You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
YouTube (x14)

Can the Left Win YouTube?

A new cohort of left-wing video creators is smart, savvy, and entertaining. Is that enough to counter the internet’s alt-right trolls?

Ke­vin Peterson is deliberate when he speaks. He pauses frequently, as though chewing over his next thought. In life as on YouTube, where he is one of a growing number of leftists and progressives who have attracted large online followings, he is disarmingly sincere. He tends to understate the case, introduce caveats, and admit uncertainty. He embeds these habits in the sign-off on his video essays—“DAS JUS ME DOE”—a phrase that is also featured on his merchandise. He then adds, “What do you think?”

His videos on the channel T1J skew minimalist. Peterson opts to address the camera directly, rather than using the skits and absurdist jokes common among many of his left-leaning peers. His muted approach is perhaps bound up in his experience of being a black progressive in the Deep South, where he notes that political conversations can get “pretty awkward.” As he put it to me, “People would normally be immediately turned off by [topics like race], but I say it in a more palatable way.”

Yet despite his diplomatic demeanor, he’s willing to grab political lightning rods.  In 2016, he released a video declaring he would not vote for Hilary Clinton despite his opposition to Donald Trump, citing the Democratic candidate’s chumminess with corporations and her penchant for warmongering. In 2017, with Trump’s Twitter-fueled reign of terror in full swing, he released a follow-up explaining why he did not regret his decision.

In contrast to Peterson, Justin Roczniak is a wonk who likes to riff on the minutiae of city planning. He has a sense of humor, too, weird and bone-dry. In an hour-long video on public housing on his channel donoteat01, for example, he created a two-minute intermission so viewers could “grab a snack or a beer”—a bizarre throwback for a streaming show that can be paused at any moment. Roczniak uses Photoshop to simulate the effect of an Eastman Kodak rotary slide projector whenever he discusses architecture history, replete with requests to a fictitious grad student off-camera to change the slides. When I asked him about it, he laughed and said, “You kids are going to learn.”

Peterson and Roczniak, in their different ways, show both the appeal and the limitations of what has been dubbed LeftTube: a constellation of loosely connected YouTube channels that is reaching new audiences with its leftward politics and changing the dialogue in the often sordid arena of online politics.   

When we talk about politics on YouTube, we are usually talking about the alt-right. YouTube is one of the most powerful tools in the right wing’s war for the hearts and minds of Americans, particularly white men under the age of 30. From Christchurch to Poway, case after case shows that YouTube is one of several platforms capable of radicalizing viewers, plunging those susceptible to conspiracy theories and racial hatred into a rabbit hole of extremist content. Due to the viral appeal of conspiracy theories, xenophobic fear-mongering, and misogynist fury, reactionaries still hold sway over spaces like YouTube. But they are no longer alone. The question is whether LeftTube—quirky, funny, and grounded in the basic laws of decency and logic—can significantly expand the audience for its politics and help offset the addled ravings of the conservative fringe.

In the attention economy of the internet, LeftTube has always been an underdog. Around 2008, YouTube Atheism coalesced into one of the first political commentary communities on the platform. While that community skewed white and male, it was ideologically diverse, home to right-wing edgelords and queer feminists alike—so long as they were willing to crusade against organized religion. Unable to bear its internal contradictions, however, the community soon tore itself apart.

In the years since, the alt-right built a massive presence on YouTube, mocking college activists with “SJW Cringe Compilations” and spreading racist and sexist propaganda and conspiracy theories. Those conspiracy theories, in turn, bled into mainstream conservative media coverage. In 2016, the online right seeded the story that the Democratic National Committee, perhaps with the blessing of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, ordered the murder of Democratic Party staffer Seth Rich, after he purportedly leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks. In May 2017, Fox News reported the fever dream as gospel, only to later retract the story when it was revealed to be a conspiracy.

