The Problem With Kevin Roose’s Essay on YouTube Radicalization

Favorable framing takes precedence over moral responsibility.

In all manners familiar to news media, the world got first exposed to the woes of online radicalization through a blockbuster story courtesy of the New York Times by resident technology columnist, Kevin Roose. The story was thorough in its examination of what happened when one young man, Caleb Cain, got sucked into an algorithmic hellscape of extremist content on YouTube, and how that nearly turned him into the very thing he used to fear back when his liberal fabric was still untainted. Extremist right-wing pundits had undoubtedly tapped into quite a vulnerable part of young white men’s disillusionment with the way that society had cast out their grievances and deemed them secondary concern, but even with that generous framing in mind, Caleb Cain, couldn’t help himself but be yet another pawn in the media’s machine whose often method of procedure, is not to consider a story worthy of pursuing until it befits a compelling narrative of a collective awakening, as opposed to shedding a light on it when it’s most effective.

The story had all the makings of a hit. It was helmed by a reputable media organization, and it comprised a much bigger narrative than its narrow confines–the culture-bending investigation into Harvey Weinstein published by the New Yorker is a good example of such stories. Kevin Roose’s story is not all-that-dissimilar from a framing perspective to Ronan Farrow’s, only in this case, it wasn’t the pressing concern of a distraught womanhood at the current state of entertainment business hierarchies and how they played exactly into men’s patriarchal narrative about who’s afforded the most leeway with regards to consent; but it was rather the collective fright of a spike in right-wing fueled violations amidst a fractured America and a West undergoing a sweeping dominance by populist far-right movements, continuously weathering the threat of civil unrest and terrorist activity. Political pundits on YouTube were not the chief topic of discussion until very recently, but once their lackeys started firing live ammunition at innocent civilians with the hope of ratifying some sort of manifesto about the perseverance of the white race, a number of questions had to be urgently posed about where this came from, and what could we do to stop it.

Though, the Kevin Roose story, for all its triumphs in making the discussion of online radicalization through YouTube a national one, it still falls victim to the many archetypal issues plaguing traditional news media. Namely, and perhaps most notably, is the focus on a narrative of white redemption, only pursuing threads of story once they’ve become woefully irrelevant or obsolete, or worse yet, feeding the traditional media cycle only once another atrocity with the scale and magnitude of the Christchurch mosque shooting has occurred.

Reading through it, it is immediately possible to tell why such a narrative is appealing–a white man made a bad decision in his life that has immediately cascaded through the convoluted trappings of a corrupt big tech into a full-on fledged radicalization spree. That vilification of irresponsible entities within the larger realm of societal influencers is oftentimes the very incentive lawmakers need to have in order to act quickly and swiftly on an epidemic. But its aim, don’t justify its methods, and what that ends up doing, is perpetuating a cycle where the opinions of an unvetted public figure are automatically relegated to hearsay, while a journalist’s — whose work is undoubtedly valuable — are taken as the near-only valuable literature in conducting that fight.

Taking a look at YouTube’s own history, it is very apparent that a New York Times longform feature should not have been the first clue something has gone terribly awry. While unconventionally-radical political pundits like Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were promoting the view that certain groups of people were inferior due to innate genetic differences based on IQ, or other dubious concepts of the sort, BreadTube — a collective of progressive YouTubers whose denomination comes straight from anarchist literature — took it upon itself not only to tip the scales in its favor while scolding mass media’s disregard of their concerns as yet again another sign of their wilful complicity.

Kat Blaque — a prolific YouTuber in BreadTube circles, and public speaker on a number of social justice-related issues — was one of the very first to include Caleb Cain’s broadcast testimony on the first episode of a documentary series aiming to explain the rebranding of white nationalism as something saner than it actually is. It spoke in great detail about how online radicalization is not only the isolated result of mismanagement by YouTube and the ubiquity of far-right commentary on the platform, but it’s also the culmination of many lessons taken from contemporary fascist groups on how to dilute the extremist messages to better befit the public’s conception of “civil speech”. The video struck gold with its intended audience, but it remained fairly niche right where its impact could be most felt. It reignited — even if briefly — a candid conversation about the long-running trend of news media ignoring statements of urgency made by people of color, in favor of promoting the white perspective on them.

