How YouTubers are deradicalizing members of the alt-right
Caleb Cain says he abandoned fascism thanks to left-wing YouTubers
When Caleb Cain flunked out of college in 2014, he moved back in with his grandfather in West Virginia and fell into a deep depression.
It wasn't long before he spent hours each day watching YouTube videos, searching for a way out of his predicament.
One voice in particular stood out among the rest, Stefan Molyneux — a controversial Canadian creator who offered viewers a combination of self-help advice and conspiracy theories such as whether African Americans are genetically inferior than those of European ancestry.
After two years of watching these videos and those of far-right creators that Molyneux had recommended, he was a convert.
But in March, Cain released a YouTube video declaring he had abandoned those views entirely. He now considers himself a progressive social democrat.
"I realized how … stupid I was," Cain recounted in the video.
What changed Cain's mind and other far-right converts, he said, were YouTube video creators such as Natalie Wynn and Steven Bonnell, among other left-wing YouTubers, who debunked the rationales behind these views but also, conveyed in their videos that they weren't monsters. They were merely lost.
Finding another point of view
In particular, Cain identified Wynn, better known on YouTube as the host of ContraPoints, as someone who felt empathetic to where he'd ended up.
"She didn't look at me as a monster. She explained that I had fallen into these beliefs because of certain preconditions in my life and that that was very understandable but that that was wrong," Cain told Tapestry.
By contrast, Cain said that when he talked to people in his life about his beliefs, he was rarely met with patience or understanding.
"They would call me a racist monster, and that would be the end of the conversation."
Wynn, on ContraPoints, does in-depth analysis of how right-wing reactionary groups like the alt-right persuade people to join their cause.
She does similar videos on incels — a subculture of men who believe they are doomed to celibacy because of their looks. Self-described incels have been responsible for multiple mass killings, including the 2018 Toronto van attack.
To make arguments against these points of view, Wynn said she tries to truly understand them so that she doesn't create a straw-man version of their worldview. She said that understanding can require empathy, so that you can see not just the stated reasons behind a worldview, but the emotional tenets that underpin it.
"I think that when you're making an argument, empathizing with the person you're arguing with is never bad because it's good to be able to understand them, and empathy is a kind of understanding," Wynn said.
When it came to incels, Wynn noted that she saw the self-loathing underpinning a lot of the misogyny the group perpetuates.
"What I see when I look at those [incel] forums is this intense pain and this cry for a recognition of that pain," Wynn said.
With her approach, Cain isn't the only person Wynn has deradicalized at a distance. She recalled being at a meet-and-greet, when a fan whispered to her that he had been a former member of the alt-right and thanked her for her videos.
Other members of alt-right and far-right communities have cited that Wynn's videos in leading them to leave their extremist ideology.
Empathy for racists?
Empathy for extremists is not a universally popular view, however, and if done poorly, it can inspire outrage. A 2017 New York Times article that attempted to showcase the lives of white nationalists was criticized for normalizing their beliefs.
Some critics have said that the defence of marginalized people are often left to the marginalized to defend — which Wynn acknowledges.
"I also do understand, you know, people who might be frustrated with like, 'Well, why do we have to have all this empathy for racists?'" said Wynn. "Imagine if we had that much empathy for, oh I don't know, trans people. I totally get that from frustration, too."
Wynn, who is transgender, has made videos defending her identity and explores what it means to transition from one gender to another.
'You're giving them something to think about'
Though Cain said he doesn't believe everyone should have to engage in this kind of empathy, he argues that without it not much progress will be made.
"I don't expect everybody to sit and have conversations with people that have horrible beliefs, but I also don't want people to continue writing this off as it's just a bunch of monsters," he said.
"There's always a reason people become who they are, and we have to examine that."
ContraPoints videos might attempt to reach out to extremists, but Wynn rarely argues directly with them online. She treats her videos as a kind of resource that someone who is questioning their beliefs can turn to.
"No one seems to change their mind as a result of these arguments you're having, but people do change their minds. It just happens over a longer period of time than one internet argument," said Wynn.
"You're giving them something to think about, and if you're able to invite them in enough to the point where they're willing to give you a chance — you are there basically whispering moderating ideas into their ear."
There's always a reason people become who they are, and we have to examine that.- Caleb Cain
That's a lesson Cain has taken to heart. The 26-year-old has started a YouTube account where he has conversations with people on the opposite side under the name Faraday Speaks.
Meanwhile, he said he's building an online forum on the gaming chat platform Discord, where members of far-right groups can interact with moderators who'd be willing to talk to them.
"To pull people out of these beliefs you have to challenge them, but you also have to show them compassion and empathy and humanize them and realize that they are just people that have fallen into a pit that they can come out of," said Cain.