Marxist memes for TikTok teens: can the internet radicalize teenagers for the left? | Joshua Citarella

I’ve been researching Gen Z’s online memetic subcultures since 2016 and, over the past few years, I have watched a generation of young people become politicized online. Many began posting memes around age 15, and now, in their early adulthood, I have seen them decide how to vote, attend college, have children, join the national guard, join communist organizations, go off-grid, prepare for the revolution by running paramilitary drills in the woods and sometimes commit suicide. Everything that happens online is real. All of it has consequences in the outside world.

Young viewers begin by consuming relatively tame content and then wade into more radical territory. They may start watching a conservative comedy show, then platform algorithms steer them to political pundits and eventually into more extreme figures on the conspiratorial and ideological fringe. Today this process is popularly described as “the funnel”, a metaphor illustrating the wide and informal network of diffuse messaging and recruitment over time and across channels. One of the paradoxes of social media is that platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube are supposed to connect us with the larger world, but in practice funnel us into more and more narrow and similarly-minded spaces.

There has been a great amount of research and resources dedicated to mapping social media “pipelines” into far-right and reactionary politics. Less thought, however, has been dedicated to a leftwing alternative. This is a huge gap in how the left, broadly, thinks about online politics. While the problems of online rightwing radicalization are very real, I believe that the mechanisms of social media also offer a path for progressive and leftwing politicization.

Politicization is a process of closing loopholes in one’s worldview. Social media exposes us to new ideas that antagonize our current belief systems and induce change. As people, particularly young people, become aware of previously unseen inconsistencies in their beliefs, they move in fits and starts to close these cognitive gaps and towards what they feel is ideological clarity. Whether the outcome is good or bad depends a lot on what information they find and in what direction they move.

Although much of the current discourse about online radicalization has focused on the effects of recommendation algorithms, that is only part of the story. In many cases people go down ideological rabbit holes not because they are cynically misled by platforms, but because they cannot find satisfactory answers in mainstream media or discover hypocrisies in the narratives they have been told. Politicization is rarely a direct path and often involves doubling back on what were previously considered sacred and incontrovertible assumptions – which is also why many of these young people, who are search of new narratives, can now be reached by the left.

At this moment, many young people are searching online for a political identity. My sense is that the average viewer age for a lot of online political content is far younger than most platforms assume. During four years of deep immersion in these spaces I have rarely met a political meme account operator over the age of 25. Most seem to be around 17. Today’s online polarization is magnified by impressionable teenagers trying out new and transgressive political identities. They often signal-boost content that they themselves may not fully understand. Their lack of historical knowledge makes them susceptible to disinformation. Their inclination toward youth rebellion makes them predisposed to anti-establishment narratives.

Young people on social media are also operating within the larger political and economic context of stagnating wages, inequality, cultural pessimism and anxiety, all of which have been magnified by Covid-19 and may likely continue to get worse. This goes hand-in-hand with radicalization. As fewer people are able to access the benefits of the mainstream, individuals move further toward the polarized edges of the political spectrum.

As these impossible-to-ignore crises continue to unfold, influencers will need to tap into trending content to remain competitive in an attention economy. My suspicion is that all social media influencers will soon also become political influencers. They’ll have to: online personalities who stay neutral will quickly sink to the bottom of the newsfeed.

The good news is that the past few years of social media are a case study for strategies on how to build political movements online. The left can learn from this. Just as radical socialist and leftwing newsletters built radical organizations in previous decades, the same process is happening online today. The alternative media sphere has already begun to supplement and in many cases replace news consumption. Gen Z-ers are watching a lot more than they read. But the left needs to work harder to reach them.

Today’s left-leaning media landscape has an abundance of culturally progressive content about issues of social justice such as Black Lives Matter, police abolition and transgender rights, but a severe lack of economic or material analysis to follow it up. The world is in crisis right now, and most mainstream proposals seem woefully insufficient to the scale of the challenges ahead. One positive effect, however, is that previously radical viewpoints like socialism have re-entered the mainstream.

BreadTube is the current best attempt at harnessing this momentum. BreadTube, named after 19th century anarcho-communist writer Peter Kropotkin and his book The Conquest of Bread, is an online ecosystem of leftwing content creators, primarily on YouTube, who produce video lectures that are both entertaining and educational. Many of the most popular videos involve clarifying or debunking the implicit themes of popular films and media. Video makers such as Angie Speaks, ContraPoints, Cuck Philosophy, Hasan Piker, Innuendo Studios, Philosophy Tube and Shaun are doing important work to politically educate young people. These content producers are mostly crowdfunded and thus not required to bend or disguise their messages to appease investors. These channels are a main entry point where young people become newly conscious of leftwing politics.

Further down the leftwing funnel there are progressive news media such as The Majority Report, The Young Turks, The Intercept and Rising, among others as well as channels devoted explicitly to political education such as Jacobin, Verso Books, Zero Books, Democracy at Work and more, but no offline organization with which to directly capture this audience. Perhaps the DSA will one day grow to become this vessel.

Like the ship of Theseus, the American left (to the degree that such a thing currently exists) will be rebuilt plank by plank. It may look similar to today but it will be essentially different. The next generation of political radicals will have passed through some form of these online political spaces and will bring with them many of the oddities, peculiarities and baggage of internet subcultures.

Artists spend a great deal of time thinking about utopias and speculative visions of the future. Put simply, there is no desirable scenario that does not involve a revitalized left in the United States and abroad. Social media is already having the inadvertent effect of politicizing young people anyway. So we might as well put serious thought into making it work for us.

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