from these left-wing YouTube personalities is dedicated to debunking the ideas of the right wing on YouTube.

However, their content does not have as much influence over the algorithm compared to their much larger and successful right wing counterparts. As a result, the most popular politically left personality, Natalie Wynn, a PhD student-turned-internet personality and activist has 422,571 subscribers as of January 22, 2018.

In comparison, right wing YouTubers Sargon of Akkad has 904,566 subscribers and Paul Joseph Watson has 1,538,535 subscribers.

According to the report on “alt-right” influence, this specialized environment of interconnected content is exposing viewers to potential white supremacist content — through collaborations between creators — and potentially radicalizing them.

YouTube’s algorithm paired with this network of collaborations is even further amplified by the reach YouTube has the potential to have on certain demographics. Young people from the ages 18 to 34 use YouTube at a rate of nearly 96 percent, according to the statistics gathering website Statista.

”It seems as if you are never ‘hard core’ enough for YouTube’s recommendation algorithm,” said Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor from the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina in the New York Times. “It promotes, recommends and disseminates videos in a manner that appears to constantly up the stakes.”

Tufekci went on to say YouTube “may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.”

With the potential of radicalization on YouTube and the internet as a whole, the ideas, jokes and tactics of the far right on the internet have made their way to campuses across the United States, including Iowa State.

Benjamin Whittington, vice president of Politics at Iowa State University, and Taylor Blair, president of the Iowa State University College Democrats, acknowledged the presence of these “radical” ideas on campus.

Blair mentioned many instances of “trolling” within events and meetings on campus, including the defacing of Election Day chalk on campus in Oct. 2018 proclaiming “West is Best.”

There have also been cards and posters placed throughout campus containing contact information and white supremacist propaganda from prominent white supremacist groups nationwide, such as The Right Stuff, a white supremacist website run by Michael “Enoch” Peinovich, who also runs a podcast titled the Daily Shoah. Shoah refers to the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

Whittington said during his time at Iowa State he had interacted with people who were radicals and espoused views tied to white nationalism. He said people fall for these ideas when they do not have a counter to them.

“There is a certain type of person getting bogged down in these radical ideas,” Whittington said. “These people are often young men, [who] tended to be white, lonely, incel-like internet dwellers — and white nationalists take advantage of that.”

To combat these radicals, Whittington suggested people “take their arguments seriously and destroy them.”

Blair said it was difficult to target the issue with the amount of anonymity and irony surrounding the ideas and memes of the far right on the internet, as those who share these memes may “unironically support the political messages within their jokes.”

Deam said he was not aware of an “‘extremist presence’ on campus” but he did say “most college students [he] interact[s] with are more afflicted with basic ignorance or inattentiveness than ideology.”

When asked whether these problems exist on the left, on campus or on the internet, Blair and Whittington differed slightly.

Whittington said this phenomenon has potential to exist on the left as well but “you would have to change what you’re looking for.”

Blair, on the other hand, said radicals on the left were not as dangerous as those on the right.

“For the most part, they mostly just want universal healthcare and other progressive goals,” Blair said.

Aside from memes about guillotining and eating the rich, Blair said he did not believe the far left posed as much of a threat as the “toxic pile of racism and bigotry” on the far right.

“I think that it is far more likely that our campus has students on it following, promoting and possibly acting on white nationalist ideologies than there are students who follow … or act on the ostensible opposing ideology frequently collectively referred to as ‘Antifa,’” said Iowa State assistant history professor Jeremy Best, referring to the abbreviated form of “anti-fascist.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story listed Benjamin Whittington as the president of Iowa State’s chapter of Turning Point USA. The article has been updated to reflect his actual position and organization. The Daily regrets this error.