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Introducing BreadTube, a group of left-wing activists deradicalising YouTube by hijacking its algorithm

By Malavika Pradeep

Mar 12, 2021

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YouTube’s recommendation system is not set in stone. Every year, the company makes small changes to its ‘Up Next’ sidebar to reinforce its quicksand algorithm. In 2019, a research team from Google Brain, Google’s AI division, began testing a new algorithm that incorporated what is known as ‘reinforcement learning’ to build a “long-term addiction machine.” The new AI, called Reinforce, was designed to maximise user engagement over time by steering them into different parts of YouTube, eventually expanding their taste—instead of suggesting videos similar to the ones they had already watched.

Reinforce was YouTube’s most successful launch in two years. At an AI conference, Minmin Chen, a Google Brain researcher, admitted that sitewide views increased by nearly 1 per cent—which on YouTube’s scale surmounts to million more hours of watch time and revenue from advertising. She added that the new algorithm was already starting to alter users’ behaviour.

Enter YouTube’s far-right creators. Specialising in content targeting cross-genre exploration, these YouTubers tremendously benefitted from the algorithm changes, which unknowingly facilitate far-right radicalisation. They cleverly called out left-wing biases in videos reviewing the latest Star Wars episode and ranted about feminism while streaming Call of Duty—both moves attempting to ‘red-pill’ (an internet slang term for converting to far-right beliefs) movie buffs and gamers with niche content.

On a platform where 70 per cent of the user engagement is aided through recommendation, these entertainers perfected the art of tumbling viewers down a rabbit hole of far-right content. They built their audience with a subversive yet satirical take on leftist issues—fostering an addictive experience that shuts out all other views.

A probe by The New York Times proved the algorithm to be a useful recruiting tool for far-right extremist groups. Bellingcat, an investigative journalism website, found YouTube cited as the most frequent cause of members’ red-pilling in a far-right chat room. An analysis of around 30,000 Twitter accounts affiliated with the alt-right by VOX-Pol, a European research group, found accounts linked to YouTube more often than to any other site.

“They’re not selling politics as politics but conservatism as a lifestyle brand,” stated Ian Danskin, creator of Innuendo Studio, in a video titled ‘The Alt-Right Playbook: How to Radicalize a Normie’. He states that the practice of abandoning progressive principles and embracing conservatism is sold to its increasingly-pigeonholed viewers as “something that will make them happy.”

In his video, Danskin breaks down the steps taken by these creators into five main actions: identify the audience, establish a community, isolate, raise their power and give them a mission. With comments like “This was me two years ago,” “Can confirm this is how it works,” and “Damn dude, this hits hard,” Danskin makes his point as an active member of BreadTube—a collective of left-wing YouTubers united by their shared interest in combating the far-right to deradicalise viewers.

Often interchangeable with LeftTube, videos made by these crowdfunded creators mimic the aesthetics of right-wing YouTube by mixing politics with other mainstream interests like films, video games, popular culture and philosophy. Creators in this movement don’t get outraged by far-right ideals, but instead feature a theatrical yet didactical style to convey leftist thoughts, adopting a laid-back, rolling-my-eyes approach to counter far-right propaganda.

Initially created on Reddit, the term BreadTube comes from Peter Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread, a book on anarcho-communism. The community is highly decentralised, mostly running on mutual cameos and shout-outs between creators. Major figures associated with BreadTube are ContraPoints, Philosophy Tube, Lindsay Ellis and Hbomberguy. The label imposed on these creators, however, is highly-debated, with these YouTubers identifying to the term in varying degrees.

The core of BreadTube’s strategy is to hijack the YouTube algorithm to help burst its political bubble and foster a space for deradicalisation. BreadTubers use the same titles, tags and descriptions as far-right YouTubers so that their content is recommended to the same audience as the far-right. In some cases, these channels and creators respond directly under these far-right videos to increase their exposure and redirect traffic.

The success of BreadTubers can be quantified by the number of likes and comments amassed under their videos. The movement is referenced by academics as a case study in decentralisation. With contested claims of the YouTube algorithm increasingly promoting far-right ideals, BreadTube is definitely a step in the direction of beating the far-right at their own game. And quoting Danskin himself to sum up the success of the movement, “One thing we have that the alt-right doesn’t is hope.”