My cousin Linden’s recent habits worry me. I noticed in March, as news of a global pandemic shifted our lives from active city-dwellers to paranoid hermits, that he was adding more YouTube links into our group chat. As a social media user, he skews toward Instagram and Facebook because that’s where his family is.
That makes him like most social media users. YouTube is even more ubiquitous. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey reported that 90 percent of users between 18 and 49 browsed YouTube. The site’s kooky trends dominate my professional life managing million-follower accounts, but I wasn’t ready for the infectious influence of its half-baked ideas in my personal network. As coronavirus spread, I detected nodes of paranoid thought among friends and family that traced back to one addictive source.
As Google’s fecund stepchild, YouTube’s been much-maligned for its tendency to breed and feed unfounded theories. The comment section drives viewership and unreal popularity but its angry macho ethos defies easy categorization. The platform encourages content that compels viewers to keep going, keep discovering, keep digging. But the biggest determinant of algorithmic success? Fanatical belief.
When Linden came to the U.S. from the Caribbean in 2015, he wanted to pursue his dream of living in New York and learning more about the world. He is, in every way, a model American, showing up on time via two-hour commute to his civil service job. He’s good-natured, takes care of countless chores at my mom’s house, and chips in with cooking and weekly cleaning. We rage about sports, politics, pop culture, and life updates in our ongoing thread.
When the world changed, he started sending me videos starring a YouTube outcast named David Icke, known for his broad theory on global elites amassing unchecked power. When I browsed the channel where the video came from, a 70,000-subscriber channel called “AttractPassion,” I knew vivid conspiracy theories had seduced my cousin. He cribbed lines directly from Icke and started revving up his conviction that the government was withholding important facts about the pandemic. (And it was.)
Linden assigned wide blame for the pandemic before landing on one nefarious villain: Bill Gates. In the same week, my 72-year-old father, also prone to Western empire paranoia, sent me a David Icke rant in a WhatsApp chat where he dumps any links that capture his imagination. The coincidence of this simultaneous link-share cannot be understated. It’s how YouTube permeates minds. Although I felt cautious about chastising either my cousin or my father, I knew they had both entered a media tornado more powerful than I could quickly explain.
I also couldn’t blame them: as Black men in a world bent on upholding racist governments and their actors, any news source on the fringes can feel like a welcome reprieve, a totem for the outcry we often need to repress to keep believing in something.
The seeds of belief sprouting in the farthest reaches of your mind each have a home base YouTube channel. The seduction community of pick-up artists drives the online cabal of lonely men hoping for confidence boosts. The Joe Rogan Experience houses a range of semi-radical, typically male viewpoints that amount to “biology is destiny and anyone who disagrees is beta.” Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson have earned the label, whether affectionately or forgivingly, the Intellectual Dark Web. DJ Vlad and Lord Jamar report on street code while hinting at the benefits of racial chauvinism.
But each of these discrete groups tends to overlap and enforce their off-color points of agreement. A study last year, “Auditing Radicalization Pathways on YouTube” (PDF), by Manoel Horta Ribeiro, confirms these patterns, claiming that not only do the tribal thought gangs frenzy within single channels, they also hop from comment thread to comment thread picking up newbies and converts along the way. By surveying 360 YouTube pages linked to strains of political and social discourse, he found a self-empowering throng of users and creators who seeded their beliefs across other social media sites like 4chan and Reddit. These users tout similar rhetoric and share memes that also signal belonging to a larger in-group of alternative thinking.
The examples multiply with the jarring influences already native to pop culture. (Celebrity rumors meet secret elite societies, meet pedophile trackers, and so on). YouTube’s algorithm, the tide that pools conspiracy minnows, holds so much power that it’s become subject to intense study and equal scrutiny. Although its unique set of automated prompts and behavioral trends seem inaccessible to the layperson, a platform junkie can pick them up quickly and exploit squishy minds. For instance, creators live by the exalted “Watch Time” stat. As viewers click channels, indulging promiscuous attention spans, the best videos can keep us glued for 20 minutes or two hours, depending on how committed or—more benignly—how bored we are. That endless continuity leads to a trend among conspiracy channels where talking-head hosts, outfitted with headsets and ring lights, can talk for hours about winding webs of state deceit while racking up views. And tellingly, as with Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, the comments reign. The only force more powerful than disagreement is implicit agreement at the margins. The platform’s tagline is “Broadcast Yourself,” but “contrary to popular belief” feels more precise.