Many of the right’s adversaries on the left, in contrast, were scattered and isolated, besieged by trolls and bigots with little public or financial support. After feminist game critic Anita Sarkeesian produced a series called “Tropes v. Women in Video Games,” she became a target of GamerGate, a 2014 harassment doxxing campaign against several women in the video game industry and journalism. Black trans YouTuber Kat Blaque once described trolls’ rape and death threats as “part of [her] daily existence.” Still, despite a deluge of harassment, Sarkeesian and Blaque forged ahead and carved out territory that they could call their own. Sarkeesian became a minor celebrity after appearing on The Colbert Report, while Blaque started conversations around the issues of race and gender.

The LeftTube galaxy that we know today, however, was spawned by a few groundbreaking stars—two of the most prominent being pop-culture critic Lindsay Ellis and philosopher-entertainer Natalie Wynn. Ellis was already well-known on YouTube by 2008, as the Nostalgia Chick on the once-popular platform Channel Awesome. She left and started her eponymous channel in 2015, out of anger with workplace misogyny and Channel Awesome’s tepid response to Gamergate. The uncontested supremacy of the alt-right online inspired Wynn to create the channel ContraPoints in 2016, where she has eviscerated right-wing cruelty, centrist complacency, and leftist dogma. Her skits feature caricatures like the trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) Abigail Cockbane (who assures us that she has written “many, many books”); the hard-drinking classical liberal Jackie Jackson (who thinks Nazis may have a point); and socialist catgirl Tabby (who quotes dead German philosophers and threatens to break skulls with her baseball bat).

Real-world events conspired to create more demand for leftist content. The Forever Wars, the Great Recession, Bernie Sanders’s insurgent presidential campaign, Brexit, and, of course, the election of Donald Trump—all fed a great clamoring for clarity that, particularly for young people, seemed elusive in the mainstream press. Real-world circumstances drove several current LeftTubers to the platform. For instance, Roczniak radicalized on housing policy after developers tried to tear down his home in 2016.

Meanwhile, LeftTube grew more sophisticated as YouTubers elevated the video essay into an art form. Olly Thorn of the popular channel PhilosophyTube began as a solo operation six years ago, with Thorn speaking into a cheap digital camera—now, he hires film crews for shooting sessions. Kevin Peterson’s second video ever, titled “spanking your kids is bullshit,” cuts a large portion of his head out of a grainy and poorly lit frame. That was in 2008; since then, Peterson has studied other YouTubers for stylistic cues, borrowing elements from Vlog Brothers, Philip DiFranco, Ellis, and Wynn. His recent video, “How Sitcoms Discuss Racism,” is tightly edited and scripted, while the set has a high-end mic and lighting setup.

Despite this cross-pollination, LeftTube’s aesthetic is far from monolithic. Justin Roczniak explores political and economic history over time-lapse videos of Cities: Skylines, a video game that might be described as Sim City on steroids. In his “Franklin” series, he assembles different portions of his fictional city Franklin—loosely modeled after Philadelphia—over hundreds of years, to show, among other things, how urban development has come at the cost of the poor and immigrants. “I can’t speak as effectively on [urban development] just by talking into a camera and everyone seeing my pretty face,” as he put it to me.

In the LeftTube oeuvre, no topic is too esoteric for discussion. Angie, a pagan anarcho-socialist who operates the channel Angie Speaks, has talked about social justice, Dada, and rave culture. (She did not disclose her full name due to safety concerns.) Angie and Olly Thorn have each addressed witchcraft as a historical form of women’s empowerment, and the ways in which witch-burnings broke this power. Lindsay Ellis and Jack Saint focus more on media and culture analysis than sociopolitical commentary. Steeped in irony, Ellis brings academic rigor to her discussions of film and television. In her “Whole Plate” series, she analyzes Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise through the lenses of Marxism, the male gaze, and queer theory, among others. Saint’s video essays are apoplectic hot takes—he has described talking dog movies and the 2005 Disney kids’ popcorn flick Sky High as apologias for slavery and fascism. 

