The Nationalist in My Classroom
In the next few years, we’re going to see incoming classes of Gen Z students who had been radicalized by Holocaust deniers, reactionaries and bad faith influencers. Are faculty ready?
I had a white nationalist in my classroom. The student, whom I’ll call Eddie,* was an outwardly decent person but proudly expressed his disdain for anything leaning towards progressive thought. Eddie enrolled in several of my internet studies courses, possibly assuming they were about fun memes and watching videos rather than the critical media studies lens in which we approached the content. He explained to me on several occasions he identified as a nationalist, but he didn’t like being called a fascist.
Eddie was radicalized via YouTube. His passionate nationalist sympathies mirrored the phrases that came directly from his subscriptions to far-right influencers like Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern.
Early in each of my semesters, I establish a no-judgement space where students can express themselves freely. However, Eddie caused discomfort in the classroom with consistent outbursts, reactions and anger to any type of criticism of the content he enjoyed — videos and articles that were clearly extremist in nature. On numerous occasions his classmates were made uncomfortable by his strong defense of the far-right content and I finally escalated the situation to my administration. Some of the advice and guidance was valuable, but for the most part, the institution turned and looked the other way, advising to “just get him through.”
I’ve been studying far-right extremism since 2015, specifically through the far-right’s use of memes and YouTube personalities. Recently, I was asked to talk on a panel about Authoritarian Cults in America with important scholars and authors. I decided to tell this story about Eddie at my previous institution to express how colleges across America are not prepared for students like Eddie or the lasting damage social media sites have caused by permitting far-right influencers to remain on the platform for so long. What can we do about radicalized students and how can we engage with them meaningfully and valuably in the years to come?
Looking back, the time Eddie most aggressively erupted in class was when I lectured on Becca Lewis’s Data & Society report titled “The Alternate Influence Network.” In this extensive report, Lewis (who was also on the previously mentioned panel) frames the research by substantiating the relative power several YouTubers have over the sphere of influence spread across dozens, if not hundreds of YouTube channels. Becca identifies nodes of influencers who host bad actors who disguise bad-faith arguments in the form of “debate” — a large part of YouTube culture.
This debate is part of a larger phenomenon, in which YouTubers attempt to reach young audiences by broadcasting far-right ideas in the form of news and entertainment. An assortment of scholars, media pundits, and internet celebrities are using YouTube to promote a range of political positions, from mainstream versions of libertarianism and conservatism, all the way to overt white nationalism.
These influencers who take part in the debate culture “share a fundamental contempt for progressive politics — specifically for contemporary social justice movements.” These videos are shared widely in the miasma of right leaning message boards, Reddit forums, private chats and cycled through reaction videos. These reactionaries serve as the information pipeline to students like Eddie.
During my lecture on the Alternate Influence Network, I noticed Eddie setting up the voice recorder on his phone, presumably ready to record my analysis. Beside the constant whataboutisms that were doled out like return volleys to every point I made about social movements, this was a step too far. I was well aware of Turning Point USA’s “professor watchlist” and became concerned that a recording of my course would end up online.
Several online personas, like Ben Shapiro, Tim Pool or Nick Fuentes, encourage their subscribers to report their teachers. As you can imagine, this is an existential threat to academic freedom and Humanities education — and we aren’t even talking about the issues surrounding the made up controversy about critical race theory.
Before meeting with my administrators, I looked up Eddie’s YouTube “favorites” list. (This is usually a public part of a user’s YouTube channel.) Near the top of his list was far-right influencer Tim Pool’s response video to Becca’s report. I wanted to explain to the administration what was going on; my concern was more broad than specifically about Eddie — this type of student was more common than we think.
It’s easy to misunderstand how influential YouTubers like Stefan Molyneux, Lauren Southern or Nick Fuentes are when there is a general lack of knowledge about how radicalized students engage with social media. Based on the fact they’d never heard of Molyneux or Southern, the administrators glazed over when I explained how their channels influenced their users. They nodded along when I expressed that this was a systemic issue that likely affect dozens of students — Eddie was just more open about his views. (Eddie had also been reported by other faculty.)
Later, I offered to do a talk regarding misconceptions of social media influencers and how to understand and counter extremism and unfortunately this offer went completely ignored. What I wanted to encourage was, as Becca writes, “radicalization on YouTube is a fundamentally social problem.”
In his YouTube videos, Molyneux openly promotes scientific racism, advocates for the men’s rights movement, critiques initiatives devoted to gender equity, and promotes white supremacist conspiracy theories focused on “White Genocide” and “The Great Replacement.”
