This is an essay by Tshiamo Malatji (@tshiatji) on the danger of YouTube opinion being considered truth and elevating views of privileged people. You can download this essay in mobile-friendly format here: (It is a small file – 62kbs.)
On the informational aspect of YouTube, people mainly address issues from personal experience, which is fair for them to do, but they present this information with more general authority.
Even if they do not intend to do this, anyone sharing information that many more people will watch should be aware that many of the people who watch it might not go on to watch other things about the subject. So their video might be all the knowledge these people have on the subject for a while.
That means this single experience will be the only known experience. That’s a lot of power for that experience and it harms the idea that a person sharing it is not trying to give people truths and is just sharing their views. Those views will become the truth for at least a proportion of the people that watch — whether one intends it or not.
But I do think many intend it. Their purpose is not just to air their views. They do it deliberately on a curated platform that requires them to film, edit and stage an environment to share themselves. They think of what to discuss next and they ask for suggestions. They put out content on the same day each week. They act in ways that suggest they are creating a show. All that effort is to ensure that they are heard. Being heard is more important here than expressing.
I may, as I often do, share my views with those around me. I am eager to express myself. Sometimes it is in the middle of a bite into bread with chips slapped between. Often it is while we are all engaging serious topics. But sometimes, like with this essay, I want to carefully consider and package my thoughts — put it in a medium and share it. I do not do this to express myself — but to have other people engage that expression.
I do, of course, think if no one hears you expressing yourself, it is fair to say you are not expressing yourself. I sympathise with the view that an audience is always needed. My contention is that the specific effort taken to make sure that the audience is YouTube suggests that being widely heard by an anonymous audience is the priority.
When this happens, I would urge people to share more measured thoughts on a subject. They should prioritise being responsible with that information over the sharing of their personal views. It is different when you share your experiences on a large platform. You have more responsibility because you don’t always know how your information will be used and who is accessing it — and for what reasons. Your viewers are anonymous and you can’t engage with them.
I don’t think we need more people sharing this kind of “disconnected engagement.” That’s what the world has always been — anonymous listeners to radio, television, cinema. We can’t engage back with the content and the content is heavily opinionated. It is a type of “narrative warfare.” YouTube has just become the newest way to do radio and TV. It’s the same concept.
Certainly, the potential for engagement has increased due to a comment section — but these (ironically) create more disconnection. Just read comment sections. They are bad faith commentators. They are either less likely to be critical and more likely to be very extreme on the side of liking the video or very extreme on the side of hating it. Just like the simplicity of a like/dislike which adds no ability to develop ideas and engage content, the comment section takes the form of worded likes and dislikes.
Someone who wants to break down the concepts and have a further conversation is not rewarded in YouTube comments. Someone that makes a snappy comment that gets more attention is. So the engagement that tends to be more effective is not necessarily “sense-making” and is disconnected.
I do see the view that YouTube is not exactly radio or television, but I don’t think it is necessarily a better place for people to share their views. Proving it is unique is simple. Proving it is functionally distinct is a challenge.
My fear is when people watch informational YouTube videos, they want to seek more general understandings — or perhaps seek truth.
Even if the channels use phrases like “it’s been my experience,” or “maybe it’s not the same for you” — the whole setup of the channel is given off as an authority on information. It’s presented as an explainer and that gives the experiences an immense pull from people. Is someone clicking on the video just to hear an opinion? Maybe. But many are clicking on it to hear the truth. Even those that click just to hear an opinion may leave thinking it is truth.
This is especially dangerous for ideas that aren’t well-spread because might be all someone has heard about it. So even if a channel is not saying that it is the truth, that’s not how it is interpreted.
So I ask, do we need more channels of people sharing their views and experiences? What if more and more of us did this. Well, we know what happens from radio and television. At first it’s an amazing decentralised platform. Anyone can share their views. Eventually we start to choose winners.
Now, given just a decade, there are successful YouTube channels with way more views and subscribers than others. With this they can earn money on the platform. Eventually they become so ingrained into the platform that they are “YouTubers” — it is their identity. This is like how news broadcasters have an identity and paying jobs in news. See the parallels already. For young people, YouTubers can sometimes be an even greater authority on information than traditional media.
