Video continues to grow into a massive 21st century digital medium, and YouTube is becoming something like humanity’s leading shared meeting and storytelling place. Digital video’s scale and rapid growth curve make it difficult to apprehend at times, which means we should expect analysts to struggle with the thing. We need better.
Case in point: recently the New York Times ran an article about alt-right videos on YouTube. At its core is a simple fact: several right wing activists and/or true believers have launched YouTube channels that now have large numbers of viewers. Yet wrapped around that pretty uncontroversial datapoint is a wadding of speculation and claims that don’t really hold up. Looking closely at it might help us reflect more accurately on digital video.
Herrman begins by citing a recent report about hard-right YouTubers, then usefully summarizes their backgrounds and rhetoric. This is very handy for anyone interested in the topic.
Then he offers some reflections, which don’t really work.
For example, the argument that YouTube is becoming a reactionary hub. “YouTube is host to just one dominant native political community: the YouTube right.” This just doesn’t make sense. “There are countless other forms of political expression on YouTube, but no bloc is anywhere near as organized or as assertive as the YouTube right and its dozens of obdurate vloggers.” Dozens?
For one, there are tons of progressive-liberal-Democratic videos on YouTube. I’m amazed Herrman doesn’t mention The Young Turks, a high profile YouTube-based left-wing media enterprise. If you don’t know the show, the first video available on their page today is for “Aggressive Progressivism”, which should give you a hint of their politics. The Turks have more than 3,300,000 subscribers as of this morning, far above the most popular right wing vlogger cited in the piece (“Stephen Crowder (830,000 subscribers)”).
Herrman later observes that “Nor is there a coherent group on the platform articulating any sort of direct answer to this budding form of reaction — which both validates this material in the eyes of its creators and gives it room to breathe, grow and assert itself beyond its immediate vicinity.” I’m not sure what type of coherence he’d like to see. Democratic politicians and supporters issue videos; is that too large a group to count? Or should progressives like the Turks just hyperlink to each other more often? How does Herrman determine coherence: content analysis, number of cross-links, shout-outs…?
For another, YouTube is where we can find a huge variety of political voices, beyond American alt-right and aggressive progressives. For example, Pat Condell is a British atheist who rails against Christianity, Islam, Muslim immigrants, journalists, and certain strands of feminism. Is he on the left or right? YouTube also hosts a wide range of Islamic content, including, famously or notoriously, jihadist stuff. The site is more complex – and far more global – than this New York Times piece thinks.
Evidence is a problem for the article. It alternates between analysis (this is how things are on YouTube) and dwelling within right-wing vlogger rhetoric (the right thinks this about YouTube), and ultimately lands somewhere between them, neither able to establish objective evidence for the former, nor responding to the latter’s claims (is YouTube censoring them?). There’s no attempt to cite comparative numbers, say of subscription statistics as a portion of overall YouTube.
Elsewhere Herrman offers this odd glance at another medium, talk radio:
“Fixated as they are with Fox News,” he says, “liberals, scholars and pundits have failed to give talk radio — which is almost wholly conservative — its due, even though it’s now nearly three decades old and reaches millions each day.”
Maybe I spend too much time with media scholars, podcasters, and radio freaks, but I’ve heard complaints about right wing talk radio since the mid-1990s. Since 2000 or so people speak more often about Fox News, possibly because of its reach and notoriety, but I still hear grousing about Rush Limbaugh. I’ve heard some folks complain or wonder about the failure of left-wing talk radio. It’s remarkable that these conversations occur at all, since Americans don’t pay too much attention to radio in general.
What can we deduce from this, in terms of writing about video in the future? It’s vital that we keep in mind the full range of political content in a growing medium, and not focus overmuch on an attractive subset of items that fit into a local political framework (here, the Times’ dislike of the alt-right). We would also do well to try to look at as much relative data as we can, comparing market sizes and reach as objectively as possible.
One more point: looking ahead, we could imagine this kind of analysis preceding calls for content control. Herrman doesn’t issue such a call, although he does end his piece with what seems like a sketch of a failed attempt at one (it’s unclear what Creators for Change getting “tougher… [on] videos that aren’t illegal but have been flagged by users as potential violations of our policies on hate speech and violent extremism” means in context. Is the “limited state” option currently implemented?).
In 2017 some people and governments are obviously interested in content control or open censorship. There’s a vibrant progressive social media scene in the United States which sometimes calls for publishers to withdraw works they find offensive; that logic could easily extend to YouTube videos. The British government is already eager to clamp down on digital content they deem “radicalizing”. Russia and China have established bona fides in this area for decades. Perhaps the American left or right – or both, in blessed bipartisanship – will decide to push YouTube to block or otherwise ward off disliked content.
In such a situation, we need to take extra care with our analysis.