In June, Zack Exley, a political organizer and a fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, published a report on “Black Pigeon Speaks,” a political commentator on YouTube. In Exley’s judgment, B.P.S. is emblematic of a marginal but ascendant sort of YouTube figure — a type that is becoming a meaningful force in the practice of politics online. B.P.S. has, by any objective standard, a significant and engaged audience; at the moment, he has about 215,000 followers, and his uploads have been viewed more than 25 million times. In an introductory video, he describes himself as something like a pundit or an analyst: “I attempt to make sense out of the increasingly nonsensical world we all share,” he says of his channel. “I try and be only as offensive as I need to be.” His videos are unhurried, heavy on explanation and argument, regularly stretching over the 10-minute mark. And, as Exley notes, his politics skew right. Hardright:
He is a traditionalist in many ways, and is positive about Christianity as a cultural force and foundation of Western civilization, but he is not a Christian. He defies the postwar “fusion” of classical libertarianism and evangelical Christianity. B.P.S. believes in a global conspiracy of central bankers led by the Rothschilds who are driving immigration into predominantly white countries to increase the pool of “debt slaves” and to drive down wages; thinks that “cultural Marxism” is a Jewish conspiracy that is undermining Western civilization; and believes that women being allowed to do whatever they want, including choosing their own mates, is the deathblow to Western civilization.
Like its fellow mega-platforms Twitter and Facebook, YouTube is an enormous engine of cultural production and a host of wildly diverse communities. But like the much smaller Tumblr (which has long been dominated by lively and combative left-wing politics) or 4chan (which has become a virulent and effective hard-right meme factory), YouTube is host to just one dominant native political community: the YouTube right. This community takes the form of a loosely associated group of channels and personalities, connected mostly by shared political instincts and aesthetic sensibilities. They are monologuists, essayists, performers and vloggers who publish frequent dispatches from their living rooms, their studios or the field, inveighing vigorously against the political left and mocking the “mainstream media,” against which they are defined and empowered. They deplore “social justice warriors,” whom they credit with ruining popular culture, conspiring against the populace and helping to undermine “the West.” They are fixated on the subjects of immigration, Islam, and political correctness. They seem at times more animated by President Trump’s opponents than by the man himself, with whom they share many priorities, if not a style. Some of their leading figures are associated with larger media companies, like Alex Jones’s Infowars or Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media. Others are independent operators who found their voices in the medium.
To the extent that these personalities challenge their viewers, it’s to commit even more deeply to what their intuitions already tell them is true — not despite those opinions’ rejection from mainstream liberal thought, but because of it. Theirs is a potent and time-tested strategy. Unpopular arguments can benefit from being portrayed as forbidden, and marginal ideas are more effectively sold as hidden ones. The zealous defense of ideas for which audiences believe they’re seen as stupid, cruel or racist is made possible with simple inversion: Actually, it’s everyone else who is stupid, cruel or racist, and their “consensus” is a conspiracy intended to conceal the unspoken feelings of a silent majority. Trump has developed an intuition for this kind of audience cultivation; so have countless pundits, broadcasters, salespeople, and politicians of different populist political stripes. But Exley, in his final analysis of B.P.S., points to an especially apt historical parallel: conservative 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. They now stand to miss a new platform that, so far, is also dominated by the right wing.”
The radio comparison is a useful one. Talk radio’s growth followed decades of deregulation and disruptive opportunity: the rise of FM radio during the late 1960s and ’70s, the abandonment by music stations of the low-fidelity AM band and the 1987 revocation of the Fairness Doctrine, a rule through which the Federal Communications Commission attempted to regulate a sort of balance into content produced by licensed broadcasters. The subsequent rise of conservative talk radio, typified by superstars like Rush Limbaugh, had enormous influence and continues to attract millions of listeners a day, well into the internet era. Its style, once novel, is now familiar. There’s the casual, knowing rapport with listeners; the baggy, multihour shows, which double as news digests; the moralizing monologues that transition seamlessly into jokey rants and asides. But something about the medium seems to favor the right. Repeated, strenuous attempts by liberal broadcasters to replicate conservative talk radio formats have not fared well. Air America, which was launched in 2004 and shuttered in 2010, helped propel talent into other venues — Rachel Maddow to television, Al Franken to the Senate — but failed as a sustainable answer to combative conservative talk radio. AM opened a space for a reaction but seemed to have no room for the counterreaction.
YouTube’s political context is similar in some notable ways: the value it places on personalities; its reliance on monologue and repetition; its isolation and immunity from a direct challenge; its promise to let listeners in on the real, secret story. Both are obsessed with persuasion and conversion, combined with a giddy disbelief at the sheer stupidity of liberals, who — and this is part of the fun — aren’t listening. Comparing YouTube to talk radio is also a useful reminder of how potent a medium can become while still appearing marginal to those who don’t care for it or know much about it. For listeners of conservative talk radio — where right-wing populist rhetoric has flourished for decades, and where hosts can get away with authoritarian flirtations and xenophobic rhetoric that mainstream politicians can’t — the rise of Donald Trump was somewhat less of a surprise that it was for many others.
The YouTube right may be comparatively marginal and ragtag, but it’s also comparatively young. If talk radio primed listeners for Trump’s style and anticipated the American right’s current obsessions, the YouTube right is acquainting viewers with a more international message, attuned to a global revival of explicitly race-and-religion-based, blood-and-soil nationalism. Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars, 35, is perhaps the archetypal YouTube-right vlogger; he has nearly a million followers, and his videos have been viewed more than 215 million times. He has in the last month published videos with titles including “Staged Video Shows ‘Refugee’ Fake Drowning,” “Finsbury Mosque Terror: What They’re Not Telling You,” “The Truth about Refugees” and “Why Leftists Submit to Terror.” The scripts for these videos are straightforward nativist polemics, with a particular focus on Europe — Watson is from Northern England — delivered in a relentlessly insistent tone, and quite close to the camera. Watson posts extended “roasts” of his political villains, as well as rants that betray a peculiar blend of self-taught reaction: against pop culture, broadly, but also against “modern architecture” and “modern art.” If one video sums up what a receptive viewer might take from subscribing to his channel, it’s “Some Cultures are Better than Others.”