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Creating Radicals: It Isn’t Just Viewers Being Sucked Down the Rabbit Hole

Last month, a moon-faced, beanie-clad Tim Pool appeared on Fox News Primetime to rail against New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s recent vaccine mandate, calling it akin to “racial segregation.”

For many viewers, this was their first exposure to Pool, who commands over 3.3 million subscribers on Youtube, earning hundreds of thousands per month on the platform. These viewers were likely unaware of the insane ideological odyssey that led Pool from an idealistic Wall Street occupier to one of the most popular figures on the right.

Pool began his career livestreaming the Occupy Wall Street protests, a movement with a decidedly leftist ideology. As the livestreams grew in popularity, Pool was able to score a job at Vice, where he was hired to cover foreign conflicts. After Vice realized that Pool had little journalistic skill, they let him go, with a former producer claiming that, “He was bringing nothing to the table.” 

After being fired by Vice, Pool similarly struck out at Fusion before starting a Youtube channel in 2017. By that point, Pool had shifted politically, going from a self-professed Bernie Sanders supporting “social liberal” to a “disaffected liberal” who espoused more right-wing ideas. As his popularity ascended, Pool leaned into reactionary politics, moving even further toward a hard-right ideology. 

Here For the Hang

The key to Pool’s popularity was his perceived authenticity. Media consumers on the internet often form parasocial relationships with the creator, creating a bond similar to a friendship. The appeal of unedited livestreams and confessional videos relies on the feeling that you’re hanging out with the creator. 

In the case of Tim Pool, his show served as his way of learning about the world along with his audience. This cements the bond between viewer and maker, the feeling that they’re going through this together. But by surrounding himself with increasingly fringe figures, Pool began to adopt more fringe beliefs, the influencer radicalized by his own creation.

There’s been a lot of attention focusing on Youtube’s ability to radicalize viewers through its algorithms, which prioritize sensational content that’s more likely to get engagement. But there has been less focus on the radicalization of the media makers themselves. As we’ll see, the easiest way to radicalize media consumers is to radicalize the media source itself.

The Alternative Influencer Network

Researcher Becca Lewis of Data & Society analyzed the influencer radicalization process in a 2020 report titled Alternative Influence. In the report, Lewis describes a parallel media system she dubs the Alternative Influencer Network (AIN), a largely internet-based group of content creators including Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, and Stefan Molyneaux, all of whom boast viewership in the hundreds of millions per month.

Within this network, Lewis says that collaborations form to generate a “cross promotion of ideas that form a broader, intertextual common ground.” This works similarly to the way cable news networks feature a familiar coterie of panelists and guests in order to reinforce an overarching political ideology.

We’ve seen this collaborative system develop through the emergence of the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), a loose collection of writers and internet personalities such as Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, and Jordan Peterson. The IDW cultivated a following by appearing on each other’s videos and repeating a similar contrarian view toward the status quo. While this group often gets tagged with the right-wing tag, Lewis writes that, “Many of these Youtubers are less defined by a single ideology than they are by a ‘reactionary position.’” 

So far, this is all fair play. Antiestablishment ideas, an alternative to the mainstream narrative, a challenge to the status quo.

But the problem begins when politics collide with the demands of the marketplace. Like mainstream media, Youtubers rely on the audience’s attention. If people lose interest, they lose income. At the same time, Youtube relies on content that engages viewers, which also pushes content creators to publish more extreme content. As Lewis writes, “The type of engagement created by the AIN fits neatly into Youtube’s business model.”

As a result, these reactionaries need to continually seek out things to react against. This is where more fringe figures can worm their way into the network in order to slowly push the influencer toward harder stances. Lewis says that, “because of the overlapping pattern of guest appearances in the AIN, it is remarkably easy for viewers to be exposed to incrementally more extreme content.”

Data & Society’s report provides the following graphic to illustrate the interconnectedness and complexity of the AIN. Notice that the highest profile names like Ben Shapiro, Richard Spencer, and Candace Owens sit around the ring of the web, with relatively few nodes of communication. When you dig deeper into the web you see the tangle of connections including the likes of Brittany Pettibone, Jeff Holiday, and Coach Red Pill, lesser known figures who still command audiences in the millions and embrace more extreme views than their more popular counterparts.

Image Source: Data & Society Alternative Influence

All Media Has Become Radicalized

To be fair, this type of influencer radicalization happens in all areas of media, all the way up to the mainstream. For every MAGA troll retweeting Richard Spencer clips, there’s a hippie boomer yelling at their television while listening to Rachel Maddow roast Trump while ignoring her own party’s failures.

The more the audience craves bloodlust aimed at the other side, the more networks have to deliver. In her book Merchants of Truth, former NY Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson  analyzed how technology changes impacted The Times, along with The Washington Post, Buzzfeed and Vice over the past decade. She found that journalism slowly morphed into the Buzzfeed model, where metrics and audience engagement determined which stories would be published and which headlines were used. This resulted in a system where the news being published wasn’t necessarily the most informative or accurate, but the content that attracted the most attention.

Suffice to say, we all bear some blame for the current media environment. While we aim our skepticism at the other side, we tend to give our own side the benefit of the doubt. By demanding more partisan stories and refusing to hear legitimate arguments from the other side, we’ve boxed ourselves into a corner. 

The more partisan our information grows, the more we want to silence any opposition to our ideas. But separating ourselves into tribes is quickly leading to a nation that can’t address even the most fundamental of disagreements. As media becomes more radicalized, we become more disconnected from each other.

How to Deradicalize Media

When talking about online radicalization, the knee jerk reaction tends to favor banning particular content creators. However, we’re seen the pitfalls of expecting social media companies to decide what is and isn’t protected speech. Both sides have seen their content unfairly penalized when discussing controversial topics.

Furthermore, social media’s attempts to block certain influencers have only caused them to hopscotch around the internet until they find a new audience. Banning influencers also helps harden their followers’ beliefs because now there’s proof that they’re being silenced.

The best solution we’ve got is to be aware that every content creator has an agenda, whether it’s financial, ideological, or just self promotional. Regardless if it’s Tim Pool or NBC, remember that you are just a data point to help them serve their agenda.

That doesn’t mean that you should doubt everything you see or read on the internet. It just means that everyone comes with their own baggage, and it’s our responsibility to weigh this against the claims being presented. 

Social media companies will never be able to parse out what qualifies as disinformation. Neither can government. But the one thing we can do is become more conscientious consumers of media. We can absorb information not to retweet to our followers, but to understand the world on a deeper level.

This comes from removing the veil of the tribe, to engage with the world on our own terms. Only then can we truly think for ourselves.