YouTube Jostled me From Left to Alt-Right

I generally don’t turn to YouTube for politics. I use the Google-owned streaming video site for arcane music, forgotten comedy and esoteric ephemera. My viewing history usually confounds YouTube’s predictive algorithm.

But last week, after I watched left-wing YouTube personality ContraPoints, YouTube’s algorithm snapped into gear. Seeing that I’d watched ContraPoints, YouTube suggested about a half dozen political videos, all of which contained hard rightwing ideological content.

While it’s technically correct to call ContraPoints a left-wing YouTube personality, that description poorly serves the multitudes ContraPoints contains. ContraPoints, AKA Natalie Wynn, is a Baltimore transwoman blending philosophy, ideology, sharp humor and theatricality with skillful video production. Her videos are advanced, stylish and baroque and she’s a lucid and compelling thinker and speaker.

My only problem with her is that she’s too interesting—save some oxygen for the rest of us, Natalie. But ContraPoints quickly presented me with a problem. Once I watched ContraPoints’ videos, odious conservatives like Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro started appearing in my YouTube feed.

I wasn’t entirely surprised to see those ghouls. YouTube has a well-documented propensity for funnelling viewers into extremist content. A February, 2018 The Wall Street Journal investigation of Youtube found that YouTube “fed far-right or far-left videos to users who watched relatively mainstream news sources. A New York Times opinion piece suggested that YouTube is biased toward inflammatory content. When average viewers search for anodyne topics, YouTube serves them the wildest permutations of their initial interests: “Videos about vegetarianism led to videos about veganism,” Zeynep Tufekci wrote in the Times. “Videos about jogging led to videos about running ultramarathons.”

While the Times and Journal stories are robustly researched and well-reasoned journalism, I think they too fall prey to bias. It’s a bias infecting many major media institutions; they insist that the left and right are equally deranged despite all available evidence.

ContraPoints is decidedly left-wing. By the logic of the Times and WSJ articles, I should have been funnelled into a more extreme version of ContraPoints’ lefty politics. Instead I was driven to the hard right. That says a lot about YouTube’s toxic tilt towards right wing ideology.

ContraPoints is a rising star. She was profiled in The New Yorker and was a guest on the “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House. The interest in her work reflects the high quality of her video production and how alone she is. There are precious few left voices on YouTube. Meanwhile, the right has an interconnected global network.

There ins’t a more intense version of ContraPoints but it’s tantalizing to imagine what that might look like (Cirque du Soleil interpreting Das Kapital whilst nude in a period-accurate recreation of Louis the XIV’s royal court at Versailles?). Meanwhile, extreme right-wing channels abound. So while YouTube’s bias may indeed be towards extremes, the result is that it’s biased towards the right.

It’s easy to imagine watching a ContraPoints video for non ideological reasons. They’re fun, cleverly made works of art. It’s disheartening that someone might come for the flash and stay with the fash.