The Gravel Institute is taking aim at PragerU, a YouTube channel that spreads disinformation and right wing propaganda. The YouTubers who have already tried wish them good luck—they'll need it.
PragerU is far from a university or higher education institute of any kind. It's a YouTube channel founded by Dennis Prager, a conservative radio star, with the intention of disseminating conservative talking points on the platform. It's been a runaway success; the videos are short, with splashy graphics and presenters who are well known in conservative media, and many of them have been watched millions of times. According to places like the Southern Poverty Law Center It's become a funnel to the seedier sides of YouTube that traffic in right wing conspiracy theories.
The Gravel Institute, founded by former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel with some of the money remaining from his 2020 presidential run, has taken direct aim at PragerU. Like PragerU, they make short, easily digestible videos with left leaning hosts that should be familiar to their audiences. A recent trailer features the recognizable voice of comedian H. Jon Benjamin laying out their aims to combat PragerU specifically. Their first video, presented by former Bernie Sanders spokesperson Briahna Joy Gray, was posted two days ago.
The similarities to PragerU in style are obvious, but in terms of reach, the Gravel Institute is outmatched. The Gravel Institute's video got 78,000 views in two days, which isn't that bad in the scheme of things. A video that Prager U posted two days ago, titled "Never Apologise To The Mob," reached 278,000 views in the same amount of time.
Part of this has to do with The Gravel Institute's relative newness, and it's possible as time goes on they will be able to reach people on a similar scale to PragerU. But there's already a cottage industry of YouTubers who have taken on and tried to debunk PragerU, and they've barely made a dent. Why would The Gravel Institute be any different?
Best-selling author and YouTuber Lindsay Ellis told Motherboard that part of the issue of combating the spread of PragerU is that the right has an ecosystem of more extreme content that already populates YouTube that PragerU serves in part as a gateway to. The left doesn't have that equivalent. While Ellis hasn't taken on PragerU directly on her YouTube channel, her media analysis comes from an explicitly leftist point of view, like her three part documentary on how the making of The Hobbit films changed New Zealand labor laws for the worse (as well as making some pretty bad movies).
"To me the most insidious thing about PragerU is how it functions as a gateway drug to much more extreme politics, like QAnon," she said. "What is the Gravel Institute going to be a gateway to? Me? [HBomberguy]? There's nowhere to go that isn't already pretty mainstream, and there isn't a vast underbelly of leftist content that Gravel can redirect toward."
Even though Ellis and HBomberguy are extremely popular—Ellis has more than a million subscribers, and Hbomberguy, the moniker of YouTuber Harry Brewis, has more than two million views on all his most popular work—there is nothing that they can do to match the scale of PragerU. Ellis pointed out that right wing content tends to rely on emotional truths rather than factual truths, and the necessity of fact checking hamstrings the left wing equivalent.
PragerU can upload videos on a daily basis that aren't quite true, but videos that debunk them are going to be longer, slower, and less snappy. Getting bogged down in facts loses people quickly, especially when the facts are emotionally unsatisfying or complex.
YouTuber Big Joel has made videos critiquing PragerU, as well as anti-abortion propaganda and Christian films, but said that he doesn't imagine himself as deprogramming right wingers when he does so.
"The truth is, when I make a video, I don’t have some personal fiction of destroying PragerU such that people don’t like them anymore," he said. "I think the most important thing to remember and take seriously here is that reaching people who would otherwise like PragerU isn’t an obvious process. Debunking their ideas won't necessarily work. And what will work is beyond my imagination. I guess I’m saying, I hope they have someone who liked Fox News on staff."
Big Joel's work is eclectic, running the gamut from animated films to left wing politics, though his first video about PragerU is the most popular video on his channel. It's long, thoughtful and nuanced, making it pretty much the opposite of PragerU in aesthetics even if it's competing with some of the content on PragerU in terms of views. But Big Joel's content runs into the same issue as Ellis and HBomberguy's—his content has to rely on complex facts rather than comforting feelings.
Big Joel said that he was excited about some aspects of The Gravel Institute, especially the presenters they've announced, like Slavoj Zizek and Cornel West. He said that the fact that someone with institutional power was taking on PragerU was a good thing, and wished them success. Despite not knowing how effectively combat PragerU's disinformation, at the very least someone is giving it a try.
"Part of me feels strangely nostalgic about it," he said. "Like okay, the institutes are now the official people who talk about PragerU. My services are no longer needed. This is a battle of the institutes."
Motherboard reached out to The Gravel Institute to ask about its goals and methodology but did not hear back.