Amid this panoply, Wynn reigns supreme as the fan-anointed queen of LeftTube—almost every creator I interviewed described her as a stylistic influence, with Angie joking, “In terms of style, I’m looking to dethrone ContraPoints. I’m coming for you, lady!” Though Wynn chugs Red Bull and works the insomniac, harried schedule of a graduate student—beginning her filming around 10 o’clock at night, and going to bed as the world wakes up—her ContraPoints persona is the epitome of composure. Wynn uses absurdity, violence, and sex to great effect—she’s drowned baby dolls, beaten herself, run fake fingernails over a sequined shirt as ASMR, and described gay teenage boys on Instagram as “the only people with a coherent vision of contemporary womanhood.” People have adopted her use of campy lighting, and her makeup and wig styling have become iconic for the online left.

Wynn is also one of the few LeftTubers to receive acclaim from the mainstream establishment—she has been profiled by outlets like The New Yorker, which described her as “one of the few leftists anywhere who can be nuanced without being boring.” In recent months, her channel has favored deep dives into gender theory, complemented by acidic humor. She’s often presented in the media as the sole hope of the hashtag-resistance in the internet’s right-wing badlands, but this is a popular narrative she rejects, telling me, “I feel relegated to being this non-playable character in a quest starring a young white racist!”

Despite their growing relevance and popularity, LeftTubers are fighting an uphill battle. Unlike the right, which has created countless YouTube channels spreading misogyny, racism, and transphobia, LeftTube has less than one hundred major content creators. Its videos tend to be researched, fact-checked, scripted, and edited, and are subjected to high production values—time-consuming tasks that many creators on the right discard entirely. Peterson’s videos can take 100 hours or more to produce. ContraPoints takes hours to put on her makeup and costumes. In that exacting environment, less-established voices often struggle to gain a foothold.

All those obstacles pale in comparison to the structural handicaps imposed by YouTube’s toxic algorithm. Like all other videos uploaded to the streaming behemoth, leftist YouTube content is fed and watered by the algorithm’s click-bait logic. Although the algorithm is ever-changing, the creators most able to generate views, likes, comments, and subscriptions seem to be seen the most. As Lindsay Ellis noted, “YouTube’s algorithm rewards spontaneity, it rewards repetition, it rewards emotionality”—hallmarks of alt-right content, which stokes rage, fear, and disgust linked to bruised male ego and fear of declining white hegemony. LeftTube videos tend to use logical argumentation backed by research, nuance, absurdity, and arch humor—and while this style plays well within their base of support, it does not appear to provide the same shortcut to user engagement as the reactionary id of the right.

Furthermore, many LeftTubers are ambivalent about gaming the algorithm. Even the smaller creators try not to think about metrics too often. Though Angie’s mission is to make pagan, anarchist, and social ideas available to the masses, she resists the temptation to follow her metrics in part to avoid caving to the capitalist profit-driven ethos imposed by the platform. Though Saint expressed more interest in building a brand, he’s given up on parsing the inscrutable criteria of the algorithm. With a shrug, he noted that after it changed in November 2018, his Sky High video skyrocketed from 1,500 views to 300,000 views. (As of writing, it has been viewed over 440,000 times.)

Roczniak has the simplest motivation to ignore the metrics—he doesn’t care about his channel’s growth beyond financial security, and he already has a devoted set of patrons. While LeftTubers find capitalism flawed at best and broken at worst, none felt deep personal tension between their politics and their presence on YouTube, an arm of the corporate leviathan Google. All of the LeftTubers I interviewed rely on their YouTube channels as their main source of income, either through Patreon donations, account monetization allowing ads to appear in their videos, or both. Even Angie, who is on the fringe even by LeftTube’s standards, observed, “There’s this sort of liberal idea that anti-capitalism is a lifestyle choice. It’s not. It’s a stance on the incompetence of the economic system. I have a Patreon so I can pay rent and eat and live and not die.”

Rather than devoting all of their energies to finagling the algorithm, many creators rely on each other. LeftTubers constantly cite, recommend, retweet, and otherwise promote others in the community. Many people discover new creators because of the cameos they make on a different creator’s channel. ContraPoints’s character Tabby appeared in a bit part for an Ellis video on Marx and Transformers, where the two touched on the Marxist philosopher’s Adorno’s hatred of jazz.

