Analyzing YouTube “Rekt” Videos as a Vector for Radicalization

As media platforms evolve and mature, they give birth to new expressive forms shaped by the exigencies of their technological and political-economic regimes. The dramatic and affective flows of American television, for example, emerged in the twentieth century to suit an advertising-based profit model, which is itself the outcome of complex regulatory and commercial origins. Today’s web-based, user generated content (UGC) platforms are no different. This has particular significance for the field of extremism studies, as UGC platforms are now witnessing the emergence and growth of genres especially well-suited to the goals of extremists. The “rekt” genre of YouTube video is one such new form—in which a video is edited from television or radio/podcasting, so as to present a pundit rhetorically “rekking” (i.e. wrecking) their interlocutor. Take the following: “Ben Shapiro Destroys John Oliver“,“John Oliver Eviscerates Donald Trump”,“Jordan Peterson Demolishes Smug Leftist Professor”, “Sam Seder Rips Apart Jordan Peterson”,  etc.

         The certainty of these self-declared victories is often questionable. Indeed, such videos almost inevitably depend on their titles and editing to establish victory. One of the hallmarks of the genre is a succession of clips excerpting University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson’s interview with British Channel 4 host Cathy Newman. While contentious, the original, unexcised interview is positively cordial by U.S. standards. Newman challenges Peterson on many controversial points, and Peterson defends his positions assertively. As a matter of forensic competition, both sides “score points”—and, to be sure, both individuals argue ineffectively at times. Overall, however, it is the very model of a civil interview with a controversial public figure.

This has not stopped a cottage industry—for many of these videos are monetized—of highly edited clips, which splice and edit the interview so as to portray Peterson as dominating Newman both intellectually and rhetorically. One particular moment—in which Newman pauses to gather her thoughts—presents too tempting an opportunity for the producers of rekt videos. In one such video, titled “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS feminist Channel 4 host,”the video-maker overlays sounds and icons of a computer crashing as Newman pauses to concede that Peterson has made a point she cannot easily rebut. The video-maker then splices in a clip of American comedian Dave Chapelle exclaiming “Gotcha, bitch!” and the screen freezes as a still frame of Peterson is transformed into the “Deal With It” meme.

Another, more subdued, take on this moment is entitled “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS Cathy Newman on Free Speech,”and desaturates the colors of the original broadcast while overdubbing downtempo ambient music to lend a note of profundity. Yet another, titled “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS Interview, in epic song battle!”mashes up moments from the interview with Meghan Trainor’s hit song “No.” One particularly odd example, titled “Audience Laughs and Jeers as Cathy Newman Melts Down Before Jordan Peterson,”goes so far as to add a laugh track and sound effects for maximum impact. A German YouTuber even presents his own spin on the form, with commentary, entitled “Jordan Peterson zerlegt feministische Reporterin”(“Jordan Peterson dismantles feminist reporter.”) These are by no means the only variations on this theme.

         Rekt videos are not limited to the right, nor even to extremists. However, the encoded biases of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm—and the risks for radicalization that they pose—are becoming increasingly well-established. The rekt genre therefore tends to contribute more readily to extremism than it does centrism. Furthermore, user engagement on content platforms such as YouTube takes the form of a power-law dynamic. This nonlinear index of popularity tends to favor early adopters, and over time turns slight market advantages into winner-take-all outcomes. Historically, the far right has seized upon UGC platformsmore eagerly than the left, perhaps due to a dynamic which Prof. David Karpf calls “Outparty Innovation.”That is, political movements that are currently out of power are incentivized to experiment with new communication and organizing technologies. This was likely the case during the Obama years, when the far right enjoyed relatively little power and UGC platforms attained widespread use. For these reasons, YouTube is rightly viewed as a more effective outreach and recruitment tool for the right than for the left, and for extremists rather than moderates.

What remains to be explored, then, is the question of why some viewers are more vulnerable to the rekt-style appeal than others. One set of answers might yet be found in the well-trod discourses of psychoanalysis: specifically Lacan’s treatment of symbolic castration anxiety.Put briefly,  the Lacanian psychoanalytic tendency views “symbolic castration” as an array of catastrophes befalling the subject—lack of agency, domination by others, damage to ego-integrity, etc.— in the gap between one’s imaginary model of egoic perfection (ideal ego) and one’s role in, and experience of, the symbolic social matrix.

The design and governance of YouTube channels produces an network of artificially insulated symbolic matrices via selective editing, captioning, titles, and more.In this artificially engineered order, the broadcaster’s persona appears as fully integrated, fully potent ideal ego. There need be no fear of a gap dividing the ideal ego from its social experience. Meanwhile, the audience is invited to occupy the role of vengeful, castrating “ego-ideal” (roughly, the superego), witnessing and affirming the gap between the victim’sself-image and social reality, and thereby castrating their technologically and symbolically constituted ideological opponents. Symbolic castration is kept at bay for viewers, while it is inflicted in digital effigy on their political adversaries. The gap between ideal ego and its experience of the social matrix is thus narrowed for one’s allies, and widened for one’s enemies.

With this rough guide in mind, we may pose the question: for whom does this mediated psychodrama appeal? In the United States, studies have tied support for white nationalism, nativism, and the Trump regime with “status loss anxiety.”Is this not the very expression of individual and group anxiety toward the threat of separation from an idealized object, representing a dream of narcissistic correspondence between ideal ego and ego-ideal? Whether that idealized object is the homogeneous ethnostateor uncastrated patriarchal authority, it is in any case the fantasy of an existence in which the imagined ideal ego and the social matrix need never diverge.

This psychoanalytic approach conforms with key points already well-known to researchers: that status anxiety correlates strongly to far right beliefs, and that the far right maintains a prominent presence on user-generated content platforms. But the psychoanalytic approach offers further, unique insights based on its ability to “go deeper” than its correlative associations. While ideology is often influential in these processes, it is rarely determinative. And while clinical approaches to psychology may best speak to the subject’s accessible emotional registers, it is the darker, more miasmic reaches of the unconscious, where the impulses that drive primitive feeling and states of affective intensity such as hate and rage which are best addressed with the specialized tools of psychoanalysis.

On a more practical level, practitioners of all stripes may readily develop and apply the “vulgar” model of castration and hunger for narcissistic consistency to their respective fields. This is the project I have attempted to sketch here for the realm of media studies and STS. But attention to threats of symbolic castration may just as easily inform strategic communication of counter-narrative creation. The castration rubric warns us that strategic communications should not merely produce formally similar, yet ideologically contrary rekt videos—as, indeed, some on the left have already done. Rather, strategic communication might better develop narratives that divert from extremist messaging while carefully navigating the anxieties that haunt the chasm between social reality and the vulnerable individual’s ego-ideal. Groups like Against Violent Extremism and Life After Hate avoid counter-ideological arguments, while stressing relational approaches to deradicalization. However, the scalability of these time-intensive, relational approaches presents a challenge. Strategic counter-radicalization communication might simultaneously learn from VE’s and LAH’s non-castrating approaches, while meeting the challenge of scalability.

The pace of technology is rapid, and no sooner does it seem we begin to grasp a new medium’s implications than the medium is replaced by a yet-newer, yet-stranger system. A multidisciplinary approach is therefore essential—not only to grasp and address the dramaturgies of new, radicalizing media content such as the rekt video, but to exceed the pace of these developments and so meet the challenges of subsequent technological and formal novelties more fully prepared.

Mr Brian Hughes is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and Doctoral candidate in the School of Communication at American University. See his profile here.


© Brian Hughes. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).