YouTube Doesn’t Know What to Do With the Alt-Lite
How faulty academic work and shaky science is fueling a quieter, but equally dangerous form of white supremacy online
As the latest wind of terror swept across America, the media blamed overt neo-Nazis like Richard Spencer, or soft-spoken white supremacists like Stefan Molyneux or Lauren Southern, but almost none would mention a more hidden form of very similar ideas. This group, known for its appeal to shaky scientific reasoning, is referred to as the alt-lite, and it’s gaining communicative power online precisely because it can distance itself from the alt-right.
The characterization of the alt-lite is similar to the “Intellectual Dark Web,” the group first brought to the attention of readers of mainstream media by Bari Weiss in an essay for the New York Times. Some of the group’s figureheads include, but are not limited to, right-wing ideologues like Jordan Peterson, conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder, scientists with fringe views on society like Sam Harris, Charles Murray and Richard Dawkins, and semi-libertarian show hosts like Joe Rogan. Weiss’ characterized the movement as being actively shunned (if occasionally indulged) by the mainstream media, leading them to resort instead to platforms like YouTube to spread their gospel of intellectual reform.
The alt-lite’s association with YouTube goes further than a simple platform to spew their hateful views — it is the mechanism by which the alt-right is able to make a skeptical audience more accepting of its more extreme impulses. A recent study by Manoel Ribeiro, a PhD candidate at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, showed there was a consistent and traceable migration of the alt-lite’s audience into alt-right circles on YouTube. Similarly, in New York Times writer Kevin Roose’s detailed profile of Caleb Cain — a reformed far-right radical — hints of alt-lite content were peppered throughout his YouTube watching history, assuming perfect synergy with alt-right content Cain watched at the time. Cain’s behavior emulates a similar pattern on extremism hotspots like 8chan, wherein the alt-lite’s media-hijacking machine has inspired the common language where the pursuit of falsehood is a feature, not a bug.
The alt-lite’s association with YouTube goes further than a simple platform to spew their hateful views.
To understand why the ideology of the alt-lite is so alluring, one must examine figureheads like Sam Harris. His rise to the forefront of the alt-lite discourse serves as a useful blueprint to outline the movement’s history, as he was one of the very early adopters of the would-be alt-lite movement, standing at a strange intersection between classical liberalism and conservative social views. As early as 2012, when there was major controversy over an Islamophobic film, he claimed to be a proud leftist, committed to the tenets of the unconditional right to free speech. The thinking goes that, short of advocating for the mass-displacement of minorities, any criticism of the left’s affinity for “identity politics” is fair game as long as it is laced with some form of fraught evolutionary psychology or an obtusely-selective analysis of other cultures depicting them as the pinnacle of savagery.
This mentality is not entirely unfamiliar — if historical precedent has it right, late 19th century colonial Europe used a version of the same reasoning to dehumanize people within the territories it sought to conquer. This effort helped the colonizers get used to the way they inhumanely treated the colonized, which eventually made it easier for the colonizers to codify these sentiments into law.
The way the alt-lite looks and talks about race on YouTube and other places online, is the same way colonial powers codified racism into law, so that the occupied have no recourse to reclaim their land, rights, language, and customs from the colonizers. The alt-lite operates from a notion of Western Supremacy. They want to shape the needs of Western society around white people, even though (especially in the United States) that space is not solely theirs.
Online the alt-lite regularly refers to faulty academic work as an example of how we should reshape Western culture and conduct social policy. When challenged by leftist political wonk Ezra Klein on his views on race and IQ — basically the notion that correlation between race and IQ is less circumstantial and more causal — Sam Harris would absolutely not budge. Other figureheads of the movement assumed a similarly confrontational tone.
The internet has given the alt-lite an ideal testing ground for future rhetoric.
We understand that the alt-right is barred from mainstream media, but they always seem to find a place online. In her comprehensive report, Becca Lewis from Data & Society outlines the relationship between audiences and what she calls “alternative influence networks” on YouTube, where part of the allure seems to be a shared disillusion of the mainstream. “They provide a likeminded community for those who feel like social underdogs for their rejection of progressive values, and they provide a sense of countercultural rebellion for those same audiences,” Becca writes. Similar reactionary behavior was invoked when Facebook and Twitter upswept alt-lite and far-right figures from its platforms, causing a new round of debate from top Republican politicians like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley over Section 230, and what role do platforms play in regulating what their audiences get to see and interact with.
The internet has given the alt-lite an ideal testing ground for future rhetoric, pushing the Overton window, and pulling the mainstream media’s perception of the alt-lite a little closer to the center. Usage of political terms that once had been the subject of mockery, have now become common speak. Those who wouldn’t have been exposed to the alt-lite’s language now embrace it as their own, and that further grants the alt-lite a new kind of legitimacy.
Now there is little to separate the impulses guiding people who identify as alt-right or alt-lite, which means that there’s little functional difference between the two. If one grounds itself in faux-academic speak and tries to grift sympathy from the scientific community, the other is a recreation of its worst tendencies. It’s easy to condemn Richard Spencer for saying that white people are inherently superior to other races, but if Sam Harris said that black people tend to have lower IQs than average, then the immediate response from alt-lite sympathizers (who might not even be part of the alt-lite) is to consider the evidence and engage in conversation before discarding his claims.
However the debate pans out, platforms like YouTube falter when they assume that viewpoint diversity warrants hosting the alt-lite with no responsibility to object to its presence. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki made the argument that she did not know whose voices to suppress, but the data suggests that consuming content by the alt-lite — of which a great sum is bolstered by YouTube’s laissez-faire — approach, is often a one-way street to committing acts of cruel and vile hatred. Lawmakers need to be diligent with big tech regulatory effort and they need to pay more attention to hate groups online, no matter what those groups call themselves.