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This report identifies and names the Alternative Influence Network (AIN): an assortment of scholars, media pundits, and internet celebrities who use YouTube to promote a range of political positions, from mainstream versions of libertarianism and conservatism, all the way to overt white nationalism. Content creators in the AIN claim to provide an alternative media source for news and political commentary. They function as political influencers who adopt the techniques of brand influencers to build audiences and “sell” them on far-right ideology.
The Alternative Influence Network is a coherent discursive system despite the seeming variety and independence of its members. In this section I show how these figures are connected by an interlocking series of videos, references, and guest appearances. Within the AIN, a hodge-podge of internet celebrities claiming a variety of political positions impart their ideologies to viewers and each other. The boundaries between different political groups of influencers and the ideological positions they promote are often slippery. Many identify themselves primarily as libertarians or conservatives. Others self-advertise as white nationalists.
To understand the importance of links in this graph, consider the role that Dave Rubin plays. Rubin is a comedian-turned-pundit who hosts a YouTube talk show called The Rubin Report, which has over 750,000 channel subscribers. Rubin describes himself as a “classical liberal,” a variation on a libertarian embrace of small government and individual liberty. As the host of a number of public intellectuals and influencers, Rubin has become a focal point in a community that calls itself the “Intellectual Dark Web.” Rubin describes this group not in terms of ideology, but rather as an “eclectic mix of people” devoted to having “the important and often dangerous conversations that are completely ignored by the mainstream.” His most frequent guests are the other self-identified members of this “Intellectual Dark Web” group, including the psychology professor Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro, a conservative media pundit.
In his video with Spencer, Benjamin was presumably debating against scientific racism, a stance he frequently echoes. However, by participating in the debate, he was building a shared audience—and thus, a symbiotic relationship—with white nationalists. In fact, Benjamin has become a frequent guest on channels that host such “debates,” which often function as group entertainment as much as genuine disagreements.
The following sections outline two key ways the influencers in the AIN differentiate themselves from mainstream news as a way to appeal to young, disillusioned media consumers. The first way is by rejecting traditional news media norms for building credibility and trust in favor of the norms of participatory culture. These influencers explicitly reject the trappings of institutional prestige, adherence to objectivity and neutrality, and the enforcement of gatekeeping mechanisms that dominate mainstream news media. Instead, they build trust with their audiences by stressing their relatability, their authenticity, and their accountability to those audiences.
The AIN engages directly with its audiences in a way that traditional news outlets do not—through comments and social media posts, but also directly in video content. Traditionally, legacy media outlets have used gatekeeping mechanisms and a level of distance from their audiences as a way to establish expertise and authority. In contrast, many political influencers explicitly court feedback in order to build trust and rapport with their audience. Audience feedback is directly built into YouTube’s interface: audiences react to content in the form of likes, dislikes, comments, and channel subscriptions.
Because of the overlapping pattern of guest appearances in the AIN, it is remarkably easy for viewers to be exposed to incrementally more extremist content. However, many influencers fundamentally deny that their collaborations serve as endorsements or even amplifiers of other influencers’ content. This is the case, for example, with Dave Rubin. While Rubin himself mainly espouses support for small government and criticizes social justice in broad terms, he sometimes hosts guests who are openly antiimmigrant, espouse scientific racism, or directly identify with the “alt-right.” Rubin claims that hosting these guests is not an endorsement of them or their positions.
A similar sentiment has been circulated by James Damore, the Google engineer who was fired in July 2017 after sharing a memo promoting biologically determinist misogyny as an explanation for gender disparities within the company. Both as part of the memo and in subsequent media appearances, Damore has expressed concern that he was being discriminated against at Google for being conservative; he claimed Silicon Valley is an “ideological echo chamber” that needs more “ideological diversity.” While many in the AIN criticize and mock progressive social movements for what they see as a “victim mentality,” they also simultaneously position themselves as the genuine victims in society.
Because of the overlapping pattern of guest appearances in the AIN, it is remarkably easy for viewers to be exposed to incrementally more extremist content.
While much more research is needed to investigate the effectiveness of specific responses, Paul Joseph Watson’s tweet suggests one concrete step YouTube can take in response. [...] At this point, the platform reviews channels to make sure they do not have copyright strikes and do not violate YouTube’s community guidelines. At these junctures, the platform should not only assess what channels say in their content, but also who they host and what their guests say. In a media environment consisting of networked influencers, YouTube must respond with policies that account for influence and amplification, as well as social networks.