On Saturday, the New York Times published a nearly 5,000-word article featured at the top of its website on “the making of a YouTube radical.” The fact-free and defamatory rant smeared some of the most mainstream voices in political commentary and in many cases proved precisely the opposite of the points it purported to make.
“Caleb Cain was a college dropout looking for direction,” writes Times columnist Kevin Roose. “He turned to YouTube. Soon, he was pulled into a far-right universe, watching thousands of videos filled with conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism.” Which YouTubers does the article identify as “far-right,” conspiratorial, misogynist, and racist? One photo featured the Daily Wire’s own Ben Shapiro, a nationally syndicated radio host and one of the most popular podcasters in the country. Another photo depicted Dave Rubin, a gay, self-described liberal whose centrist interview show offers a platform for voices on the Right and Left of the political aisle. Bewilderingly, the editors placed in the center of the cover photo montage an image of Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who spent much of the 1970s and ‘80s explaining basic economic concepts to live audiences on camera.
“I fell down the alt-right rabbit hole,” laments Caleb Cain, the subject of the Times investigation. But just about all of the personalities the Times cites eschew the “alt-right,” a racial ideology that defines itself as an “alternative” to traditional conservative thought. In fact, the Anti-Defamation League identified Ben Shapiro as the primary journalistic recipient of anti-Semitic tweets from the “alt-right” in 2016.
So the radicals the Times cites aren’t radical, and most of the “alt-right” voices described explicitly condemn the alt-right. How then did Cain become radicalized? He didn’t. As the Times finally admits,
Mr. Cain never bought into the far right’s most extreme views, like Holocaust denial or the need for a white ethnostate, he said. Still, far-right ideology bled into his daily life. He began referring to himself as a “tradcon” — a traditional conservative, committed to old-fashioned gender norms. He dated an evangelical Christian woman, and he fought with his liberal friends.
Cain never embraced the “far-right” or the “alt-right,” no matter how many YouTube videos he watched. To the Times, even a “traditional conservative” is radical. The belief that men and women are different, the decision to date a Christian girl, and the audacity to disagree with one’s liberal friends suggests a radicalism so dangerous it merits a New York Times investigation.
And when did Cain hit rock bottom? The Times explains,
By the night of Nov. 8, 2016, Mr. Cain’s transformation was complete. He spent much of the night watching clips of Ms. Clinton’s supporters crying after the election was called in Mr. Trump’s favor. His YouTube viewing history shows that at 1:41 a.m., just before bed, he turned on a live stream hosted by Mr. Crowder, with the title “TRUMP WINS!”
What exactly is radical about watching a video titled “Trump wins!” on the night Trump won? Nothing, unless you, like the New York Times, believe there is no distinction between “alt-right,” “far right,” “traditional conservative,” and “Trump voter.” By watching a conservative comedian celebrate the Republican victory in 2016, the Times concludes, “Mr. Cain’s transformation was complete.” Except it wasn’t. As the Times reports,
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.”
Cain then started watching videos by left-wing YouTuber Natalie Wynn. He found the videos so persuasive that he eventually came to identify as a liberal, which presents a major problem for Roose’s argument. Roose writes, “The right-wing content Mr. Cain viewed in 2015 and 2016 often consisted of videos by Stefan Molyneux,” an anarcho-capitalist with dubious views on race. He then moved on to more mainstream conservative voices like Steven Crowder. By 2017, “Mr. Cain also watched many videos by members of the so-called intellectual dark web, like the popular [liberal] comedian Joe Rogan and the [liberal] political commentator Dave Rubin.” Finally, “during 2017, Mr. Cain began watching more videos from left-wing channels.”
Putting aside for a moment the internal inconsistency—did Cain begin watching left-wing videos in 2017 or 2018?—the author accidentally disproves his own thesis. Roose purports to show the rightward radicalization of a YouTube viewer. But if Cain was radicalized at all, he was radicalized to the left, not the right. He began near the fringes of right-wing YouTube and moved steadily to the Left.
The New York Times blames YouTube’s all-powerful “algorithm” for sending Cain down the “alt-right rabbit hole” that “brainwashed” him. In reality, Cain watched a bunch of different videos, rejected some opinions, considered others further, and over the course of a few years his opinions evolved. The free exchange of ideas opened his mind and made him think more critically. That process of exposure to diverse opinions isn’t “brainwashing”—it’s education.
Roose concludes his piece trying desperately to refute that very point. He quotes Cain warning, “I’ve learned now that you can’t go to YouTube and think that you’re getting some kind of education, because you’re not,” despite having just outlined three years’ of Cain’s self-education.
Roose contends that YouTube has been “a godsend for hyper-partisans on all sides…[and] allowed them to bypass traditional gatekeepers and broadcast their views to mainstream audiences.” But hyper-partisans on the Left have always been able to reach mainstream audiences because they themselves are the gatekeepers. What YouTube offered was an opportunity for conservatives and independents who questioned leftist orthodoxy to reach a mass audience, which is why left-wing partisans are so eager to take back control.
The Times insists that YouTube offers no educational value because even most left-wingers would resist consciously stifling education. But if YouTube videos provide mere entertainment or, worse, provocation, the case for censorship is simpler. The Left has made this argument for half a century. In the 1960s, the liberal writer Lionel Trilling argued, “Liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States. According to Trilling, conservatives express themselves not in ideas but rather in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas” and which one must therefore dismiss.
As ever, the Left gets it exactly backwards. The Times’ investigation into the making of a right-wing “YouTube radical” revealed a young man’s self-education through the free exchange of ideas as he shifted from the center-right to the center-left. In the end, the only radicals the Times piece reveals are the libelous liars who published it.