A number of prominent YouTubers, including Dave Rubin and Philip DeFranco, criticized The New York Times’ inclusion of their images on the front page of its Saturday edition next to the headline, “The Making of a YouTube Radical.” The image and headline combination, they said, is biased and leads readers to believe they radicalize people.
“Caleb Cain was a college dropout looking for direction. He turned to YouTube,” The New York Times article begins online. (The print and online versions differ slightly.) An accompanying collage features images of mostly conservative political commentators, some far-right and others not, including YouTuber Steven Crowder, Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson and Alex Jones, and classical liberals Dave Rubin and Philip DeFranco. Professor Jordan Peterson and Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman also make an appearance.
As the reader scrolls, some of the images disappear. “Soon, he was pulled into a far-right universe, watching thousands of videos filled with conspiracy theories, misogyny and racism,” the text reads. “I was brainwashed,” the Times quotes Cain as saying.
Some of those included in the collage took to Twitter last weekend to accuse The New York Times of smearing them, saying the headline and text lead readers to believe they radicalize people to the far right, and is paramount to libel.
“Hey everyone, how was your weekend?” Rubin tweeted. “As for mine, the @nytimes rams libelous story including a picture of me implying I help radicalize people to the Alt-Right.”
DeFranco tweeted, “Hey uhhh @nytimes…what the f–k is this?”
The article’s author, Kevin Roose, defended the collage, replying, “Hey, writer here. This collage is just a sample from his viewing history. Some far-right, some not.”
“Then please speak with your graphics department,” DeFranco replied. “Bc [sic] this slowly disappearing thumbnail collage with escalating language seems to insinuate a lot. You know how many people skim or just read headlines.”
Smearing People as Extremists Shouldn’t Be Done Lightly
DeFranco and Rubin are right to be concerned. While Cain’s story is used as a springboard to explore how YouTube’s algorithm acts as “a dangerous on-ramp to extremism,” the Times provides little evidence that Cain’s story is an example of this—and unfairly frames certain political commentators as extremist in the process.
The bulk of the article focuses on how Cain, feeling disillusioned, alienated, and depressed, found a universe of right-wing videos that led him to become a Trump-supporting conservative committed to traditional sex roles. It characterizes his transformation as a “radicalization,” and quotes a concerned friend.
But the Times itself notes that while Cain may have watched hundreds of far-right videos over the years, he “never bought into the far right’s most extreme views, like Holocaust denial or the need for a white ethnostate.” In fact, it provides very little evidence that Cain adopted extremist beliefs at all—he simply watched videos that explored them.
It seems odd, then, for Times editors to choose the headline “The Making of a YouTube Radical” as if simply watching certain videos makes you a radical. There isn’t much evidence presented to show Cain actually became a radical—at least not by many Americans’ standards. It seems that he explored the full gamut of right-wing views, adopting some and discarding others.
After all, supporting President Trump or committing to conservative sex roles is hardly radical—plenty of Americans share those views. In fact, 25 percent of Americans believe that “while women should have the same opportunities as men to work or participate in politics, they should still take on a bigger role in the household.” By framing these views as radical, the Times alienates many Americans.
Also, while Cain is described as one of countless young white men who are “aimless,” “disillusioned”, “alienated,” “directionless,” and “broke and depressed,” there is no exploration of why this might be so; no mention of the rapid social and economic change that may be leading young men to explore right-wing ideas.
Eventually, the Times reports, YouTube began feeding Cain left-wing videos. He began to explore this universe and changed his mind on many issues. He denounced his conservative views and is now a left-leaning video creator. Whether or not this also counts as “radicalization” is something the Times hints at but does not overtly state.
The Marketplace of Ideas
The article includes a bar graph illustrating Cain’s YouTube viewership over time. It shows that after he began watching far-right videos, he also began exploring videos from the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW)—the likes of Rubin, Shapiro, and Peterson. It was shortly after this that he began to consume more liberal videos. Perhaps his exploration of the IDW was an exit route out of the far-right universe, as Rubin claims.
The Times can accuse YouTube of pushing people to the political fringes, but it’s worth pointing out that legacy media outlets themselves spotlight only a narrow range of political thought. According to data compiled by AllSides, the majority of the most popular media outlets in America, including the Times, have a left media bias. Further, the technologies that drive traffic to them online are also biased—multiple audits have revealed Google is biased toward left-wing media outlets—again, including the Times—by as much as 65 percent.
It’s certainly worth questioning how the YouTube algorithm works. Plenty of modern online technologies place us inside filter bubbles that show us only content related to what we have already viewed. Often, we have to make a concerted effort to find alternative views.
In this way, online technologies can certainly be “a dangerous on-ramp to extremism.” But it seems to have allowed Cain to explore the full range of intellectual thought—including issues legacy media is failing to represent, like the plight of today’s broke and depressed young men—and come to his own conclusions.
It should go without saying that not all of the ideas expressed on YouTube are legitimate or worthy of adoption. But Cain seemed to figure this out on his own, even in spite of the far-right videos YouTube fed him. And somehow, YouTube also started to feed him classical liberal and left-wing videos that changed his views.
As media consumers, we have a responsibility to draw our own conclusions. Contrary to the Times’ sensationalist framing, technologies and political commentators that allow us to explore the full range of perspectives should be encouraged. This is how the marketplace of ideas is meant to function.
The Times article may be indicative of how “old media” is reacting to an existential threat. YouTube audiences are beginning to catch up to the reach of traditional media outlets. Rubin’s YouTube show “The Rubin Report” recently hit 1 million subscribers. By framing legitimate commentators like Rubin, DeFranco, Peterson, and others as dangerous, perhaps the Times is reacting to a new landscape of media competitors.
Critics are right to object to the framing of the article. While technology algorithms should be questioned, Cain’s story sounds more like a journey of intellectual exploration rather brainwashing, no matter what stops he made along the way. Call it radicalization, or call it curiosity.