I WATCHED ANTIFEMINIST WOMEN ON YOUTUBE FOR TWO MONTHS.
This is what I've learnt.
BY BIANCA FERRARI
1.9 billion people use YouTube each and every month. That is almost as much as Twitter, Reddit and Instagram, combined. Let that sink in - and then, ask yourself: how much do you really know about this platform? As a website at a crossroad between media production, consumption and social networking, the tech giant has emerged in 2005, well before many other social media sites, and swiftly conquered the online video making, hosting and sharing markets.
YouTube has provided a platform to hundreds of thousands of content creators who would have otherwise perhaps not stood a real chance to make it in mainstream show business, and jump-started important conversations on race, mental health, gender and sexuality, and other deeply personal and sometimes taboo topics. Under the tagline “broadcast yourself”, YouTube influencers have risen to celebrity status from the comfort of their homes, bypassing traditional gatekeeping and becoming role models and icons that help young people navigate their own identities, social relations and the world.
Yet, as observed by research, the platform is characterized by a wide gender gap. According to the Pew research center, up to 78% of all adult men in the United States use YouTube, but that number drops to 68% for women. This divide seems to be historically reflected also in terms of the platform’s highest performers. Besides a few musical artists, less than a handful of women have ever broken the list of the top 10 most subscribed channels over the course of the past decade.
The platform’s notoriously toxic comment section is often understood as a key component of the problem: female content makers are more likely to be bullied by commenters, especially based on their appearance, and targeted by sexual harassment. Similar processes might be happening also to private users, but since most individuals choose anonymity on the platform, it is quite difficult to talk about demographics.
Most YouTube channels led by women focus on typically feminine activities, such as makeup, fashion, home improvement and family vlogging, but a sizeable subset of political commentators have accumulated vast followerships and started making a name for themselves, just not in spaces where you would think you'd find them. Despite showing strong leadership skills and an ability and willingness to speak their minds, they strongly anchor their believes in conservative and far-right ideologies and fundamentally oppose the gender equality movement.
I wanted to know why these smart and entrepreneurial women decided to advocate for less freedom and choice for women. So I’ve watched their videos on antifeminism and talked both to experts and one of their supporters. Here is what I found.
This is Rebecca Lewis.
She is a Phd candidate at Stanford University and she has previously worked on two groundbreaking reports on far-right internet subcultures for the Data & Society think tank.
Rebecca first decided to study YouTube after writing the report "Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online" with Alice Marwick.
In it, she describes how conspiracy theories, like for example speculations over Hilary Clinton’s health, are generated in Internet subcultures first. They are then usually amplified by a mid-level influencer, often on YouTube, and then climb up the mainstream media ladder, sometimes all the way up to the White House. She decided to take a closer look at these YouTube microcelebrities on the right in her "Alternative Influence" report.
“BASICALLY WHAT I FOUND IS THAT YOUTUBE IS THIS BIG SPACE FOR THESE FAR RIGHT INFLUENCERS TO BROADCAST THEIR IDEAS TO AUDIENCES. THEY ARE ADOPTING THESE MECHANISMS OF BROADER INFLUENCER CULTURE LIKE AUTHENTICITY, INTIMACY, DIRECT INTERACTION WITH THEIR AUDIENCES AND ARE USING THEM TO SPREAD PROPAGANDA ON FAR RIGHT IDEAS AND TO RADICALIZE VIEWERS"
So far, the media has mostly focused on the radicalizing potential of YouTube’s algorithm.
Techno sociologist Zeynep Tufekci was one of the first voices to point out how the video recommendation feature on the platform, created to maximise viewing time, often pushes users towards more and more extreme content to keep them engaged. These mechanisms don't only apply to political messages, but to all videos: when viewing vegetarian recipes, users receive suggestions about veganism. After a few tutorials on beginner's exercises, the suggestion section proposes more extreme challenges, and so forth. After all, the platform mainly monetizes running ads on video clips and is incentivized to push for content that keeps people watching.
I have found some evidence of this in my own research: when I started looking at anti-feminist videos on the platform, I found that YouTube was often suggesting other far-right topics on my landing page. So I opened a brand new account, not changing any details about my age, sex and location.
At first my recommendation sections appeared fairly not political, containing a mix of entertainment and popular videos. But after looking up the word “feminism” and watching just two videos made by anti-feminist commentators, YouTube recommended to me an incredible amount of right-wing and far right political content.
This is a screen recording of the experiment
Yet Rebecca doesn’t identify the problem as a merely technical issue.
"WHAT I TRY TO PUSH BACK AGAINST IS THE FETISHIZATION OF THE ALGORITHM. YOU SEE A LOT OF DISCOURSES IN THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA ABOUT THE NEED TO “FIX” THE YOUTUBE ALGORITHM AND MY ARGUMENT IS THAT EVEN IF YOU COMPLETELY REMOVED THE RECOMMENDATION ALGORITHM TODAY, IT WOULDN’T SOLVE THE ISSUES THAT ARE ON THE YOUTUBE PLATFORM."
What Rebecca has observed is that many other elements contribute to far-right radicalization on YouTube. This includes the fact that different content creators on the right build social networks among each other and their audiences on and off the platform as well as across social media.
"Building an influence is really a cross platform phenomenon, you really have to maintain a presence on multiple different platforms. Influencers like Lauren Southern or Brittany Pettibone, if you just look at their Instagram account they just look like beauty influencers … there will be a little bit of extremist discourse that they post there but for the most part, their Instagram accounts are not political, whereas on their YouTube account they are hyperpolitical. But Instagram as it currently stands doesn’t know that … people may be using their platform to build their following and then translate that following into white supremacist rhetoric and discourse."
