The internet has become captured by the right. The Gravel Institute is trying to take it back

PragerU and similar right-wing hubs have weaponized YouTube. A grassroots group is trying to fix that

By Matthew Rozsa
November 30, 2020 12:30AM (UTC)
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(The Gravel Institute)

YouTube has for years been a fount of right-wing misinformation, with its biased recommendation algorithm steering millions of users over the years toward factually inaccurate reactionary videos. Ideologies like white supremacism, anti-feminism and anti-immigration have all gathered steam on YouTube, while the left seems to be constantly playing catch-up. 

Part of the problem is money — how much of it the right has, and how they use it to produce slick misinformation. Consider organizations like PragerU, which was founded by conservative radio talk show host Dennis Prager and screenwriter Allen Estrin in 2009 to create short videos promoting right-wing ideas. (Despite the "U" in the name, it is not a university — though the letter seems intentionally placed to give the appearance of gravitas.) By 2018, videos produced by the group had reached one billion views and as of 2020 it has provided a regular platform for prominent right-wing personalities like Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens and Jordan Peterson. At the time of this writing, a Shapiro video called "Why Has the West Been So Successful?" has 2.8 million views, an Owens video called "Playing the Black Card" has 5.5 million views and a Peterson video in which he "educates" a climate activist has 1.4 million views.

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"Right now they say 4.3 billion are using on their website," Henry Williams, co-founder of The Gravel Institute, told Salon. Williams said PragerU's influence cannot be underestimated: PragerU's surveys of their readers and studies on their viewership said that 70% of people said their mind were changed on at least one issue. Williams cautions that it's important to take these numbers with "a grain of salt," while noting, "I don't think that it is unreasonable to say that a percentage — perhaps not as high as 70%, but maybe between 10% and 60% of people who watched a video of theirs — some portion of those people's minds have been changed."

The Gravel Institute is a nonprofit organization named after former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel, a Democrat who served in that body from 1969 to 1981 and ran for president in both 2008 and 2020. The organization hopes to offset the influence of groups like PragerU by creating its own informational videos from a left-wing perspective. It is, in other words, a leftist antidote. 

Though it only started producing videos in the past few months, The Gravel Institute is dreaming big — and has amassed some of the world's most renowned intellectuals, celebrities and politicians to contribute. Contributors include philosophers Cornel West and Slavoj Zizek, presenters like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whistleblower and activist Chelsea Manning, economist Richard Wolff and comedian H. Jon Benjamin. The organization itself promotes left-wing causes like wealth redistribution, opposing imperialist wars and transitioning into direct democracy, meaning a system in which American voters directly make laws through national initiatives.

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"The issues that we've so far focused on were, on the one hand, drawn from looking at PragerU topics and countering them," Williams explained. He mentioned that this has included creating videos debunking claims like the idea that so-called "small government" enhances personal freedom, or that capitalism is synonymous with freedom.

As Williams explained, "These kinds of free markets/free people dogmas are very deeply baked into the kind of crypto-libertarian ideology of PragerU videos. Those are very influential. I think that they're almost populist in a way. People just kind of have those viewpoints or it's connected to their personal grievances about paying taxes. PragerU very effectively weaponizes those issues."

He also noted that PragerU's success can be in part attributed to its ability to move with trends in political discourse. Even though it started out as "a sort of pet project for Dennis Prager, who is a major conservative radio host," Williams explained that "they adapted to the internet and they very much learned from and worked with the evolution of YouTube as a platform. And they've done quite a lot to optimize their videos for YouTube, to optimize the money that they spend on ads for YouTube and Facebook, and to really extend their reach into new audiences. They are putting a lot of work into it and that's why I think they are uniquely dangerous."

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Journalist Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism," shared an anecdote with Salon about how those kinds of videos can be successful. She described how, while she was doing research for "The Power Worshippers," she visited a California megachurch which aired PragerU videos to indoctrinate its audience with right-wing economic and social opinions. She specifically observed audience response to a a video by Gloria Álvarez, a Guatemalan libertarian radio host.

"The activists who organized the event understood perfectly well that breaking the link between Latinos and the Democratic Party requires undermining the economic message that voters are hearing from unions and other progressive sources," Stewart wrote to Salon, recalling how the audience "murmured its assent" when Álvarez argued that Democrats try to trick Latino voters by offering "free stuff" and that Republicans are not threatening to send back immigrants by enforcing immigration laws.

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"The core of the influence of right-wing internet has been its ability to stoke the sense of grievance among its audience, and to sow massive distrust of essentially all legitimate information sources," Stewart wrote to Salon. "So while they certainly weaponize 'culture war' issues and promote the idea that the Democratic Party has been taken over by the 'radical left,' they have also succeeded in getting their audience to discount sources of fact that would draw them away from extreme positions."

Stewart also told Salon that the left-wing has been at a disadvantage when it comes to fighting right-wing misinformation online for three reasons. One is the prevalent belief among many in the media that in order to report on the truth, "you have to give both sides equal weight in an argument. That opens the door to the idea of a 'false middle,' or both-sidesism." The second is that it is "easier to communicate a simple lie than a complicated truth." Finally she noted that organizations which disseminate right-wing misinformation have wealthy backers in ways simply not seen on the left.

"There is far more money invested in persuading people of certain right-wing dogmas," Stewart explained. "Certainly people on the right complain that universities have a 'bias' when they support, say, scientific or sociological research whose findings tend to affirm liberal positions. But when you consider the money invested in trying to appeal to a sense of fear and grievance, it is largely coming from the right-wing lane."

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She added, "One of the big myths the hard right promotes is that is that billionaires on both sides are spread equally across the spectrum. They do that by talking all the time about George Soros or Bill Gates. But when you look systematically, as people have done, at where those with deep-pockets contribute their money, it systematically tilts to the right."

Sam Husseini, the founder of VotePact.org, told Salon by email that part of the problem facing the American left is that it simply does not stand up for its principles.

"The authentic left is largely invisible, or rendered so even by so-called liberal or progressive media," Husseini wrote to Salon. "Plowshares activists are facing months and months in jail for challenging nuclear weapons and there's largely silence on the issue. The left is marginal because it falls in love with opportunistic politicians rather than getting behind real self sacrificing activists pressing for concrete change."

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Noting that "much of 'progressive thought' is an appendage of the DNC [Democratic National Committee], or an appendage of an appendage," Husseini pointed out that "the DNC is dealing a rigged game and offering a world of perceptual dominance by corporate power (especially Wall Street and Big Tech) with some tokenistic identity politics attached. MSNBC et al have filled many heads with xenophobia regarding Russia, almost analogous to Trump's bigotry toward immigrants and Muslims. These competing bigotries effectively leave US power unscrutinized." That scrutiny, of US imperial power, is something that The Gravel Institute has sought to combat in its engaging and informative YouTube videos. 

Yet the ways in which the right has captured much of the internet remain indelible. Donald Trump was so successful at carving a career out for himself based on lies about everything from Barack Obama's place of birth to being able to build a US-Mexico border wall, while platforms like Twitter and YouTube ennobled him to disseminate his falsehoods. Companies like Facebook, which finally bowed to pressure and slapped warning labels on Trump's lies about there being 2020 election fraud, still admit a noted right-wing bias in their posts that they have not addressed.

The Gravel Institute is unlikely to solve all of these problems overnight. But it is a start.


Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Gravel Institute Left-wing Misinformation Prager U Reporting Right-wing