A new study out of Penn State’s Political Science Department found that rather than conservative content online leading to radicalization, as the popular “gateway” narrative insists, the reverse appears to be true.
The study, titled “A Supply and Demand Framework for YouTube Politics,” published online in October, takes a closer look at the popular narrative that YouTube serves as a “radicalizing agent,” particularly for the right. Conservative content, the narrative goes, supposedly acts as a “gateway” for viewers, potentially leading them to the fringes of the far-right.
But, as Birkbeck University of London’s Eric Kaufman puts it in his succinct summary of the study’s key finding, “Contrary to the ‘gateway drug’ narrative,” the new study “shows the Intellectual Dark Web (i.e. [Jordan Peterson], [PragerU], [Joe Rogan], [Ben Shapiro], [Rubin Report]) is de-radicalizing potential Alt-Right viewers.”
Contrary to the ‘gateway drug’ narrative, new study shows the Intellectual Dark Web (i.e. @jordanbpeterson @prageru @joerogan @benshapiro @RubinReport ) is de-radicalizing potential Alt-Right viewers https://t.co/fyYQfGT8xJ pic.twitter.com/NiWh3iXnMw
— Eric Kaufmann (@epkaufm) October 24, 2019
The study’s authors, Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips, offer five categories of the Alternative Influence Network (AIN), highly influential thinkers and commentators who have risen up to be competitive voices with the mainstream media. The first category is the left-most flank, the “Liberals,” like Joe Rogan. The second are the slightly more right “Skeptics,” who push back against some of leftist orthodoxy, among them Carl Benjamin, Jordan Peterson, and Dave Rubin.
The third, slightly more right category, are the “Conservatives,” including “Steven Crowder, famous for setting up booths at college campuses challenging people to ‘change his mind’ about a conservative/pro-Trump belief; Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart reporter known for criticizing the left for their use of ‘feelings over facts’; and Dennis Prager, host of ‘PragerU,’ a channel that expresses conservative viewpoints with an educational motif.” Here’s how the study describes the Conservatives’ ideology:
Like the Skeptics, they often lampoon the use of identity politics and de-platforming by mainstream progressive social movements, but unlike skeptics, they also disagree with mainstream liberals in principle. They tend to have more traditional pro-market and socially conservative beliefs. They are different from further-right segments of the AIN, however, in that they explicitly oppose anti-semitism and open appeals to race.
The fourth category is the Alt-Lite, which generally attempts to antagonize or troll the Left and sometimes espouses racial ideology. The fifth category is the racist Alt-Right, which is “firmly committed to a far-right ideology” and often expresses “strong anti-semitism and the belief that white people are are genetically superior” and “advocate for an all-white ethnostate” and end to non-white immigration.
The study found that with the “skyrocketing” of Conservative content online, despite a similar increase in Alt-Lite and Alt-Right content, the total views of Conservative content continued to climb while far-right traffic steeply declined. According to trends, the researchers conclude, the proliferation of Conservative content, produced by the likes of Shapiro and Crowder, has more likely helped de-radicalize viewers than radicalize them, as the popular narrative has assumed:
Between 2013 and 2016, all segments of the AIN, including the Alt-Lite and Alt-Right, rose in viewership. However, since the middle of 2017, both of these ideological segments of the AIN have seen a steep decline in viewership. By contrast, Conservative and Liberal content creators who have much more in common with mainstream discourse than other segments of the AIN have either continued to grow or plateaued in viewership. These patterns are inconsistent with radicalization happening at a major scale; indeed, from these data alone, de-radicalization seems a more plausible baseline hypothesis. This does not rule out the possibility that some people are making the ideological journey from Liberals to Skeptics to the far-right, but this is certainly not the dominant trend.
Right around the time viewership of Conservative content started skyrocketing, Conservative content creation also rose dramatically. Conversely, despite the Alt-Lite and Alt-Right stepping up its content creation activity in 2017-2018, viewership of such content has been declining.
Our preferred explanation for these trends are as follows: Previous increases in viewership of Alt-Lite, and to a lesser extent, Alt-Right content reflected such content being the most ideologically adjacent to conservative users. This content did not align with most users’ views, however, and increased competition from traditional Conservative and Liberal viewpoints enticed large portions of this audience to abandon what was once the only game in town.
“[A]lternative voices on YouTube discuss topics mainstream media fails to touch, which may help them feature more prominently in search results and recommendations,” the study’s conclusion reads. “However, since 2017, viewership of the furthest-right content has declined despite increases in the supply of such content. In its place has been the rise of more mainstream-adjacent conservative and liberal creators, consistent with a large share of users finding ideological communities that best fit their ideal points.”