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The New York Times, So Focused on Anti-Right and Anti-YouTube Narratives, Misses an Important Story

Lots of people are already commenting on this New York Times story about the progressive who became alt-right then started watching alt-left videos and is now corrected.

The entire story is narrative building.

The guy watches conservatives and videos about the search for God. He moves to increasingly more conservative stuff, flips to the alt-right, but eventually discovers progressives and corrects himself.

The article, by Kevin Roose, himself progressive, is a case of leftwing fan fiction and narrative building. It chronicles how easy it is for a young white guy to become radicalized off a YouTube algorithm. The bad guys are YouTube and conservatives. The good guys are the progressives on YouTube. You understand Roose’s narrative shift here:

IN 2018, nearly four years after Mr. Cain had begun watching right-wing YouTube videos, a new kind of video began appearing in his recommendations. These videos were made by left-wing creators, but they mimicked the aesthetics of right-wing YouTube, down to the combative titles and the mocking use of words like “triggered” and “snowflake.”

Ah yes, the left finally caught on to the algorithmic playground and could battle for Mr. Cain’s soul.

Near the end of our interview, I told Mr. Cain that I found it odd that he had successfully climbed out of a right-wing YouTube rabbit hole, only to jump into a left-wing YouTube rabbit hole. I asked if he had considered cutting back on his video intake altogether, and rebuild some of his offline relationships. He hesitated, and looked slightly confused. For all of its problems, he said, YouTube is still where political battles are fought and won. Leaving the platform would essentially mean abandoning the debate.

Roose, we should note, found Caleb Cain after Cain had posted a YouTube video in which he had rejected the alt-right. Cain identifies himself now as a progressive. The New York Times story comes complete with an introductory graphic that shows Milton Friedman as just one of the many radicals Cain encountered.

Now, the larger issue here and the one that the New York Times largely avoided, is only lightly touched on.

FROM AN EARLY AGE, Mr. Cain was fascinated by internet culture. As a teenager, he browsed 4Chan, the lawless message board. He played online games with his friends, and devoured videos of intellectuals debating charged topics like the existence of God. The internet was an escape. Mr. Cain grew up in postindustrial Appalachia and was raised by his conservative Christian grandparents. He was smart, but shy and socially awkward, and he carved out an identity during high school as a countercultural punk. He went to community college, but dropped out after three semesters.

This is a pattern of radicalization across economic and racial lines. His father is not in the picture, nor is his mother. His grandparents are raising him, but are hands off enough that he can explore the dark corners of the internet alone. In his quest for meaning, he finds the dark corners that the left is convinced we must keep in the dark corners instead of exposing them.

There are plenty of important narratives here that the New York Times decides to bypass in favor of standard leftwing fan fiction narrative building.

  • The collapse of family.
  • The need for young men to have strong parental role models, particularly dads.
  • The failure to deal with the poverty situation in Appalachia.
  • The willingness of lonely young men to go off and find the dark truths on the internet.
  • The ability to search out dark truths by society making sure they are censored and everyone knows they are censored, i.e. let’s tell everyone about the terrible views out there and brag about how we’ve made it hard to find them.
  • The quest for meaning and belonging.

Of course, none of those fit the narrative building or Roose’s tech focus. But they all play a larger role in this radicalization than the YouTube videos themselves. Many of them were undoubtedly harmless.

The New York Times, however, can’t go after those. It cannot divert from the idea that moms and dads are interchangeable. It cannot explore the failures of government policy on stabilizing families or Appalachia. It cannot admit that leftwing radicalism is as bad as rightwing radicalism. It cannot explore that its own efforts to censor wrong think have led certain people to go in search of it.

Instead, it must build an elaborate story about how rightwing videos and YouTube’s algorithm radicalized someone.

There’s a really interesting story to be told here, but the New York Times cannot bring itself to tell it.


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