And why the left needs to own the future of online video.
(Top photo: Paul Joseph Watson)
"Twitter is a tiny echo chamber. I'm not sure the left understand the monumental ass-whupping being dished out to them on YouTube."
Thus reads a tweet posted this Tuesday by InfoWars editor Paul Joseph Watson, who you may remember best as the right-wing vlogger who inadvertently promised every journalist in the world a free holiday to Sweden.
As with most things PJW does nowadays, the tweet was immediately and widely mocked. But however fun mocking Watson might be, there was a curious hollowness to the whole affair. Because on this issue – breaking the habit of a lifetime – Paul Joseph Watson is right.
PJW's tweet offers a sketch of the social media terrain that seems spot-on. Twitter isn't wholly dominated by the left, but – Donald Trump and anyone with an egg avatar aside – left-wing views are certainly better-represented there than on any other major social network. However, left-wing Twitter has failed to translate into real-world influence. Twitter conversations aren't very accessible to outsiders. The "echo chamber" trope is lazy and inaccurate – I've personally learnt a huge amount from people on Twitter, and often this has led to my political views changing as well. Nevertheless, Twitter lends itself best to the refinement of people's views in conversation with people they already share some sympathy with. It's an effective tool for dragging young Labour voters further left, perhaps, but not turning Trump voters into Black Lives Matter activists.
On YouTube, by contrast, left-wing voices are seemingly non-existent – apart from that communist child – while right-wing voices dominate. PJW himself is one, standing in front of his little world map shouting at the internet from his room; his mentor Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist who likes to whip himself up into a frenzy by thinking about secret documents, is another. But it's not just InfoWars – there is a whole ecosystem of right-wing YouTubers out there at least as sophisticated as the society of woodlice you might find scurrying under a loose paving slab, a vast horde of unloved grown-up boys droning on and on about why we need to halt immigration; why we need to ban toilets; why we need to kill all girl-children at birth.
The videos these people produce are a lot of things – "amateurish" and "mind-numblingly tedious" are among the main descriptors I'd use. But somehow, they're incredibly effective. Let's face it: anyone who can get hundreds of thousands of views for a one-hour rant about Owen Jones is worthy of at least our anthropological interest, if not quite our respect.
The most famous instance of far-right views being disseminated on YouTube is PewDiePie – the site's biggest star, commanding an audience of literally millions of impressionable teenage boys, who for some reason want to watch him play computer games. He was dropped by Disney after it emerged that his videos included antisemitic jokes and Nazi imagery. PewDiePie wrote a blog post declaring: "I am in no way supporting any kind of hateful attitudes... Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive."
What PewDiePie does is very different from the likes of PJW, but this ironic racism can offer us a good example of what happens when these views, prominent in YouTube's ecosystem as they are, become normalised. Such videos are – at least anecdotally – having a measurable effect on how these kids talk about Jews, or the Nazis.
Here's my hypothesis: Twitter is the natural home of the left because Twitter – participatory; open; capable of presenting multiple viewpoints to the reader simultaneously – is well-suited to the expression of left-wing views, which are (to draw however loose a family resemblance between often disparate warring factions) typically somehow egalitarian.
Contemporary right-wing politics, by contrast, is driven largely by the unexamined prejudices and anxieties of (primarily) white men. Any white man who wants to hold on to their prejudices and anxieties is going to have a tough time of it on Twitter – but they're going to have a grand old time standing in front of their wall, alone, ranting.
So the left have the tweet, and the right have the solo rant to camera. This would, in a way, be fine – except that it turns out the solo rant to camera is a vastly better way of converting people than the tweet is. There are, I think, a number of reasons for this. In contrast to the tweet, the video rant allows the speaker to set themselves up as an authority, never really having to deal with the questioning, sarcastic audience that any tweeter does (YouTube has below-the-line comments, of course, but that's a very odd ecosystem, and easy to ignore). Moreover, the fact that the vlog is an oral medium gives it a greater immediacy, so the audience can, for instance, feel the speaker's anger. On both counts, it's easy to see how the solo rant to camera might turn out to be more persuasive.
This is compounded by technological factors. The way in which YouTube is set up makes it very easy for newcomers to discover the world of right-wing rants to camera – all you need to do is find one rant, and then keep scrolling through the sidebar. It's also generally true that tech companies are increasingly prioritising video over words. Recently, a Professor of Technology speculated in the Guardian that Snapchat might be ushering in a "post-literary" age, while Facebook has recently changed its algorithm to promote video in anticipation of a future which is "all video".
So what can the left do? Calls for, say, a "Paul Joseph Watson of the left" are bound to be misguided. The left can never appropriate the solo rant to camera – it's an inherently authoritarian method of communication. But if the future is video then the left desperately need to find a way to use it. The question is whether the medium can be used in an open, diverse, participatory way.