In the context of the discussion on leftist strategy and tactics, online activism and the utilisation of cyberspace are unjustly neglected topic. The slower pace at which LeftTube has been developing is affected by the standard issues of the left – the limits of academia, internal divisions and scepticism towards “alienating” and highly individualised media such as YouTube. Meanwhile, online right-wing propaganda is flourishing, with its potential for self-reproduction presenting an added danger. LeftTube, which is still evolving, is a good reminder of how the left can pave out a different course of action and be fun at the same time.
Instead of delving into a more detailed analysis, we have reached out to some of the members of the LeftTube community to hear what they have to say on this topic in their own words. This week we are in conversation with Mexie, the YouTuber behind a great channel dealing with economic, ecological and social justice issues.
Briefly introduce yourself and your channel – who are you and what is it that you do (both on and off YouTube), what are some of the topics you cover on your channel, what is your target audience...
I’ve faced a lot of harassment as a woman talking about politics on the internet. There is no shortage of alt-right trollsI’m Mexie, a lecturer from Toronto. I did PhD in geography looking at the intersections between political economy and environmental issues. I started my channel to share knowledge I gained through my studies with a broad audience, since I felt stifled staying within the academy. On my channel I provide grounded critiques of capitalism and explore issues relating to social/environmental/economic justice and veganism, with my target audience being just about anyone interested in learning more about these issues.
How did you initially get into making YouTube videos? Were you active in other YouTube communities prior to your current channel? If so, what prompted you to shift your focus to political issues?
It’s a long story, but I had developed chronic illness and decided to finally go from vegetarian to vegan a few years ago, and at that time I felt inspired to start a vegan YouTube channel. I ended up doing a lot of research above and beyond my own, though, which was time consuming, and finally decided - why not talk about what I actually know about? So at that point I began talking about political economy and environmental issues, and really grew my channel from there.A lot of people become radicalized through exposure to information on social media, or from memes even, so this is a space we can use to educate and agitate a much larger number of people than we would have access to in person
Over the past two years, it often seemed as if right-wing, neo-Nazi and white supremacist channels were able to attract an increasing number of viewers and subscribers. It did not take long for these trends to be met by a counter reaction from emerging leftist YouTubers. How would you describe the present situation on YouTube? Was this counterreaction successful?
The alt-right has been extremely successful on these platforms by saying intentionally sensational and inflammatory shit that gets a lot of attention. People who disagree with what they’re saying still watch their videos and increase their view counts, and YouTube’s algorithm then promotes their channels and videos more. This drives revenue, so it’s not surprising that they’ve been able to really flourish on social media. LeftTube has definitely grown, not so much in reaction to these channels, however of course many online leftists are debunking their toxic narratives.
I would say most of the people on LeftTube now have been making content for a long time, but perhaps because of the growth in alt-right numbers, people have also been seeking out our content as well, and we’re definitely growing a great community. I don’t think it’s something that we can judge as "successful" or "unsuccessful", but a movement that we’re all working on growing together.
In activist circles, the importance of an online presence is often underestimated. Organising, protesting, raising awareness, etc. in the “offline” world is seen as the primary goal, while online activities are only seen as supplementary. Online activism is often associated with the caricature of the “Facebook revolutionary”, i.e. a person whose participation in a political cause amounts to little more than “liking” the right posts and attending Facebook events, but failing to show up when real protests take place. Is this a legitimate problem for creators of activist content to consider? Is there a danger of preaching to the choir, i.e. only being able to reach an audience that is already somewhat supportive of our views? What are the limits of online activism, can it also lead to alienation from actual struggles?Considering many people have told me that my videos have inspired them to get out and organize, I would say yes, YouTube can certainly motivate people to join and become active in radical movements
There’s something to be said for a multi-pronged approach to activism. As an educator, I think that first and foremost a much wider audience needs to become educated in political economy and how capitalism is driving the ecological and social crises of our times. For that reason, I think that online activism is extremely important, especially when it comes to education and making this information accessible to as many people as possible. Sadly, many people do get their news from Facebook and YouTube completely, so this is a space we need to be acting in. But yes, absolutely I think that if all we are doing is posting online, we aren’t going to be building the deep relationships of trust with each other that will be vital to realizing any post-capitalist alternative.
If we don’t know how to revolutionize our relationships with one another and create networks that can support one another, then we aren’t going to get anywhere tangible. I would say that sharing information online and working on educating and agitating the masses is important, but we can’t forget organizing. Another limit I would point out is that we are being constantly surveilled and infiltrated in online spaces, and these platforms controlled by corporations working with government agencies are not tools that we will likely be able to utilize forever. We are already experiencing censorship and efforts to reduce our reach.
Conversely, what are the advantages of online activism, especially in the context of YouTube? Why should the left invest in maintaining an online presence?
Like I said, without broad-based understanding of the economic system we operate within, we won’t be able to build enough buy-in to our The alt-right has been extremely successful on these platforms by saying intentionally sensational and inflammatory shit that gets a lot of attention. People who disagree with what they’re saying still watch their videos and increase their view counts, and YouTube’s algorithm then promotes their channels and videos moremovement to be able to effect any real change. A lot of people become radicalized through exposure to information on social media, or from memes even, so this is a space we can use to educate and agitate a much larger number of people than we would have access to in person.
To sum up the previous two questions, where do you see opportunities for convergence between offline and online activism? Can YouTube videos actually motivate people enough to create or join, for example, a radical trade union, a leftist organisation, etc., seeing that this would imply leaving the relative safety and comfort of being a passive consumer of YouTube content?
Considering many people have told me that my videos have inspired them to get out and organize, I would say yes, YouTube can certainly motivate people to join and become active in radical movements. If people are only consuming corporate media, they aren’t likely to come to any critical realizations about systemic violence, and are really not likely to support leftist movements let alone join them. A good percentage of the population actively opposes anything remotely progressive politically. YouTube is one tool among many that we can use to shift public discourse and open peoples’ eyes to the structural roots of our current problems.
If one considers the worrying political developments of our time, it comes as no surprise that the Internet has also become a more dangerous place. Harassment, cyberbullying, hacking and stealing of personal information are all too common – have you had any such negative experiences and what is your advice for dealing with such situations? Is there a positive experience you would like to highlight?Sadly, many people do get their news from Facebook and YouTube completely, so this is a space we need to be acting in. But yes, absolutely I think that if all we are doing is posting online, we aren’t going to be building the deep relationships of trust with each other that will be vital to realizing any post-capitalist alternative
I’ve faced a lot of harassment as a woman talking about politics on the internet. There is no shortage of alt-right trolls. Luckily I haven’t had anything too serious happen to me, but people should be careful to protect their identities. Consider using a fake name and make sure you aren’t traceable. Otherwise, just don’t feed the trolls. Focus your energy on creating new and valuable content instead of getting into the weeds with people who aren’t acting in good faith.
Sadly, there seems to be a lack of similar content in languages other than English. Do you have any advice for those who might be interested in starting their own political channel?
I know that there is a French leftist YouTube community. I’m not sure about other languages, but certainly it would be great to start building those out if possible. I also love it when people take the time to caption my videos in other languages, because I want the messages to reach as many people as possible. If you speak another language as well as English and you’d like to contribute but don’t have the time or don’t feel comfortable enough to start your own channel, providing captions for leftist videos is incredibly useful!
For anyone interested in starting their own channel - just go for it. It’s easy to think that you aren’t smart enough or you won’t have enough to say, but honestly, we all have something valuable to contribute, and the more voices out there promoting revolutionary messages, the better. I film on my phone, you don’t need to get high tech with anything either.