Natalie Wynn aka ContraPoints — a YouTuber mentioned in the story — had first flirted with the concept of exposing radical far-right ideas for the hogwash it truly is in a video dating back to early 2017, titled “What the Alt-Right Fears”. It correctly used the nomenclature modern neo-Nazi Richard Spencer had coined for popular use, but it also was one of the very first demonstrable examples of a progressive YouTube figure laying out the foundational literature for how far-right extremism would be interpreted for the remainder of the discourse’s lifetime. After correctly arguing that a vying for a white nationalist ethnostate can’t be equated to cultural homogeneity in parts of Africa and Asia, Natalie went on to say the following:

White Nationalism isn’t about facts. So what it is about? Well, progressives may be thinking that it’s about hate. And it kind of is. But based on my experience immersed in white nationalist discourse online, I have to say that the more predominant mood, is fear.

How come that, more than two years earlier, a then-relatively unknown figure in the fight against online radicalization, had correctly identified the symptoms exhibited by its most devoted followers?

That question, is of course, rhetorical. The warning signs had already been piling ever since the first mass mobilization movements online — Gamergate — broke into the scene. It showed that literature inciting violence against a specific group or individual could spread like wildfire even when its foundational doctrine is just a sophisticated falsity. The lie that radical right-wingers have been sold online is, that feminists and progressives are out to disrupt the pre-established societal norms that their morally-righteous ancestors have set up for them, and in that, the increased visibility of concepts like queerness, trans identity, female empowerment, the erosion of the patriarchy, the dismantling of nuclear families–all, are designed to wreak havoc upon a treasured tradition of socially conservative values. Concepts that the forefathers of conservative thought would have not approved of.

Even earlier than ContraPoints, was another mentioned YouTuber in the story who goes by the name of “Destiny”. Like many of his colleagues, Steven Bonnell started out in a part of YouTube that could be best-described as adjacent to political commentary, but not exactly within it. Destiny used to post quite regular bursts of gaming content on his YouTube channel, carrying on from his prominent presence on Twitch as one of the very first content creators to call Twitch a home to his gaming extravaganza–far-long before it became the Amazon-owned behemoth that it is today. Destiny’s first foray into political content came from the now-renowned format of debates–an ideological head-to-head confrontation between (typically) opposing worldviews, with the point being that bystanders get to decide who performed the best, and therefore, who “won” the debate.

Kevin Roose’s recounting of Caleb Cain’s reversion to the left included the specific mention of a debate Destiny had with Lauren Southern. It was about immigration, and for anyone who could’ve potentially not anticipated that a rightward perspective on immigration is often ill-informed and at best grossly exaggerated, it was not a surprise that Caleb’s then-right-wing inclinations did not dissuade him from declaring Destiny victorious.

That Destiny was able to win a debate where his only challenge was the lack of any statistical basis for Lauren’s claims was not a surprise. What’s most surprising, is that this debate completely skipped the media cycle, and having taken place just mere days before Trump’s inauguration, it was very quickly subsumed by an unforgiving wave of coverage, going through every detail of the Democratic party’s defeat at the elections, even when the media could afford itself the space to talk about what would ensue very quickly after the rightward political fringe have gotten emboldened by Trump’s ascent into presidential power.

