I’ve made it a point to attempt to read and listen to more opinions from ends of the political spectrum that I tend to disagree with.
As someone who grew up in punk and hardcore and has historically been quite left-leaning, I get pretty excited when I can find a conservative voice that allows me to see what I would consider to be a reasonable “other side” to a lot of political arguments.
For this reason, I regularly read Ross Douthat’s work in the New York Times.
In a recent column – called “The Faults Beyond our Algorithms” – Douthat makes the argument that the radicalization of young men by YouTube recommendations is not just due to the effectiveness of these algorithms at generating clicks and view time.
In order for the recommendations for conspiratorial and alienated viewpoints to resonate with an audience, there must be a need that these more extreme view points fulfill.
Douthat argues that the removal of traditional values and social structures is key to the creation of this of a “disaffected conspiracy theorist” shaped gap in American society.
Given my recent reading and enjoyment of Bowling Alone – a detailed dive into the decline of social capital in American society – I’m pretty convinced by Douthat’s reasoning.
As we remove more and more of the pieces of our culture that give people a sense of belonging, we likely create opportunities for more and more people to search for meaning in all the wrong places (like YouTube rabbit holes of conspiracy thinking).
It’s difficult to tease out how many of the potentially radicalized folks would have participated in “more wholesome” institutions than YouTube recommendation k-holes, but it’s not hard to imagine that – on the margins – there are potentially quite a few people who would have found a sense of belonging in their local community that would have precluded them from being so vulnerable to “suggested videos.”
A more traditional leftist argument would likely focus on economic inequalities and the crippling debt that many folks are burdened with as they graduate from college as primary causal factors for the tendency of people to seek to “blow up a rigged system” and gravitate toward all kinds of sketchy red pill ideologies.
This inequality certainly plays a role in creating frustration, anger and alienation on which demagogues can capitalize, but I have historically underrated the role of tradition in filling the social gap that is now occupied by conspiracy videos and trolling in Reddit comments.