Alternative Influence

Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube

Rebecca Lewis

Published 09.18.18
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New Data & Society report Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube by Researcher Rebecca Lewis presents data from approximately 65 political influencers across 81 channels to identify the “Alternative Influence Network (AIN)”; an alternative media system that adopts the techniques of brand influencers to build audiences and “sell” them political ideology.

Alternative Influence offers insights into the connection between influence, amplification, monetization, and radicalization at a time when platform companies struggle to handle policies and standards for extremist influencers. The network of scholars, media pundits, and internet celebrities that Lewis identifies leverages YouTube to promote a range of political positions, from mainstream versions of libertarianism and conservatism, all the way to overt white nationalism.

Notably, YouTube is a principal online news source for young people.1 Which is why it is concerning that YouTube, a subsidiary of Google, has become the single most important hub by which an extensive network of far-right influencers profit from broadcasting propaganda to young viewers.

“Social networking between influencers makes it easy for audience members to be incrementally exposed to, and come to trust, ever more extremist political positions,” writes Lewis, who outlines how YouTube incentivizes their behavior. Lewis illustrates common techniques that these far-right influencers use to make money as they cultivate alternative social identities and use production value to increase their appeal as countercultural social underdogs. The report offers a data visualization of this network to show how connected influencers act as a conduit for viewership.

1.Aaron Smith and Monica Anderson, “Social Media Use in 2018” (Pew Research Center, March 1, 2018), http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/pi_2018-03-01_social-media_0-01/.

"Social networking between influencers makes it easy for audience members to be incrementally exposed to, and come to trust, ever more extremist political positions."
– Rebecca Lewis, Alternative Influence

Lewis’s work brings up important questions for deeper consideration, such as:

  • Does YouTube encourage its users to follow bread crumb trails to more extreme ideological content?
  • How do these influencers establish credibility, relatability, and authenticity with their audiences?
  • Which influencers aim to destabilize audience members’ world-views in order to turn them against mainstream media, in some cases encouraging them to openly embrace racism, misogyny, and white nationalism?
  • How does the Alternative Influence Network interact with recommendation algorithms to surface extremist content, especially to young people? Who profits off these dynamics?
  • Why has YouTube remained conspicuously absent from calls for platform accountability?
  • How can we raise awareness of influencers’ top techniques, from SEO to strategic controversy, for building and radicalizing online audiences?

Three key quotes from Alternative Influence:

  • “Increasingly, understanding the circulation of extremist political content does not just involve fringe communities and anonymous actors. Instead, it requires us to scrutinize polished, well-lit microcelebrities and the captivating videos that are easily available on the pages of the internet’s most popular video platform.”
  • “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.”
  • “YouTube monetizes influence for everyone, regardless of how harmful their belief systems are. The platform, and its parent company, have allowed racist, misogynist, and harassing content to remain online – and in many cases, to generate advertising revenue – as long as it does not explicitly include slurs. YouTube also profits directly from features like Super Chat which often incentivizes ‘shocking’ content.”

This report is part of the Media Manipulation Initiative at Data & Society.

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