Marketing itself as a corrective to the monopoly of mainstream media, YouTube has reduced the barriers of access for people to create and star in their own content regardless of their economic and cultural cachet. Among those taking advantage are “political influencers” or “ideological entrepreneurs” – creators who disseminate and monetise politics as content using the techniques of brand influencers to grow audiences. In part shaped by the platform they are on, creators selling politics suffuse their discourse and performance with an anti-elite and transgressive messaging. Ultimately, this has implications for the legitimisation of conspiracies and the mainstreaming of the far right.
As with any type of influencing, the creator is the central figure, performing a relatable and authentic identity that the audience can consume as fans. One such creator is the reactionary YouTuber Tim Pool, who positions himself as a ‘citizen journalist’, discussing the news across two YouTube channels. In using the qualifier of ‘citizen’, he distances mainstream journalists from ‘the people’, positioning himself as a supposed foil to the elite. By virtue of being a YouTuber, he positions himself as transgressing norms of who can communicate politics, performing a non-authoritative relatable identity disrupting the dominance of the mainstream media. Throughout his content, he repeatedly stresses the apparent lack of mediation created by the absence of a newsroom or editorial board, talking instead directly into the camera in a performance of intimacy with the viewer.
His positioning as a journalist ‘of the people’ is reinforced by his production – livestreaming rather than pushing an editorial line, emphasising transparency over polish. Rebecca Lewis has highlighted how this is key in building legitimacy for such influencers as it suggests unvarnished truth, specifically as a foil to the supposed bias of the mainstream. Rejecting mainstream markers of credibility for those of brand influencers, Pool constructs his trustworthiness, authenticity, and relatability by giving behind-the-scenes insight into his content-making processes. Similarly, the production is influenced by the environment with politics sold in formats more typical of brand influencers such as “vlogging, livestreamed debates, and “response” videos”.
This distancing from the mainstream carries through to the content as a way of legitimising conspiracies and far-right talking points. Whilst the legacy media is associated with a certain ideological bias and editorialising, reactionary creators position themselves as truth-tellers, unconstrained by mainstream norms. Here, disinformation gains coverage under the guise of ‘fairness’. Instead, their content is reframed as more objective than the mainstream media because they’re willing to cover everything “equally” e.g. electoral fraud. This can be highly effective – the Electoral Integrity Partnership identified YouTube videos as ‘touchstones’ in the spread of disinformation in the aftermath of the US Presidential Disinformation, with various influencers pointed to as ‘superspreaders’.
As a platform, YouTube provides distribution opportunities irrespective of the economic or cultural cachet of the creator. Instead, the algorithm and the audience become the distribution channels. Creators recognise the importance of the audience in this effort, with Pool repeatedly calling on his audience to share his content if they want him bigger than the mainstream. In making this request, Pool ties his pseudo-populist ideological goal (disruption of the mainstream) with classic influencer techniques (like, subscribe, and share). Similarly, this need to satisfy the algorithm and gain an audience has led to creators co-opting the techniques of brand influencers, drawing on familiar techniques like collaboration to grow. Once again, the politics and the environment co-constitute a transgressive, populist ethos relying on ‘the people’ to challenge the mainstream.
Brand influencers transform audiences into fans, moving them beyond passive consumption. Rather than occupying a position of authority, creators like Pool repeatedly create space for audience feedback, giving a semblance of agency and dialogue, as if he simply were leaving it up to the viewer to decide if a particular narrative is true or false. Fans can then contribute through comment sections, and with their wallet. Followings are monetised through built-in affordances and platform norms such as ads, sponsored content, and merchandise. This monetisation is overtly political with paywalled content branded as ‘uncensored’. Such content can be highly lucrative – the Institute for Strategic Dialogue estimated that one such creator earned approximately $153,591.35 from his videos between October 2020 and November 2021.
YouTube has become a powerful platform for the creation and dissemination of content outside of the mainstream media – the environment fundamentally shaping the practices and discourse of (political) creators. Using the techniques of brand influencers, creators have transformed the way news media is produced, without newsrooms or an overt editorial line, using formats native to YouTube. Building on the anti-mainstream positioning, reactionary creators market themselves and their politics as more legitimate, authentic, and transparent than the constructed ideological bias of the mainstream. Using this, they disseminate and legitimise conspiracies under the guise of fairness, with ramifications for the mainstreaming of extreme politics, as detailed in scholarship from Rebecca Lewis, Alice Marwick, and Alan Finlayson.