When it comes to politics, YouTube is often seen as social media’s slow child. It doesn’t come with the crunchy sound-bite culture of Twitter, nor with the mum-pleasing blanket exposure of Facebook.
But what it lacks in those departments, it makes up for in an explosive gearing for what marketing types would call ‘influencer endorsement’. Unlike the others, YouTube is deeply parasocial (a term I’m about to explain), and its success is giving rise to what I shall call the parasocial politician: a new kind of actor, a bedroom press baron, beholden not to party or editor, but only to their own often vast audience.
The term ‘parasocial’ was a term coined in 1956, by the sociologists Horton and Wohl. Their paper, “Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observation on intimacy at a distance”, described the way in which we relate to those who come to us through a one-way lens.
These relationships develop across most media. When JR was shot, a nation mourned parasocially. But Web 2.0 affords a deeper grain of intimacy. Taylor Swift’s Instagram feed, with its faux-candidness, its artfully dishevelled air, the sense of a little secret between you and her, is a better example of how a parasocial relationship develops.
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In that sense, YouTube is perfect for making new one-way friends. “Hey what’s happening guys?” is its unofficial catchphrase, the opening gambit of a million vloggers who often offer us little more than the chance to relate to them, as they plod about the humdrum of their lives, offering makeup tips, playing video games.
YouTubers whisper to you in the earphones of your mobile device. They’re far-off pals, who loom out of a laptop, often in the most intimate of moments: tidying a bedroom on Monday evening, home from a party on a Saturday night, interstitial points when we gladly take off our critical faculties, and seek simply to hear a voice that is not the one in our head. YouTube, with its wan parasocial glow, fills those pockets in the lives of a generation that has forsaken TV.
These are the facts. And as the percentage of the population who get their news media exclusively online increases (now at 84% among the 18-25 bracket), the old red versus blue party politics will have to bend not to Fleet Street or broadcast, but to a new, online commentariat that isn’t responsible to editors, only to the audience they have cultivated. No Murdoch can fire them, their power is a direct mandate from their subscribers, and in turn those subscribers often pay their wages through direct fan-funded donations.
The parasocial politician is part commentator, part political actor, but crucially, is independent of the structures that once bound the press to their quarry.
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Into that void have come men like Sargon of Akkad – a Swindon-dwelling, 38-year old father of two called Carl Benjamin, who broadcasts from his converted garage. A total outsider with no previous interest in politics, who began his career because he “couldn’t stay silent any longer”, Benjamin also runs a separate YouTube channel exclusively devoted to people watching him playing video games. He has built a cult fanbase of 850,000 subscribers by railing against the ills of ‘Social Justice Warrior’ culture, defending what he describes as ‘Classical Liberalism’ (a label claimed by a wide range of viewpoints these days).
Men such as Paul Joseph Watson are here, too: friend of InfoWars kingpin Alex Jones. Another self-proclaimed ‘Classical Liberal’, he makes pithy five-minute packages railing against whatever political correctness has most recently gone mad, whether calling feminists “swamp donkeys“, or arguing for the proposition that certain African countries are, as the POTUS put it, “shitholes“.
Both are increasingly influential. Benjamin receives an average of 250,000 views per video, while an episode of Newsnight averages 344,000. On YouTube, Paul Joseph Watson has 1.4 million subscribers, compared with Owen Jones’s 113,000.
With their revenues – Benjamin alone earns somewhere near £20,000 a month – they could afford to upscale their productions. Yet neither exactly flays himself in the editing department. Benjamin’s set dressing is an old black velour curtain that looks like it was plucked from a closing down sale at a strip club. Paul Joseph Watson’s SFX run as far as speeding up his voice into a high-pitched squeal.
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They’d be ill-advised to professionalise. It’s precisely their amateurism that makes them parasocial, affording them a shonky, homemade DIY charm that disarms, that allows these very ordinary demagogues each to penetrate the places that a journalist or a politician can’t, to become yer mate rather than an authority figure.
