Being brainwashed isn't just for elderly Fox News viewers anymore.
After two decades of successfully transforming portions of the Greatest Generation into robotic Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity fans, the right-wing media are now winning over younger converts via social media, and specifically by radicalizing viewers on YouTube. Thanks in part to YouTube's algorithm, which helps lock young, alienated viewers into a torrent of conspiratorial far-right voices, the conservative movement is now riding a potent wave of media-based radicalization that spans generations. The disturbing brainwashing phenomenon is upending American politics and ripping families apart.
Five years ago, when Caleb Cain was an unemployed 21-year-old liberal college graduate, he “had gotten sucked into a vortex of far-right politics on YouTube,” The New York Times recently reported. During the election year of 2016, Cain watched a staggering 4,000 YouTube videos, most of them from far-right political sources. By then his transformation from empathetic liberal to radical conservative who feared a Muslim invasion in America was complete. “I just kept falling deeper and deeper into this, and it appealed to me because it made me feel a sense of belonging,” he recalled. “I was brainwashed.” Noted a high school friend, “It was kind of sad. I was just, like: ‘Wow, what happened? How did you get this way?'” Cain eventually broke free from the grip of right-wing YouTube.
Conservatives hated the Times expose and the suggestion that young YouTube viewers are being recruited and brainwashed with racist messages of hate and paranoia. But the trend is rampant, especially among young, alienated white men. “Critics and independent researchers say YouTube has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism by combining two things: a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens,” the Times reported.
Just recently, in an attempt to clean up extremism and hate speech, YouTube announced plans to remove videos and channels that advocate neo-Nazism, white supremacy, and other far-right bigoted ideologies. But also this month, YouTube completely bungled the controversy surrounding racist conservative host Steven Crowder, who has used his online video platform to harass a gay liberal writer for Vox, Carlos Maza. YouTube's weird and unsure handling of the controversy only highlighted how social media giants live in fear of a conservative backlash with its bogus claims of liberal media bias. The right wing senses that fear and is taking advantage of the political opening to overrun platforms such as YouTube with an avalanche of hate programming, the kind that radicalizes viewers.
That's what's happening among younger viewers, and it coincides with Fox News’ brainwashing of older viewers. We often think about Rupert Murdoch's GOP outlet in terms of its political implications and how it shapes debate in this country while fostering fear and divisiveness. Less often, though, do we ponder the deep cultural and social implications and what it means for right-wing media outlets to be brainwashing Americans, and what it means for families to be torn apart after a member falls under the ugly spell of right-wing propaganda. There's a hidden civil war that's broken out in this country, and it's being played out mostly behind closed doors as families struggle to make sense of the wholesale brainwashing one of their own has undergone.