II’ve been researching Gen Z’s online memetic subcultures since 2016, and for the past few years I’ve watched a generation of young people become politicized online. Many started posting memes by the age of 15, and now, in their early adulthood, I’ve seen them make decisions, how to vote, go to college, have kids, join the National Guard, join communist organizations, dated Going the net, preparing for the revolution are supposed to carry out paramilitary exercises in the forest and sometimes commit suicide. Everything that happens online is real. All of this has consequences for the outside world.
Young viewers initially consume relatively tame content and then enter more radical areas. They may watch a conservative comedy show, then steer platform algorithms to political experts, and ultimately to more extreme figures on the conspiratorial and ideological fringes. Today this process is popularly referred to as the “funnel,”
Much research and resources have been undertaken to integrate social media “pipelines” into far-right and reactionary politics. Less thought was given to a left alternative. This is a huge void in the way the left, by and large, thinks about online politics. While the problems of online radicalization of the right are very real, I believe that social media mechanisms also offer a path for progressive and left-wing politicization.
Politicization is a process in which gaps in one’s own worldview are closed. Social media exposes us to new ideas that counteract our current belief systems and cause change. When people, especially young people, become aware of previously unseen inconsistencies in their beliefs, they move in seizures and begin to fill those cognitive gaps and arrive at what they believe to be ideological clarity. Whether the result is good or bad depends heavily on what information you find and in which direction you are headed.
While much of the current online radicalization debate has focused on the impact of recommendation algorithms, that’s only part of the story. In many cases, people go down ideological rabbit holes, not because they are cynically misled by platforms, but because they cannot find satisfactory answers in the mainstream media or discover hypocrisy in the narratives they have been told. Politicization is seldom a direct route and often involves doubling the assumptions that were previously considered sacred and irrefutable. Therefore, many of these young people in search of new narratives can now be reached by the left.
Currently, many young people are looking for a political identity online. In my opinion, the average age of viewers for a lot of online political content is much younger than most platforms assume. During four years of immersion in these rooms, I have rarely met a political meme account operator older than 25 years. Most seem to be around 17. Today’s online polarization is compounded by impressive teenagers trying out new and transgressive political identities. They often signal content that they themselves may not fully understand. Their lack of historical knowledge makes them prone to disinformation. Her propensity for youth rebellion makes her predisposed to anti-establishment narratives.
Young people on social media also operate in the wider political and economic context of stagnating wages, inequality, cultural pessimism and anxiety, all of which have been compounded by Covid-19 and are likely to get worse. This goes hand in hand with radicalization. As fewer people have access to the benefits of the mainstream, people continue to move towards the polarized fringes of the political spectrum.
As these unmistakable crises continue to unfold, influencers have to resort to trending content in order to stay competitive in an attention economy. My suspicion is that all social media influencers will soon also become political influencers. You must: Online personalities who remain neutral will quickly sink to the bottom of the news feed.
The good news is that social media has been a case study of strategies for building political movements on the internet in recent years. The left can learn from this. Just as radical socialist and left newsletters have built radical organizations over the past few decades, the same process is happening online today. The alternative media space has already begun to complement and in many cases replace news consumption. Gen Z-er watch a lot more than they read. But the left has to work harder to get there.
Today’s left-wing media landscape offers an abundance of culturally progressive content on social justice topics like Black Lives Matter, the abolition of the police and transgender rights, but a grave lack of economic or material analysis to track it. The world is currently in crisis and most of the mainstream proposals seem utterly inadequate for the scale of the challenges ahead. One positive effect, however, is that previously radical viewpoints such as socialism have re-entered the mainstream.
BreadTube is currently the best attempt to capitalize on this dynamic. BreadTube, named after 19th century anarcho-communist writer Peter Kropotkin and his book The Conquest of Bread, is an online ecosystem of left-wing content creators, primarily on YouTube, producing both entertaining and educational video lectures. Many of the most popular videos clarify or expose the implicit themes of popular films and media. Video makers like Angie Speaks, ContraPoints, Cuck Philosophy, Hasan Piker, Innuendo Studios, Philosophy Tube and Shaun do important work to educate young people politically. These content producers are largely crowdfunded, so they don’t have to twist or disguise their messages to appease investors. These channels are an important entry point at which young people become aware of left politics.
Further down the left funnel are progressive news outlets like The Majority Report, The Young Turks, The Intercept, and Rising, as well as channels specifically dedicated to civic education like Jacobin, Verso Books, Zero Books, Democracy at Work, and more, but none Offline organization with which this target group can be recorded directly. Maybe one day the DSA will become that ship.
Like the ship of Theseus, the American left (to the extent that there is such a thing now) is being rebuilt board by board. It may look similar to today, but it will be significantly different. The next generation of political radicals will have traversed some form of these online political spaces, bringing with them many of the curiosities, idiosyncrasies and baggage of internet subcultures.
Artists spend a lot of time thinking about utopias and speculative visions of the future. Simply put, there is no desirable scenario that does not involve a revitalized left in the United States and abroad. Social media already has the unintended effect of politicizing young people. So we might as well think seriously about whether it works for us.