I’ve just finished making a documentary, for BBC Radio 4 about the rise of the YouTube Right, and one thing that struck me was that Benjamin didn’t seek to define himself as a journalist. I don’t think it would have occurred to him to join those formal structures, even if it were as easy as signing up. He had no idea who Fraser Nelson was; he didn’t even know who Richard Littlejohn was. He might have been on the pro-Trump, pro-Brexit Right, but his agenda was not synched with theirs.
Talking to Benjamin, it’s obvious that the gatekeepers of the old world have been bypassed. There’s now a direct audience-to-ideologue connection. Jordan Peterson often points to this direct connection as one of the key binding agents in the Intellectual Dark Web – that people like him, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, have built their own vast audiences from nothing but charisma and ideas worth hearing, on the new technologies of YouTube and podcast.
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Though they pre-date his fame, Benjamin and Watson have drawn both intellectual nourishment and fans from the project of Jordan Peterson and his associated Intellectual Dark Web. Peterson also situates himself as a “classic British liberal” and an “individualist”. But the IDW styles itself as grown up – a heterodox place for the long-form and the nuanced – while there’s often more of an air of Nineties pro-wrestling to the polemics of the YouTube crowd. At the same time, the polarising nature of the culture wars, and especially the free-speech agenda, increasingly sees them lining up next to Tommy Robinson, even though they often consider themselves to be ‘of the Left’. ’The Left left me’ is a cliche of their genre.
A few weeks ago, US think tank Data & Society acknowledged the importance of this model when they published, a rather shrill taxonomy of the various strata on the YouTube right that are gradually becoming their own ecosystem.
As their power grows, the strange multiple-narrative universe we’ve entered in the past few years will only grow more confusing as the same events are forced through competing filter bubbles. One of the obsessions of this world is how they stand in opposition not only to certain politics, but to a consensus on what reality is: the dreaded “mainstream narrative”. In the same sense that a Trump or a Brexit was a ‘glitch in that matrix’, they see themselves as being forced into intellectual exile and smeared by an elite that won’t accept them. It’s both a neat rhetorical flourish, and a revolution in the offing.
Carl Miller has written a book that touches on the idea: The Death Of The Gods: The New Global Power Grab. He told me that he sees the conventional parties’ monopoly on messaging breaking down. Increasingly, you have individual actors able to mobilise around a particular issue. Black Lives Matter vs Blue Lives Matter. Feminists vs Anti-Feminists. The MAGA hats vs Antifa. As these thought-leading upstarts gain more traction, the future, he suggests, will involve more rapidly-shifting coalitions between small groups of political actors, often organised around these kinds of fanbases.
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That kind of new power broker also fits neatly into the theories of tech philosopher Jordan Greenhall: a networked world that no longer fits with the top-down traditional ‘Blue Church’ mode of distributing power we’ve been used to. The News At Ten World, in which events are plugged into a matrix of gatekeepers that gives reliably high quality, if reductive, answers. Instead, these are Greenhall’s ‘Red Religion’: the coming thing, non-hierarchical actors, plugged into the instant feedback and deep audience connection of social media, not gate-kept, and so prone to going wildly off-the-reservation, but also prone to far more nuance and originality in their ideas.
We tend to imagine that the social media revolution has long since matured, but the rise of the parasocial politicians is still relatively recent: they’ve been going for at most four years. They are in their infancy, and the scene that surrounds them is as crude as it is influential. There is a long way left to run in this story. Its initial actors may fall by the wayside like many of the tech giants of the 90s eventually did. But Miller suggests that we’re primed for “a Farage who knows how to work these new technologies”.
It’s worth noting that Tommy Robinson only roared back into the public eye when he became a correspondent for hard-Right Canadian YouTube TV news company The Rebel. He is probably too tarnished a figure to ever find the mainstream, but he can garner bigger crowds than any politician bar Corbyn. Is it a matter of time before someone else, in their bedroom, finds they possess a talent for raw rhetoric as great as Paul Joseph Watson, but with the message polish of a Trudeau?
Perhaps the next truly powerful British politician won’t be in parliament at all – they’ll be parasocial.