"My knowledge is better than yours" and other right-wing configurations of truth and media literacy on YouTube reproduce global white supremacy.
In recent years, popular interest in disinformation has coalesced around a series of high-profile events: the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump, and more recently, the protests against vaccine mandates. Even as the “hypodermic needle” theory has been widely discredited within the social sciences, journalistic and scholarly investigations into these events have favoured simplistic models of media effects wherein conservative audiences are framed as passive recipients of propaganda, influenced by foreign agents and opportunistic tricksters to act against their own interests. This model of disinformation has been increasingly challenged by qualitative scholarship showing that conservatives are active agents in their media consumption who, at least in the U.S. context, are more likely than liberals to visit diverse sources of news and information (Schradie, 2019; Tripodi, 2017).
My big idea for “What comes after disinformation studies” offers a way of conceptualizing right-wing approaches to truth and knowledge, placing these media literacy practices within the context of global white supremacy. My proposal is based on over two years of online fieldwork into reactionary YouTube channels and their audiences. I use qualitative content analysis to examine over 100 hours of YouTube videos and online interviews with 18 current and former fans of these channels. Drawing on these data sources, I introduce the concept of bootstraps epistemology to capture how reactionary influencers and their audiences speak about their political beliefs.
In this piece, I argue that the reactionary right’s emphasis on “rugged individualism” forms the basis of both their political project and imagined epistemology. Throughout my fieldwork, I found that reactionary YouTubers and their viewers described arriving at their political beliefs through a highly idiosyncratic process of personal research and rational deliberation. I call this narrative of political formation bootstraps epistemology. Just as the bootstraps narrative in politics argues that individuals have the duty to reject government “handouts” and improve their circumstances through hard work and thrift, bootstraps epistemology encourages people to reject dogma and instead pursue knowledge through solitary study and intellectual combat with opponents. I propose that the bootstraps narrative of personal responsibility and bootstraps epistemology are mutually enforcing discourses that advance individualistic solutions to social problems. This anti-establishment orientation towards political knowledge has been bolstered in recent years by the widespread loss of trust in mainstream news outlets (Berry & Sobieraj, 2014), the emergence of search engines as accessible tools for personal research, and the proliferation of “alternative” sources of news and information.
The concept of bootstraps epistemology builds upon the work of critical race scholars who have complicated our understanding of Enlightenment values, such as rationality, objectivity, and neutrality. In Toward a Global Idea of Race, Ferreira da Silva (2007) argues that racial logics are inextricable from early modern Western philosophy, which centred “reason” as the locus of human endeavours. This worldview elevated the white European subject as transparent—possessing agency, interiority, and reason—while Europe’s various “others” were always affectable—subject to the forces of nature. In my research, I find that reactionary YouTubers embrace the legacy of the transparent subject, painting themselves as eminently rational while disparaging their political opponents as emotional, fragile, and rigidly dogmatic. Thus, bootstraps epistemology cannot be extricated from broader social hierarchies that mediate whose voices are imbued with “reason,” and whose are not.
Within the current media landscape, there are no louder advocates for bootstraps epistemology than political influencers who create content for online platforms (Lewis, 2018). These influencers benefit from the popularization of bootstraps discourse because it engenders distrust of institutional voices while pushing people to “do their own research” on sites like YouTube. My interview respondents closely echoed the language of reactionary influencers in expressing their wariness of mainstream media, while invoking the independent, non-institutional status of YouTubers as a sign of integrity and trustworthiness.
“People don’t post political content on YouTube to get paid.... They post it because they have something to say. And that’s not really something that happens a lot of the times with the mainstream stuff.” (Joe, late teens, USA)
“The news that I got growing up was always just whatever’s on the TV, whatever’s printed in the newspaper and that news can be awfully curtailed and a lot of stuff is left out. I learned that watching people like Sargon [of Akkad] on YouTube. There’s more news than what was printed… And I feel like because of the freedom that YouTubers have to cover the content they do, I’m able to get more of the story and more of the news from the news.” (Mitchell, 34, USA)
“They’re trying to counteract the mainstream narrative and just provide a different perspective. Because I can go anywhere online at any point and see what the left-wing media thinks because it’s literally everywhere. If I want to get any sort of other opinion or perspective, I have to go to these independent right-wing guys.” (James, 40, Canada)
Mitchell observes that the medium of video streaming gives YouTubers the flexibility and freedom to cover issues in more depth than mainstream sources. Whereas the latter are constrained by limited space, industry norms, and assumptions about short attention spans, YouTubers present an appealing alternative. Not only does the platform enable channels to upload long, meandering conversations, but the company incentivizes longer videos by rewarding YouTubers (through ad revenue) for keeping people on the platform. These affordances and incentives intersect to produce a media landscape that is slower-paced and more conducive to in-depth discussion than television or radio. For viewers, it affords a feeling of getting “more of the news from the news.”
Just as reactionary YouTubers place themselves outside of institutions, many also place themselves outside of ideology. This framing was eagerly taken up by interview respondents—across age groups and geographies—who eschewed political labels, parties, and movements in favour of the rational self as the purest, least-corruptible source of political belief.