Eddie had developed several parasocial relationships (a one-sided emotional connection) with several YouTubers and their influence led him to seek out other far-right YouTubers. When one successful YouTube platforms another, they grant access to their ideologies, even when the amplified channel expresses even more abhorrent views than their own. It’s all framed in the seemingly friendly context of debate or news.
So what happened to Eddie? What brought him to express his fascist sympathizing ideologies to my classroom? In Amanda Montell’s Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Montell identifies some of the techniques some of these YouTubers used to keep and grow their following.
Using “cultish language,” these influencers make their followers feel special or understood. Second, they create dependence on themselves and their points of view using coercive techniques. Finally, these influencers use thought-terminating phrases, memes, reductionism and an us-vs-them dichotomy.
Sound familiar? These influencers were emboldened during the Trump administration and many of the platforms enabled this to continue. (Fearing regulation after Trump lost power, YouTube demonetized or deplatformed many of the far-right influencers in Becca’s report. Molyneux is no longer on YouTube.)
What Comes Next
I employ a series of pedagogical methods in my class that result in successful discussion and conversation, as well as meaningful civic action and empowerment. The main advice I can give is to not push students like Eddie away, but rather to keep them close. Like a radicalized relative, you should attempt at preserving the person-to-person communication.
In the next few years, we’re going to see the incoming classes of Gen Z students who had been radicalized by Holocaust denier and influencer Nick Fuentes or through a variety of Telegram channels. Are faculty ready? Are schools prepared for this onslaught? These questions make me remember a Twitter thread NBC News internet culture journalist Ben Collins wrote back in 2019.
Social media execs will never take their role in radicalization seriously for a simple reason: It’s a defense mechanism. They did not intentionally create something that is used as a weapon of division and violence. They’ll accept any alternate explanation that works as a balm.
Others are blissfully naive. They don’t understand that their kid hanging out on KiwiFarms all day is stalking a trans person he hates, because they don’t know what KiwiFarms is. Regular people have jobs and lives, and can’t comprehend the hate their kids regularly stumble onto.
If Eddie is just one example, how many students are already there? How many have been radicalized and attend courses “because they have to” for a degree or a job. How soon until it becomes overwhelming?
There are ways of understanding how this is all happening and how to mitigate a dangerous future but we have to be vigilant and engaged. Managing students’ reactions is paramount and hopefully your administration has better advice than looking the other way and waiting it out.
Be patient, no change is immediate. Find ways to talk about bigger issues that aren’t loaded with polarized talking points that immediately derail the discussion. Make the frame larger. For example, President Biden’s recent soundbite about social media “killing people” by continuing to host disinformation is attention grabbing, but polarizes more than encourages conversation. In my class, I would shift this away from the soundbite and onto how social media operate and how to navigate the attention economy.
Faculty need more access to digital media literacies, especially technical literacies and digital competencies. Removing the us-vs-them in the far-right playbook requires some acknowledgement of how young people engage with technology and social media. In a meaningful way, many faculty engaged more usefully with this during the Covid lockdowns and remote schooling.
Finally, and I think strategically the method that worked best, was a focus on local issues. Social media tends to amplify big ideas detached from waking reality. An increase in civic literacies and local knowledge is extremely important. Students are eager to learn about local issues affecting their town. At college age, they can partake in civic action beyond voting and report on local issues, drive local activism or even run for office.
I was able to engage with Eddie outside of the hot-button issues that plagued his YouTube feed by asking him questions on how some of the issues were playing out locally. This is a critical approach that empowers students to feel part of a system, not as spectators to an unfolding arc.
Further, this responsibility of faculty to engage with civics, especially at the local level has recently become even more important. Qanon is attempting a rebrand by running for local office — specifically school boards.
Rather than struggling with how to deal with outspoken students like Eddie, imagine how bad things may get if we don’t engage directly with our students. The future is not written. While the damage of the Trump years and the effect on democracy, speech, educating and tech will take years to put back on track, educators have a unique opportunity to push back against nationalism in the classroom.
Eddie and I sat down on several occasions to talk things through. I was honest with him and told him that I believed his views made his classmates uncomfortable. Not every single piece of information in my classes needed to be met with reaction. I explained that sometimes, when we learn something in class, that day’s information is not the whole story and it takes time to learn something.
In some ways it worked. Eddie became more attentive and expressed fewer outbursts. I returned to his YouTube favorites and saw that among his collection of reactionary content was non-political videos and the occasional entertainment piece. It’s a start.
*Name replaced to protect the student’s identity.