“I’d really rather stop talking about this, but the video at this link has nearly 10 million views now, so … buckle up,” Princeton history professor Kevin M. Kruse tweeted on May 15.
The video in question, “Why Did the Democratic South Become Republican?,” is from PragerU — not an actual university, but a nonprofit disseminator of five-minute or so “educational” videos espousing conservative explanations on often-controversial topics. This particular video posits that the “Southern Strategy” employed by Richard Nixon in the late ‘60s — Republicans angling for votes from conservative whites in the South by appealing to racism — is a myth invented after the fact.
The summary of the video on PragerU’s website is: “The south used to vote Democrat. Now it votes Republican. Why the switch? Was it, as some people say, because the GOP decided to appeal to racist whites?” Absolutely not, says the host of the video, Vanderbilt professor Carol Swain, who attempts to convince viewers of this in the course of five minutes and 20 seconds.
In Kruse’s Twitter takedown of the video, over the course of more than two dozen tweets, he destroys the PragerU video’s proposition. “I was originally going to let it slide, then I saw that it had almost 10 million views — if I can help one person push back against this stuff, it’s worth taking the time to go through it one more time and really hit specifically the argument laid on the mat,” Kruse tells Hatewatch.
“Versions of this argument have been circulating around forever and ever. This hit a lot of the same points, and it did so in a tendentious way, so I thought it was time to break it down. Revisionism is okay, we do revisionism all the time. This was more of a distortion. The problem with this video and others like it is that they start out with a certain premise — the Republican Party can’t be the party of racism, or the Southern Strategy couldn’t be a real thing — and then they work backwards to find evidence that can be cherry-picked to support that argument. That’s not how history works. It was an exercise in attacking a straw man.”
PragerU’s concise videos — billed as “Short Videos. Big Ideas.” — have become highly influential and far-reaching. Its homepage boasts of nearly a billion and a half views of its 300 or so explainer videos, alongside statistics like “60% of viewers are under the age of 35” and “70% of viewers have changed their mind on an important issue after watching one of our videos.”
Founded as a nonprofit by conservative talk radio host Dennis Prager in 2009, PragerU’s “5 Minute Ideas” videos have become an indispensable propaganda device for the right. The videos are hosted by conservative personalities; some, like Steve Forbes, Charles Krauthammer, and George Will, are mainstream establishment conservatives, while many others are culled from the more recent and more extreme and combative internet incarnation of conservatism: Ben Shapiro (of The Daily Wire, former Breitbart editor), Candace Owens (Kanye West influencer and vlogger behind “Red Pill Black”), Charlie Kirk (founder and head of Turning Point USA), Jordan Peterson (Canadian professor who recently called for “enforced monogamy”), James Damore (the former Google employee fired for crafting the infamous memo critical of the company’s diversity goals), Dave Rubin (host of the online Rubin Report, who has often featured guests from the racist “alt-right”), and others of their ilk.
While most of PragerU’s videos aren’t as logically deficient as the Southern Strategy presentation that Princeton’s Kruse demolished on Twitter, more than a few similarly function as dog whistles to the extreme right:
- “Playing the Black Card,” hosted by Owens;
- “The Suicide of Europe,” an anti-immigrant screed hosted by author Douglas Murray and promoted by the anti-immigrant hate website VDARE.com;
- “Are the Police Racist,” hosted by Heather Mac Donald;
- “Blacks in Power Don’t Empower Blacks,” hosted by Jason Riley;
- “Are Some Cultures Better than Others” and “Is Fascism Right or Left,” both hosted by Dinesh D’Souza.
Francesca Tripodi, a sociologist, examined the effect of PragerU’s videos in a scholarly report for the Data & Society Research Institute titled “Searching for Alternative Facts: Analyzing Scriptural Inference in Conservative News Practices.”
Tripodi spent extensive time with a conservative women’s group and a college Republican group for her study. “My goal was to push back on this idea that conservatives are cultural doofs that don’t read; as a scholar I don’t buy that. There are people approaching content in a meaningful way. It was through these groups that I started learning about PragerU and how much it is a beloved source of news and information amongst most people I spoke with,” she tells Hatewatch.
Tripodi says she discovered several elements tied to PragerU’s presenters and its online marketing that paint the brief videos watched more than a billion times in a troublesome light.
To start with, when one visits the PragerU channel on YouTube, there is a column of “Related Channels” with links to other outlets PragerU’s audience may find interesting: Fox News seems to be a no-brainer, as does The Daily Wire, given its founder Ben Shapiro’s relationship as a presenter for PragerU. But alongside those you also can find the channel of Stefan Molyneux, an extremist who espouses pseudo-scientific “race realism” propaganda.
“[PragerU] gets people questioning and looking for more information, and if nothing else, it is very blatantly algorithmically connected” to the extreme right content found on YouTube, Tripodi explains.
(PragerU sued Google, YouTube’s parent company, last fall for placing some of its videos in “Restricted Mode,” alleging censorship; a judge dismissed the suit in March.)
More troubling, Tripodi discovered, are the connections some PragerU presenters have with white nationalist thinkers. In her report, Tripodi highlights Dave Rubin, host of an immensely popular (nearly 18 million views) PragerU video titled “Why I Left the Left.”
Rubin also hosts a YouTube talk show called the Rubin Report, where his guests have included alt-right figureheads like Milo Yiannopoulos, conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson of Infowars, and Molyneux.
Tripodi writes, “the implications of creating a dense network of extremist thinkers allows for those who identify as mainline conservatives to gain easy access to white supremacist logic. Leveraging the thoughts of someone like Stefan Molyneux can have disastrous consequences considering that Molyneux regularly promotes ‘alt-right’ ‘scientific racism’ on his own YouTube shows. The fact that such rhetoric is ultimately connected to the presenter of one of PragerU’s most widely circulated videos is alarming since Molyneux’s ideas of ‘natural law’ were used by the founders of the US to justify the subordination of African slaves, Native Americans, and white women.”
She tells Hatewatch, “I would argue if PragerU doesn’t want to be associated with those kinds of people then they would really have to think about who’s featured in their videos.”
Tripodi’s report also takes issue with a series of PragerU videos “aimed at discrediting mainstream media”: “Can You Trust the Press?,” “What is ‘Fake News’?” and “Why No One Trusts the Mainstream Media.” She writes, “By the end of the study the positions of PragerU and those I interviewed became indistinguishable. Time and again, I was told [by the study participants] that mainstream media are ‘fake’ because coverage is based on feelings instead of fact-based evidence.”
The most egregious of PragerU’s videos, in Tripodi’s opinion, is “What is the Alt-Right?” Hosted by conservative internet talk show host Michael Knowles, the video posits that as an “alternative” to conservatism, the alt-right is most accurately compared with the left, for three reasons: the left and the alt-right are obsessed with identity politics, both focus on group identity rather than the individual, and both the left and the alt-right “ultimately reject God.” The video ends with Knowles declaring, “In other words, the alt-right has nothing in common with conservatism, and is in fact much closer to leftism. Except, of course, that the left is much, much larger.”
In the conclusion of her report, Tripodi writes, “Content creators like PragerU are not only exploiting the practices of scriptural inference, but also relying on search engine optimization and suggested content to elevate their messaging… However, their choice of guests and underlying messaging demonstrates how this cross-promotion of ideas and influencers creates both an algorithmic and cultural connection between conservative ideology and ‘alt-right’ terminology.”
As Tripodi’s study demonstrates, PragerU seems to be yet another node on the internet connecting conservative media consumers to the dark corners of the extreme right.