These relationships are never just strategic or professional in nature. After all, LeftTubers are LeftTube fans as well, and many LeftTubers are just friends. Angie is close with many members of BreadTube, an overlapping, more radical YouTube community named after nineteenth-century anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s book The Conquest of Bread. Wynn remembers Ellis as a peer-mentor figure in her early years, offering “a lot of practical advice about the off-screen side of things.”

Many LeftTubers do not consider themselves part of a united movement, but rather an ad hoc moment. LeftTube was born from the national emergencies of Brexit and the Trump presidency, an immune-system response to the depredations of racism, misogyny, and poverty. As such, the community often disagrees quite strongly on political objectives—Peterson calls himself a progressive and Wynn is a social democrat, while Angie and Roczniak are minted anarchists who often advocate the wholesale abolition of many existing institutions. Despite their mutual respect, most of them anticipate LeftTube eventually splintering—and a few already see hairline fractures in the community.

More than anything, most LeftTubers seemed to consider LeftTube to be a consumer demographic, defined by users rather than creators. As such, the moment will last only as long as they continue to share this base of support.

Despite their pessimism, the numbers tell a different story of expansion. As with most YouTube audiences, its viewers skew young. Around 80 percent of Wynn’s viewers and 75 percent of Ellis’s viewers are between the ages of 18 and 35. Audience size varies widely per creator and per video—while Roczniak’s niche videos tends to get around 45,000 clicks, Ellis’s recent video on Aladdin received upwards of 4 million views. For the moment, LeftTube’s audience is only growing.

While LeftTube fame is a niche form of celebrity, the community’s superstars have also been able translate their online popularity into real-world impact, sometimes raising huge sums of money for liberal causes. One LeftTuber, Harry Brewis alias hbomberguy, raised $340,000 for Mermaids, a British trans and gender variant advocacy organization, just by live-streaming a 57-hour session of himself playing Donkey Kong 64. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez even called in mid-session to talk politics and video games.

Still, though LeftTubers are helping lead the online left, they are far from representative of the offline left. Four of the five people most often identified as the heart of LeftTube—Wynn, Ellis, Brewis, and Olly Thorn—are white. (The fifth, Shaun, only uses voiceovers and features a skull for an avatar.) While these five are undeniably talented, many have observed that their supposedly woke audience favors white voices.

In her riveting and hilarious sketch, “Who are Black Leftists Supposed to Be?,” Angie satirized the portion of her audience that believes that discussions of class are outside her lane. “They would rather that I talked about cultural appropriation and how much Beyonce slays,” she said. “You have a black female leftist, but they don’t want me to be a leftist.” Between swigs of wine in her recent viral video “Why is ‘LeftTube’ So White?”, Kat Blaque observed that audiences tend to receive her research more favorably after it receives white LeftTubers’ approval.

Most creators also admitted to some anxiety linked to the left’s predilection for internecine conflict. None of these artists fit easily into ideological boxes, which makes them ripe targets for online mobs. Ellis, for example, refuses to discuss young adult literature, a particularly Balkanized arena of the online left, because she fears the potential fallout. Jack Saint described rereading tweets up to six times to make sure they passed muster. Ellis noted that there are portions of the trans community that loathe Wynn’s perspective on gender issues—and while she hasn’t backed down, it upsets her greatly.

When I asked Angie about fan feedback, she responded, “Grievance has now become a commodity in and of itself.” She said that direct messages, e-mails, or other private forms of outreach are more helpful than public shaming, while hurling vitriol earns more social clout.

The artists on LeftTube are smart and savvy, but they are not political leaders. They are motivated as much by the thrill of professional independence, intellectual satisfaction, and the creative process than a burning desire to start a revolution. Wynn referred to her work as entertainment, not political commentary, with an insistence that reminded me of Jon Stewart’s beleaguered pleas that he just wanted to be a comedian.

Still, Wynn understands why people want to place their hopes in LeftTube. “The thing about entertainment and art, it moves people and attracts people deeply,” she told me. “Being anti-Vietnam is just more exciting, if there’s also Jimi Hendrix.”