“Ah. Progress,” they might say. Where have we heard this before? Ah yes — modernity: the idea that we can create objective and new truth. In this case, a better platform that moves us closer to a better world. Whether YouTube is actually a product of modernity or not is not what I argue. I only wish to say there is a belief that YouTube is better and this might be misinformed by the belief that since it is new, appears to be better thought-out, and caters to a more online world, it must be better.
We can’t make a statement of how much better it is just based on its newness and rejection of traditional media. We must still look at YouTube itself. It is moving in the same direction as traditional media. Soon it will be traditional media. In this sense, I mean it will embody paid personalities or celebrity informers who have many people listening to their views and taking those views as truth.
At times it may be worse than traditional media. News outlets can be held accountable. They can be investigated and fined. Of course there aren’t many things we can hold them accountable for — but they are generally more vulnerable than a YouTube informer — who can say almost anything. In fact, they can make pro-Nazi videos and still be a YouTuber afterward. A news broadcaster doing that would be held accountable immediately.
I recognise this is only because news media is a hierarchical structure where this an employer and an employee. With YouTube, everyone is supposedly an entrepreneur. But in reality, YouTube can remove channels from its site. It is also a hierarchy. What stops them from removing popular YouTubers is precisely their popularity. That is even more dangerous because the power of the YouTuber is not easily challenged. How can we hold YouTubers accountable for antisemitism? We cannot. How can we hold them accountable for misinformation? We cannot. There is no accountability on YouTube.
The only measure has been to cut monetisation from that account but by the time a YouTuber is popular, they can make money off the donations of their viewers. They are, after all, political actors. The viewers see them as their representatives. They are larger than YouTube.
In this age, at least, there’s been more of a push to address misinformation and hold people accountable for their views. But we might only hold people accountable for making errors relative to already well-spread ideas — like ideas on race. If someone says something racist, the community of listeners is already previously informed on race to call out the racism. It may not always work, like in the case of YouTube antisemitism, but it is something that is being attempted.
The work to make race ideas, for example, mainstream was not through platforms like YouTube. It was activism. It was writing. It was sharing. It was discussing. It was through what we should call “connected engagement.” This should be the preferred way people communicate. Decentralised units of learning scattered throughout society, always in direct communication with each other and sharing ideas.
There is that famous saying about transferring apples between two people which leaves one apple each but transferring ideas leaves people with two ideas each. On YouTube, the transfer is one-way. The YouTuber gives off an idea and the viewer receives. There is no opportunity for the viewer to give back.
One might think this creates a scenario where the viewer has two ideas and the YouTuber has one. Actually, they both have one. The viewers’ own ideas eventually become the ideas of the YouTuber after constantly watching and accepting. Why? Simply because of pedagogy — or the environment through which we learn. When it is hierarchical (top-down), the knowledge of the person with power seeks to replace the knowledge of the person without. A lecturer in a classroom, if hierarchal, is trying to convince their students to change their knowledge about the subject matter.
This is certainly not the case for all classrooms. Some are dialogic (two-way). Even in hierarchical set ups, the attempt to replace knowledge is not always successful. But sometimes it is. That is when it is dangerous. This is when YouTube can become propaganda — which is the extreme form of a hierarchical knowledge transfer.
The alternative, as I state earlier is to be dialogical. I see you and you see me. I talk to you and you talk to me. I say something and you tell me a response. You tell me how you interpreted an idea. You disagree. Often we come together and form new ideas this way — a process called “dialectics.”
There is no dialectic on YouTube or traditional media. But at this point, I must simply call YouTube traditional media too. For many people, it is their de facto media and it is growingly becoming dominant — if not for older people who prefer television or poorer people that may only afford radio or paper.
That’s another dimension of YouTube to explore — its identity. This community is video-based. So it requires immense bandwidth. Creating a channel of quality requires equipment and good production — and lots of free time. So the platform is composed of privileged people. The most well-subscribed YouTuber is a white cisgender heterosexual European man. None of that is by accident. All his privilege elevates him on the platform. He gained his fame by live reacting to computer games he was playing.