Both of the women that Rebecca mentioned are very large influencers in far-right communities, particularly Lauren Southern. Despite describing herself as an anti-feminist, Southern also espouses many second wave feminist views about wanting a career and success outside of domestic life. Even if Southern has accumulated a large followership over the course of the past few years, she has recently decided to drop her YouTube career after the release of her online documentary "Borderless" on Migration to Europe.
Similar apparent contradictions are repeated by many anti-feminist women. Blaire White, a transgender commentator, publishes regular videos against non-binary gender identities, Candace Owens has built a career on taking a stance against identity politics and discussing black issues from a conservative perspective.
I talked to Annie Kelly, who is conducting her PhD research at the University of Anglia on new and old forms of online anti-feminism.
Yet Annie also believe the movement offers women space to address some of their social anxieties.
This is something that I have observed as well: throughout their videos, anti-feminist women often look at and tackle social problems on an individual level, inciting their viewers to pursue personal self-betterment instead of addressing issues through collective politics.
A conversation with Symian Johnson, a 22-year-old student double majoring in Engineering and Psychology at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology confirms this point of view.
"You can't demand everyone accomodate you because that is not fair to them and it's unnatural. You can't walk into a culture and ask them to change everything about it to make you feel better, unless of course it's inappropriate and men often do that".
Simsyan ended up on a video of a Trump rally at about the time of the last presidential elections, where talk show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was mentioned. Despite disagreeing with Trump at first, he found some of the arguments made by his supporter in the video compelling and decided to research more.
Simyan describes himself as a centrist, conservative on certain social issues but not as much on the economy, gun control and other topics. He sometimes disagrees with what some of right-wing YouTube pundits say, but he feels that his point of view is better represented outside of mainstream media, particularly when it comes to gender relations.
Symian is not an isolated case. Researchers like Rebecca and Annie are struggling to position individuals within right and far-right online ecosystem. The informality of the platforms where they organize and the diverse ideological backgrounds that political commentators espouse are combined with an intentional dose of ambiguity and dark humor that blurs the line between mainstream commentators and far right ones. Rebecca’s research on radical right YouTubers revealed two main narratives that everyone in the study reproduced in some form.
"The first one is an anti-SJW, or Social Justice Warrior rhetoric - that is also this strategically flexible term for any kind of progressive politics. That’s a division that you don’t see as much in mainstream political communications and political science, SJW and anti-SJW. Another is an objection to the mainstream media. The linking of the mainstream media with liberal politics has been a discursive tool in right-wing media for a very long time, so that goes hand in hand that there is a rejection of the mainstream media together with a rejection of SJW politics. But rejecting the mainstream media also gives these channels a reason for being, right? Because they are to a certain extent competitors of the mainstream media."
This concern is also shared by Annie. Even though much of the content exchanged within YouTube right circles isn’t extremist, depending on their choices users can often quickly transition from relatively mainstream commentary to more radical ideas, and anti-feminism plays a key role in that.
"ONCE YOU KIND OF REMOVE THE WHITE SUPREMACIST ASPECT OF IT, YOU STILL FIND THESE NARRATIVES, THEY ARE UBIQUITOUS THROUGHOUT POP CULTURE, RIGHT? A LOT OF THESE DISCOURSES OF WHITE MEN AS WARRIORS FOR THE WHITE RACE, WHITE WOMEN AS BEAUTIFUL, AS BETTER THAN EVERYBODY ELSE, THEY’RE UBIQUITOUS SO IN SOME WAYS THE IDEA OF WHAT IS EXTREMIST VERSUS NON EXTREMIST IS MAYBE A COUNTERPRODUCTIVE FRAME. IN SOME WAYS WHAT’S MORE EFFECTIVE IS THAT THIS IS KIND OF WHITE SUPREMACIST DISCOURSE AND THAT IT’S MORE PERVASIVE.
In my own research process, I have noticed that a very large proportion of what antifeminist channels talked about was focused on beauty, more specifically on Western standards of beauty, and on a complete rejection of the body positive movement. I found this quite surprising given the political nature of their commentary.
Conformity to traditional standards of beauty has been used throughout the history of anti-feminism as a way to draw the line between “good” and “bad” women. By continuously depicting feminist and women making demands against the status quo as angry and unattractive, movements against gender equality have managed to invalidate feminist arguments even before they are heard, discouraging people from wanting to be associated with these groups. In parallel, women who do not engage in gender politics are often emboldened to find happiness in traditional beauty and gender roles.
After watching hours and hours of footage, I still had one key question in mind. Why do so many young women to this day still prefer not to identify as feminist, or even disavow the movement altogether? I asked Annie what she thought about it.
At a time when more and more voices demand accountability from social platforms, YouTube has largely avoided scrutiny from the media, academia and other institutions, perhaps because its use is mostly widespread among teenagers and young adults, perhaps because of the unique difficulties of monitoring the 300+ hours of footage uploaded on the platform every minute. Rebecca shares her take on what the platform should do moving forward.
"ON THE ONE HAND, A LOT OF THESE ISSUES ARE SO CORE TO YOUTUBE’S BUSINESS MODEL THAT I THINK THAT ANY MEANINGFUL CHANGE IS GONNA REQUIRE SOME VERY VERY BIG OVERHAULS. ON THE OTHER HAND THERE ARE MUCH MORE SMALL SCALE ACTIONS THAT THEY COULD TAKE IN TERMS OF CONSISTENTLY ENFORCING THEIR MODERATION POLICIES, WHICH THEY ARE NOT CURRENTLY DOING, THAT I THINK WOULD BE HELPFUL. ON THE THIRD HAND, THESE PLATFORMS DIDN’T START STRUCTURAL RACISM AND SEXISM - AND THEY ARE NOT GOING TO FIX THEM."