“What I can do is piece together what every single perspective is saying, identify the things that are consistent, and then kind of yank the truth out of the opinion and the narrative and the spin that pretty much every mainstream site is gonna give you.” (Terry, 20s, USA)
“My political views mostly come from just seeing what works really.” (Sunit, late teens, India)
“I think my political views are shaped by facts first. So if, for example, I see some YouTuber who says something that I don’t agree with, or I can find information that does not support his point of view… that means that that YouTuber failed to convince me because he didn’t present facts. Although sometimes I [might] believe something because I was not given some information, and when another YouTuber comes along and says ‘Well look, this information that you hold dear is actually wrong. And here’s something that is provable that the information is wrong…’ And then I look into it myself. I do thorough research (or at least somewhat thorough research), and I find information that contradicts my current opinion. [Then] I change my opinion as well, because I see that I was wrong.” (Alius, 30s, Lithuania)
While it is common in progressive circles to hear phrases like “center the most marginalized” or “listen to those most impacted,” my respondents took a different approach to navigating the information landscape. For them, the best way to access truth was to reject dogma and to forge one’s own political identity through rational thought and deliberation. Alius, for instance, claims that his politics are “shaped by facts first.” He demonstrates absolute confidence in his ability to evaluate facts, and to reassess his own opinions once he has processed new facts. If a YouTuber fails to convince him of something, it is simply because that YouTuber has failed to “present facts.” Like homo economicus, his own life experiences, biases, and interests do not figure into this calculus.
Although my respondents and the YouTubers they admire may take pride in their open-mindedness, only certain kinds of “evidence” are considered legitimate under bootstraps epistemology. For right-wing influencers, Reason comes with a particular brand aesthetic that involves “destroying” liberals in debate settings, a confident and aggressive disposition, and the rapid-fire deployment of supporting evidence such as statistics and news headlines (Hong, 2020). Within this discursive community, the lived experiences of marginalized people are routinely dismissed as biased and self-serving, whereas pseudoscience and conspiracy theories peddled by white men hold sway if delivered in the correct manner.
The adoption of bootstraps epistemology is not politically neutral; indeed, the belief that one has accessed the truth because one has studied harder, researched more, and thought more deeply about a subject than others has repercussions for how a person relates to those around them. Among respondents, several expressed the sense that they were better equipped to make political decisions than their fellow citizens. This anti-democratic impulse was articulated most clearly by Brett, a 30-year-old technician living in Oklahoma:
“But everyone’s opinion is not equal. Some people have put more thought into them than others. Like for instance, I don’t mean to sound pretentious, and I’m not saying that I’m correct, but I’m not gonna mince words and say that my opinion is obviously more well thought out than others. I obviously have put a lot of work in to develop my opinions and thoughts. Whereas a normie Republican or even a normie Democrat voter probably hasn’t. They’re just sitting there, watching TV, watching the news and getting their opinions from there without thinking very much. Like what are the philosophical implications of this? What are the potential economic ramifications of this? They don’t actually know. They’re being told what to think. And then they’re taking the thing from Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow or whatever to the poll box and they’re not actually thinking for themselves. Why should my vote equal theirs? Why should my opinion be considered equal to theirs?”
Brett explicitly associates uncritical “normie” partisans with watching television, characterizing these audiences (both liberal and conservative) as passive recipients of information, perpetually caught up in the news of the day. His favourite YouTube channels, on the other hand, have prompted him to think more deeply about “philosophical ideas,” showing him the dynamics of power that underly current events. Under bootstraps epistemology, his better-developed, more theoretically coherent views entitle him to more power within society.
Even those who did not articulate anti-democratic ideas this explicitly in interviews still invoked a hierarchy of knowledge in which they sat at, or near, the top. These respondents spoke confidently about minoritized groups—Black people, Muslims, trans people—as affectable others: those who could be acted upon but were not truly agents in their own right, capable of articulating their own experiences and charting their own paths. Thus, bootstraps epistemology inherits the exclusionary foundations of Enlightenment-era philosophy, casting subjugated voices as irrational and incapable of producing true knowledge. At the same time, this conception of politics empowered my respondents to speak with confidence on a range of issues based on their mastery of abstract principles (e.g., free speech absolutism, libertarianism, meritocracy) and their ability to apply these principles in a logically consistent way.
Ultimately, bootstraps epistemology is highly compatible with white supremacist ideology, which hinges upon the figure of the transparent white subject who alone can employ reason to order, explain, and rank his various “others,” human and non-human (Ferreira da Silva, 2007). Under this epistemology, harmful reactionary narratives quickly calcify, as individuals interpret progressive arguments as ill-informed dogma while insisting that their own views stem not from outside influence but from their own, unimpeachable reasoning. I believe the concept of bootstraps epistemology—and increased attention to the epistemological underpinnings of white supremacist beliefs more generally—can help scholars and activists to better understand the problem of disinformation and better target their interventions.
Berry, J. & Sobieraj, S. (2014). The outrage industry: Political opinion media and the new incivility. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ferreira da Silva, D. (2007). Toward a global idea of race. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hong, S. (2020). ‘Fuck your feelings’: The affective weaponization of facts and reason. In Boler, M., & Davis, E. Affective politics of digital media: Propaganda by other means (1st ed.). London: Routledge.
Schradie, J. (2019). The revolution that wasn't: How digital activism favors conservatives. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Lewis, R. (2018). Alternative influence: Broadcasting the reactionary right on YouTube. Data & Society. Retrieved from: https://datasociety.net/output/alternative-influence/
Tripodi, F. (2017). Searching for alternative facts: Analyzing scriptural inference in conservative news practices. Data & Society. Retrieved from: https://datasociety.net/library/searching-for-alternative-facts/
 I use “reactionary” as the primary descriptor of my study’s subjects as it captures how popular right-wing YouTubers are typically reactive: that is, working in opposition to the “woke” mob, social justice warriors, and the liberal establishment (including the mainstream media, Democrats, and academia).
 Names in this piece have been altered to protect the confidentiality of respondents.