by Apurva Mahajan ‘22
Everyone knows the story of the underdog, succeeding when everyone thought the odds were all against him. But what happens when that same underdog turns to the wrong people? With the formation of parasocial relationships and the rise of content creator influencers, young people, particularly white teenage boys, are subject to becoming indoctrinated into far-right ideologies, sometimes even wandering into neo-nazi and other extremist territory. But what is the pathway that leads these young boys into alt-right ideologies?
The alt-right is a set of political ideologies that consists of white supremacy, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, classism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism all wrapped up in a single term that seems to downplay it all. Youtube algorithms play a major role in showing these ideologies to people. According to a study by Cornell, there is “strong evidence for radicalization among YouTube users,” especially through the Youtube algorithms and its recommendations to viewers. Once they start, the recommendations snowball and more start to show up. Radical content comes in strains such as the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW) filled with people who believe they are shunned from mainstream media because of their “controversial” (usually racist) takes, and the “Alt-lite,” described by Cornell as people who “deny to embrace white supremacist ideology, although they frequently flirt with concepts associated with it.”
A parasocial relationship is the psychological one-sided relationship between a viewer and a content creator. The viewer feels like they know the content creator’s entire life, that they are friends and can relate to one another, but in reality, the content creator does not even know that the viewer exists. The people most at risk for falling down this pipeline are often those in the majority: white, cisgender, straight men. According to the New York Times, “many kids feel out of place, frustrated and misunderstood, and are vulnerable to the idea that someone else is responsible for their discontent. When they’re white and male, they’re spoon-fed a list of scapegoats: people of color, feminists, immigrants, L.G.B.T.Q. people. If they really embrace this, it’s not hard to convince them that there’s a “white genocide” happening.”
The influencers market the alt-right as a “lifestyle,” not a political ideology. This “lifestyle” is appealing to these men because while their problems are not unique or systemic, they feel like they can finally relate to someone and believe that this new “lifestyle” that these creators talk about will solve their problems. The indoctrination is subtle at first, they don’t jump the gun with white supremacy. Instead, the creators deliberately start with less radical ideas, like men’s rights activism, and “race realism,” increasing until their viewers are absorbed into the alt-right world. “I just kept falling deeper and deeper into this, and it appealed to me because it made me feel a sense of belonging … I was brainwashed,” said Caleb Cain in an interview with The New York Times. Cain is a former radical right-winger who was influenced by Youtube conspiracies to the point where he was convinced that “innate I.Q. differences explained racial disparities, and that feminism was a dangerous ideology.”
Sometimes, Youtubers don’t even realize they are garnering a far-right audience. They could say something that was meant to be an “edgy” joke, and their core audience dismisses it, but the neo-nazis and extremists in their audience provide positive feedback to the Youtuber. This leads to a cycle of radicalization, where the Youtuber continues to create hateful content because of the positive feedback, and eventually the core audience starts to be desensitized to the content because it comes from someone they believe is trustworthy. The audience and the content creator simultaneously radicalize each other.
But how can these alt-right creators and videos be recognized? While de-radicalizing is positive, it takes a lot of time and effort, and usually once someone is fully indoctrinated there is no turning back. This makes preventative efforts the best approach to combating the alt-right propaganda on Youtube. Many of these content creators focus on presenting as “truth-telling rebels” and talk about topics such as free speech and feminism. There are also dog whistles and terms that the alt-right uses. Becoming educated on the alt-right and its methods of indoctrination is the best way to avoid getting sucked into the world of neo-nazis, fascists and skinheads.