On a typical YouTube user journey, the search bar kicks off a series of conscious and unconscious actions: type keyword; hit enter; expect answer. Whether it’s a song title and video or an instruction manual for a new gadget, we’ll view the most popular results for the terms we’ve searched. That isn’t the same as finding the empirical answer, though. The algorithm suggests a pathway to follow, whispering, “Hey, others who posed this query tend to watch this video. So click here.” In a vacuum, search engines function harmlessly, pointing to the solutions someone’s already found to save precious time. A smooth process steers to rougher edges when polarizing topics like race, religion, and identity enter the search field. Where the subjective whims of demagogues and gurus pulse, their YouTube following also grows. To that end, “Auditing Pathways” suggests:
“For all these metrics, the communities of interest have more engagement than the media channels. Although media channels have more views per video [...] these views are less often converted into likes and comments. Notably, Alt-right channels have, since 2017, become the ones with the highest number of comments per view, with nearly 1 comment per 5 views by 2018.”
My cousin couldn’t help but find his tribe among coronavirus deniers and “New World Order” scions. They’re as ubiquitous on YouTube as the talking-head grids above the 24-hour news ticker. The main difference is that they cater their messages specifically to flocks who feel disenfranchised. Because they aren’t beholden to advertisers—YouTube’s ads target its users with chosen products or can be turned off entirely—the cultish need to disagree with the mainstream plays like a lullaby to the oft-forgotten.
“You don’t find it funny there’s no white people on the trains no more? When I’m going off to work, at 5 a.m., I see big crowds of people circling on the train platform. Everyone wearing a mask. You mean to tell me none of those people get sick? Going to work everyday? Something up with this Covid shit I’m telling you, cuz.”
Later during lockdown, Linden complained that Joe Biden had weakened the country by suggesting a mask mandate during the presidential campaign. He let me know how upset he was in a voice message: “Yo man, fuck Joe Biden, yo. He telling people he will make it illegal to not wear a mask. That’s crazy. How you gonna force people to buy something or wear masks everywhere?”
I understood. The government could further infringe on freedoms that already felt constrained by the realities of this floating germ.
He then doubled down on the theory that the virus never was real, in the same note, remarking that he’d been going to work throughout the entire pandemic and hadn’t experienced any COVID-19 symptoms. Although we had family members working in hospitals, witnessing death, and he had co-workers who’d used all their sick days recovering from COVID, he would not succumb to the truth. It did not stack up to his belief. Lord Jamar, a similarly skeptical figure who is huge on YouTube via the DJ Vlad outlet VladTV, explained why he believed COVID-19 was a plot against poor and Black people alike. After Vlad, a YouTuber who’s used his cunning as an interviewer to stoke some of the biggest rumors in hip-hop, sets the table for Jamar, he explains his doubts about COVID in a way that sounds eerily identical to comments on other extremist channel:
“I’m more worried about the civil liberties that y’all motherfuckers just willingly give away because you’re so fucking scared. That’s the shit I’m worried about. That’s what the conscious community is more worried about. We’re not really worried about this fucking shit because guess what? There’s a seed in the soil. We’ve already been fucking...juicing...and, y’know what I mean...eating good, stopped eating swine. We’ve been making our soil where it’s not...susceptible to shit like this [...] Nobody wants to get sick [...] But I’m more worried about how the government is using this as a way to get more control.”
To eavesdrop on extremists is to experience mesmerism. Lord Jamar, in this soliloquy, covers a range of keywords to strike hypnotic belief bells.
Conscious. Government. Control. Worry. Civil liberties.
Conspiracy is alchemy, then, transforming fear into certainty, worry into theory. I do not expect my cousin Linden or my father to say that they’re scared. I do not want them to admit to their deepest fears about state power. I’ve never given them the room. But I know we each nurse a rumbling fear that we’ll be the mutton in the meat grinder as society crumbles. YouTube is symptomatic. The radical comments rely on human input. For four years, it’s been telling anyone who’s listening that America is suffering from avid distrust. Donald Trump is hoping that he’s the only one to notice.