BreadTube did continue in its fight against far-right radical ideals, even as media was exhibiting the strongest case of radio silence on the issue. One such manifestation of a mass-movement around a proposed set of socially-motivated radical political reform is the “Great Replacement” — a term frequently attributed to French writer Renaud Camus — brought back into the collective political consciousness of YouTube in a video released in mid-2017. Lauren Southern, who had already cemented herself as a martyr for the most obscenely radical ideas in online political discourse, had formed an initial framework for a scheme that would displace racially-removed demographics from the already-deliberate concept of whiteness within the West, so to cleanse its progressively-browning skin palette from what it had deemed its most-troublesome elements–all as part of a response to a recent demographic shift that’s being dubbed as “white genocide”. If it sounds like it could be a recipe for an even bigger disaster, it’s because Nazi Germany had gone with a frighteningly-similar tactic of fear-mongering against Jews, before weaponizing mass public panic to launch into a campaign of brutal bloodshed, one that is unparalleled in villainy and horrid all-throughout the 20th century.

Lessons of times past hadn’t seemingly stuck the landing on Lauren and her ideological analogues, and it thus prompted one of the most prominent figures in BreadTube, “Shaun” to break down why such an endeavor is inconceivably-difficult at best, and impossibly-immoral at its very worst. The video ran the whole gamut of scientifically-intelligible analysis, as well as rigorous fact-finding and fact-checking to push for the correct thesis that demographic change is inevitable, and any policy with the extent of steering it one way or the other is primed for catastrophic failure. Shaun echoed a sentiment in progressive circles at the tail end of the video that very much describes left-wing consensus in saying that “with regards to the whole white genocide thing, just don’t worry about it [..] demographic change is inevitable, it will happen regardless of what you do” further adding “it’s not a matter of fighting it or not, it can’t be fought, it’s just what happens. It’s what always happened, and it’s nothing to worry about”.

Shaun’s response video occurred a mere six days after Lauren Southern made her original point. How long did it take a mainstream outlet — like say, the New York Times — to catch up with the problematic content of such a proclamation? Two years is the answer. And a relevant Google search turns up a result whose first pages only stretch as far back to March of this year–making it sound like the concept of mass-displacing non-white minorities is a recent invention. But it’s not. Mainstream media’s sizeable lag to catch up with the story is concrete proof that waiting until the perfect archetype for a blockbuster story to form is playing right into the far-right’s desired narrative of complicity.

The New York Times — and arguably many other publications of its size — are public servants, and they should wield the massive reach they have with responsibility. What ends up happening all-too-often though, is stories of ardent extremists get sidelined by a stereotype-ridden idea of an oversized, Cheeto-scented, basement-dwelling, poorly-maintained hunk of a hairy carcass whose main preoccupation is trolling liberals online and seeking unprovoked confrontation. But as perpetrators of right-wing violence continue to make their presence known, that caricature very quickly to root itself more in fiction than reality. It shows that mass media’s reaction to online radicalization — specifically on the right — is very slow, and is often doused in (compelling) false equivalencies between it, and its left-wing counterpart, and/or the notion that radical behavior can be contained to online circles and will continue to live in the virtual space of a remote server while the respected “majority” continues to lead a life of civility, even as currents of vitriol and hatred continue to form someplace virtual, before they metastasize in the real world shortly thereafter.

There is mild resistance to this troubling trend from new-media organizations–most notable of them is Vox Media. But they’re nowhere near as large as the New York Times, and they certainly do not have as strong of a pull on the national conversation surrounding radicalization. That does not make the work that Kevin Roose did unimportant, or unworthy of praise–the investigation work on his part was unprecedented in both scope, and reach; but what could vanguards of old traditional media stand most to gain, is to empower clandestine report work and reward independent writers on stories most would deem too niche to pursue, instead of spurring yet another spike of cultural cancellation on behalf of an umpteenth ill-advised story by professional trolls, like Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens.

As online-bred terror threat still looms in the horizon, the public could certainly benefit from increased exposure to these seemingly-covert parts of the internet–especially if they have to reckon with the possibility of their life ending as a result of mainstream media’s continued complicity in letting them go unchecked.