Ill-Conceived Notions

An experiment in digital humanities

I did not intend to use the same category titles for both creators at the start of this study, but after the coding steps I was surprised by the overlaps in how their videos were constructed. Both intertwine facts and speculations, both include and directly invite the audience to their inquiries, both frame characters and describe broader contexts of their narrative, both insert their own concerns, interests and sympathies, both enjoy sarcastic mockery, and both have clear indications of how they want their audience to emotionally respond. The key difference I’ve seen from these videos is how the creators view themselves, which dictates how the audience should see them.

At 17:22 in ‘Incels’, ContraPoints offers an intimate personal detail: “I’m gonna tell you something I’ve never really come about on this channel, [exaggerated] so this is like a really vulnerable moment for me”. This is a recurring joke on her channel: she comes out in videos where it’s relevant to the subject, acting as if it’s the first time, most recently in her video entitled ‘Men’. This may not be obvious to the newest viewers who have no prior experience with ContraPoints, but it can be recognised as a joke after regular viewing. This runs the risk of distancing viewers that do not appreciate her satire of creators or influencers who extend ‘vulnerable moments’ to their audience, since it assumes a lack of authenticity in those moments. On the other hand, her subtle and multitudinal in-jokes and references create a sense of community, since only dedicated viewers will notice all of them and be able to laugh with her. Regardless of the reception, however, self-satire is a core component of her content as she insists that viewers do not consider her a divine source of truth.

Molyneux, at least in these videos, is the exact opposite. Except for his statement at the start of ‘Mandela‘ that he’s “certainly no expert” (1:04), he frames his content as absolute truths that cannot be questioned. ‘The Truth About’ is a popular video series by Molyneux, which, like his videos here, offer alternative perceptions to general understandings of history, politics, celebrities and pop culture, to name a few, and, like this, insist that ‘the government’, ‘the media’ and ‘the left’ are withholding these truths. He demonstrates an acute awareness of the insecurities and anxieties of his audience, demonstrated in his framing of the good guys and bad guys in each video, and the narrow insights he offers to each.

By not breaking his dialogue into edited segments as many YouTubers producing similar content do, his presentation videos contain trailed thoughts, mistakes and backpedaling. An obvious example in ‘Crusades’ is when he says 17th instead of 7th century when introducing the origins of Islam (1:24). We know he meant 7th because he follows saying the year 622, but this was a mistake he was aware of, since we hear him slightly slur the ‘eenth’, that happened early enough that he could have scrapped that video as a first-take and started again. This implies that his videos, while accompanied by notes and points to elaborate on in the moment, are likely not rehearsed. We’re also clued to this in the Mandela video where he frequently stumbles and trails off in thought when he seems to lose track of his notes. On the one hand, this makes his work seem poorly produced and hastily published, void of rigour or care for finer details. On the other, it gives the impression that his videos are honest and informal, and are closer to approachable, engaging and intelligent conversations than they are to academic presentations. They are noble offerings of the knowledge he has collected, knowledge he wants to share quickly so that we, his audience, who have been led astray by leftist media, can enlighten ourselves as soon as possible. He is eloquent, passionate and cares deeply about the virtues of logic and reason (as he understands them), and this shines through when we see him trail from his notes to piece together the most logical truth he can.

Interpretations of ContraPoints’ habits are also subject to a matter of opinion, however. Masochistic epistemology is a term coined by ContraPoints in ‘Incels’, but it isn’t clear from the context, since it’s presented as a philosophical theory. By failing to credit sources for some theories she offers, it appears to be another generally accepted theory rather than a proposition. This does not necessarily weaken her justification for its existence – this section of the video is basically designed to frame the prevalence of intentionally toxic engagement as a pursuit of truth, which the term represents – but the audience is left to decide, without directly being instructed to do so, whether or not her proposition is sufficiently evidenced based on the examples presented alone. One could interpret ContraPoints along these lines as a progressive philosophical intellect, sincerely committed to investigating and describing contemporary online behaviours, or as someone who is carelessly inventing terms that inflate a problem that isn’t really there. The conclusion reached may depend on pre-existing notions about her as a person, rather than the creator she appears as in a specific context.

Effects of online disinhibition can be applied to some of the habits exhibited by the creators. The audience is not visible to the creators, so the response has to be assumed, and sometimes projected by anticipating or invoking the reaction. Solipsistic introjection occurs when an online user feels “that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion” (Suler, 2004). While this originally described text-based interactions, the creators may experience something similar, as the audience is portrayed as a character in their story whose emotions, responses and, to an extent, future actions are dictated by the creator without direct interaction. Molyneux does this when he exclaims the danger that Western civilisation faces against violent, foreign invaders, and the complacency of a culture that has become hedonistic and selfishly focused, inciting anxiety, urgency and skepticism where there may have been none previously. ContraPoints does this when directly stating the traumatic experiences that incels have endured, which she asserts she has also experienced, as an offering of validation and an extension of sympathy, despite her experiences with incels being limited to readings of their forum posts.

These exemplify the dichotomy Suler frames of toxic and benign disinhibition (2004). The former is a premise from which violent thoughts can arise, as mainstream sources and generalised conceptions are actively discredited and framed as “utter nonsense” (Crusades 27:53), and the audience is instructed to “stop apologizing, stop defending, start pushing back” (32:10). This is eerily reminiscent of the cult-like characteristics that Nguyen warns are the foundations of echo chambers, that intentionally alienate listeners from conflicting opinions (2018). The latter is an attempt to build a bridge with a community that identifies itself as removed from normal society, by assuring that their experiences are more common than they think, and inviting the broader audience to recognise this, while maintaining that their rhetoric is dangerous and should not be dismissed by incessant mockery. Murthy and Sharma (2019) assert the benefit in recognising these nuanced representations of opinion on YouTube, which is shaping the self-critical practices that modern discourse is adopting.

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