People in poverty could never succeed or even access the platform — and the content there is not made for them. It is made for the wealthy, who are either very conservative or just moderately liberal — but never overtly leftist. So there is not much leftist media on the channel that will get an immense subscriber base. There is only the duopoly of conservative and liberal channels — exactly like television.
I do think it is still wise for leftists to put content on YouTube but they should not expect to be successful there. For leftists, it could just be an additional knowledge archive then a genuine site to share leftism.
But, of course, like any platform, it can be revolutionised. So if some time in the future, leftists’ media succeeds here, I would be happy. I would argue there were changes made to YouTube that allowed that to happen.
At the moment, we must do away with the myth that YouTube is for the regular person — that we can get an upstart and become broadcasters. At best most people will amass a few followers and views — which they could have still done on social media like Twitter.
But there’s another defining feature of YouTube — aesthetic. The platform is audiovisual, like television and cinema. People want the audiovisual to be pleasing to them so people who abide by norms of beauty are elevated and those that do not are not. And so YouTubers are attractive to their viewers and part of the appeal of the YouTuber is aesthetic or even sexual. It is not lost on me then that an additional form of privilege is required in the form of how one looks and sounds.
There is a running joke I tell about how only people with corporate accents can tell us the weather. The humour is that we imagine what the news accent sounds like and how ridiculous it actually sounds but we sadly agree that if someone did not sound like that, we would not trust them.
There are also ways to sound like a YouTuber — and this has always been to sound Western. It has never been to sound African or Latin American. The additional privilege of sounding as if you are from a particular area of the world then limits the potential for success to only people from those parts of the world.
There is an offensive running joke about opening a tutorial from someone with an Indian accent, muting the video and learning in the comments. If anything, this might actually be a popular practice and ridiculing accents of YouTubers if they are not Western is common on the platform.
All of this just paints the clear truth that winners have already been chosen on the platform — and these winners embody the privileges of their society. YouTube is traditional media.
So what can be done? I don’t know what should be done about YouTube. I leave it to each person to decide for themselves. I obviously watch videos on YouTube and I have indeed found some powerful leftist content. However, I am more engaged in my local community, where most of my fellow people do not have internet access.
We fought for internet access to be expanded at our local universities. We have fought for national prices of mobile data to be decreased. We have also fought for public WiFi areas. Bandwidth access is enormously low in South Africa. It makes little sense then to wage a war on YouTube. Instead, my priority is to get everyone connected.
Another priority of mine is to develop a new kind of media that is more dialogical. Discord, for example, allows exactly for that kind of discourse. But applications like Discordand Telegram don’t receive the same kind of support and investment — for the obvious reason that they cannot be controlled. Imagine if we were able to create an online digital classroom where people share ideas among each other. I can leave this room and go to the next room where a different subject is being spoken about.
There is no lecturer in this classroom. There are only those who decided to enter the room. If you need more explanation, consider an online forum. They have different threads you can enter and each thread has a different subject. This is why I agree with the claim that Reddit is the homepage of the internet. But unlike Reddit, I want a site where the entire purpose is dialogical. There is no karma. There is no upvoting or liking. There is no rating of contributions. Instead, we engage.
I have felt that react buttons have undermined true engagement. What does it really mean to like a post? Is it being liked because it is being agreed to? Is it being liked because one is proud that you shared your view? More ridiculously, am I liking your picture because I have feelings for you? It is all so vague that it ends up adopting a sign-value rather than an exchange-value.
An exchange-value would suggest the person receives something identifiable from the like. A sign-value suggests all they receive is status. After all, their update is called a status.
So, if we consider the online world right now, what must be done is a new website and app that focuses on dialogic engagement. Fight YouTube if you want to but also spend time creating an alternative. Otherwise, we will be creating more and more internet access in Africa so people can learn more from Europeans or US Americans. I would hope we can create internet access for Africans so that Africans can communicate and learn from each other — not the West.
That is what should be done. But how to go about doing that requires more technical ability in web development and more capital than I have. I leave it maybe to you, the reader, to assist, if you can.
I also leave it to you to decide what the future of engagement will become. Shall it be a world again dominated by cisgender heterosexual white European men — or shall it be Paolo Freire’s dialogical world where even the oppressor is liberated by the oppressed — who of course find means to liberate themselves.