© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

YouTube Creators Are Trying To Fight Radicalization Online


YouTube is constantly tinkering with its recommendation system. It's designed to keep viewers watching for as long as possible. Outside tech experts, however, have shown how YouTube's algorithms can lead viewers quickly down a rabbit hole of increasingly fringe videos, in some cases ending up with extremist, mostly right-wing content. A growing number of content creators are trying to get in front of that audience and stop radicalization. NPR's Andrew Limbong introduces us to two of them.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Here's how one teenager got caught up watching far-right videos. His name's Alex, and he didn't want us to use his last name for fear of retaliation. When he was 16, he spent a lot of time on YouTube watching angry videos.

ALEX: And I started to believe that feminism was a bunch of whining about nothing and that third-wave feminism was cancer. That's what I was basically told.

LIMBONG: From there, YouTube recommended more increasingly extreme right-wing creators.

ALEX: And then further down, I started watching people like Stefan Molyneux...

LIMBONG: Who made a long movie about protecting Poland as a white ethno-state.

ALEX: ...And Lauren Southern.

LIMBONG: A far-right advocate who made this video about a racist conspiracy called the great replacement.


LAUREN SOUTHERN: And with the disparities in birth rates, the non-Muslim population will continue to decline as the Muslim population multiplies in France well above the replacement rate.

LIMBONG: This isn't just rambling hate speech. It has real-world consequences. For instance, the great replacement inspired the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting.

ALEX: I would hear all these stats and be like, well, damn, she must know what she's talking about.

LIMBONG: Alex says Lauren Southern didn't sound hateful to him; she sounded pragmatic. But listen to how her arguments on immigration fall apart when she gets into it with a guy named Steven Bonnell in an interview on YouTube.


SOUTHERN: But you saying that there is no proof that immigrants are a net drain on the country, I think, is ridiculous.

STEVEN BONNELL: I mean, most of the reading that I did to prepare for this was of the economist that you cited in your book who agrees that immigration has been a net gain for the Western world in every...

LIMBONG: That was Steven Bonnell, one of the few creators on YouTube who are actively challenging this deluge of misinformation. It wasn't always part of his gig. Bonnell's career began playing video games online and cracking jokes. But then he noticed others in his field becoming more political, getting real popular making videos attacking feminism, racial justice, immigration.

BONNELL: Basically what I saw was - especially around the 2016 time period, especially listening to Trump - was there's just so many bad arguments. And it drove me crazy to see how many people are just unwilling to engage with the reality of what they're talking about.

LIMBONG: So Bonnell began holding hours-long debates with them.

BONNELL: At the end of the day, I want my person that I'm talking to to feel like they're floundering or to feel like they don't know what they're talking about or that their arguments, you know, fell apart under more scrutiny.

LIMBONG: Another YouTuber giving these arguments more scrutiny is Natalie Wynn. She runs the channel ContraPoints. And instead of debating these personalities directly, she'll break down their arguments in video essays like this.


NATALIE WYNN: They'll also use euphemisms for core components of their beliefs. If talking about preserving a homeland for white people sounds too fascist, they'll talk about preserving Western civilization or Western culture instead.

LIMBONG: Wynn says she started this channel because she'd been watching this corner of hate and misinformation grow for years. And she's learned a few things. You have to take trolls seriously. You have to use their language, and you have to confront their prejudices head-on. And as a trans woman, for Wynn, that meant making jokes at her own expense.

WYNN: I know I look weird. I know that you have an idea of me as this, like, degenerate. But, like, I am capable of seeing things the way you're seeing things. I'm capable of making jokes from your perspective. Now just listen to me.

LIMBONG: And it worked. Her videos questioning misogynist involuntary celibates and other pop philosophers got millions of views. Now she is expanding her scope, tackling topics more directed at her growing female and queer audiences because edgy boys aren't the only ones affected by toxic online communities.

WYNN: I'm not worried about being out of work because humanity is suddenly going to become happy and functional.

LIMBONG: It's an uphill battle. Overall, five hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every minute, and even the company itself struggles to find a fair and effective way to police extremism on its platform. But Wynn and Bonnell are inspiring others, like Alex, who's 19 now, to start their own channels - a small but growing cohort of creators hoping to make YouTube a little less hateful. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 10, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this story, we incorrectly say five hours of content is uploaded to YouTube every minute. It is actually 500 hours per minute.
Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.