It was a young man who called himself – and his channel – “Pigpuncher” who convinced me to start a YouTube Channel featuring political content from a left wing perspective.
I was mightily impressed by Pigpuncher, whose name derives from the popular computer game, Minecraft. At 19 this young man, barely out of high school, had managed to build an audience of nearly 10,000 subscribers on the YouTube video sharing platform, by talking almost entirely about left-wing ideas. It’s the sort of thing that gave me hope for the future and frankly I would have thought unlikely only a few years ago.
His format included short videos, but was primarily focused on live streaming – talking to camera for 2-3 hour sessions, promoting left wing ideas while playing computer games or deconstructing right wing propaganda videos and “breadpilling”- debating still reactionary members of his audience and attempting to persuade them of the virtue of socialism and other leftist perspectives.
“Breadpill” derives from Breadtube (referring to The Conquest of Bread (1892), by Anarchist, Peter Kropotkin), a term often used loosely to refer to the leftist video content creator movement that has recently arisen on YouTube, and that Pigpuncher identifies with. Breadtubers were working to establish left wing voices on the platform and help turn the tide against its domination by the right and alt right.
It is also a community built around supporting quality, well researched leftist video content, with a large Reddit community of 75,000 members who discuss left wing ideas and strategies for promoting them using these principles.
The Right Wing dominance of YouTube
Breadtube had come into existence because over the past five or so years YouTube had become one of the most effective tools for right wing personalities and groups – ranging from vanilla conservatives to neo-nazis – to indoctrinate young people who got most of their news and much of their entertainment from social media.
The left was slow to realise the potential of YouTube, and largely absent from the platform in any significant size for most of its history, with the exception of professional independent news channels such as The Majority Report, The Young Turks and The Real News Network. The right however, using simple populist rhetoric, “edgy” humour (popular with youth) and often ridiculing marginalised groups such as LBGTI+, feminists or social justice advocates, had established a massive, popular and often interconnected presence.
Some of the worst examples were simply angry, disaffected cranks, flourishing and emboldened in the Trump era to make bigoted videos, dog whistling racism or promoting unashamed sexism. There were, however, many more sophisticated content creators constantly attacking the left, feminism and social justice as the root of all evil and promoting reactionary ideas, even if their primary focus was originally supposed to gaming or atheism. One example is Carl Benjamin aka Sargon of Akkad, who began his YouTube career making numerous videos attacking feminist video game critic, Anita Sarkeesian, and more recently unsuccessfully stood for election to the European parliament as a far right candidate. There were also other big channels with hundreds of thousands – or even millions – of subscribers, producing crafted right-wing propaganda. Steven Crowder, recently in the news for his harassment of Vice journalist, Carlos Maza, has over four million subscribers on a channel aimed at young people and presenting comedy and news with a reactionary message, and often poking ridicule at marginalised groups.
Some were covertly backed with dollars from wealthy conservative donors, corporations or political organisations. Others were blatant big money propaganda operations, such as the pseudo-educational channel “Prager U”. It spends millions on YouTube advertising trying to attract viewers to professionally made videos promoting free market economics, traditional conservative values or blaming the left for destroying various aspects of “Western Civilisation”. It has millions of subscribers.
The Alt Right rabbit hole
The propensity of the YouTube content suggestion algorithm to channel vulnerable youth to steadily more and more extreme right wing video content had recently attracted mainstream media attention in a New York times article. It described an alt right rabbit hole on the platform and featured Caleb Cain, who now has the leftist YouTube channel Faraday Speaks. Cain had made a video that went viral, earnestly confessing his temporary descent into the alt right rabbit hole during a difficult period in his life when he was suffering depression.
He was transformed from a liberal college student to an alt right reactionary through watching more and more extreme content suggested to him by the YouTube content algorithm in “watch next” sidebars next to each successive video watched. He found his way out by stumbling on the Breadtube videos that have started to appear on the past 2-3 years, and gradually being swayed by the quality of their arguments.
The Breadtubers had built their channels on producing well made, well researched video essays and reaction videos, calmly deconstructing the sloppy ideas, misuse of data and distortion of facts common in right wing content. One of the most successful, and now largest of the Breadtubers with close to ¾ million subscribers, is Contrapoints, an ex-graduate student in philosophy and a transwoman. She produces creative and entertaining but academically robust videos using multiple characters – all played by herself.
High production values and crafted entertainment were not necessarily essential though, another example is Shaun, who does not appear on camera, but presents well-argued video essays and responses to right wing videos while displaying a image of a skull on a black background.
A call to action
The alt right rabbit hole and rise of the right on YouTube – and Breadtube in response – was the basic narrative Pigpuncher presented in his video HOW BREADTUBE CAN BEAT THE ALT RIGHT, which concluded with a call to action for more people on the left to create their own channels and contribute to the spread of left wing ideas on the platform.
I’d spent a lot of time on Youtube for several years, with half an idea of doing some academic work on it at some point and otherwise simply exploring what it had to offer. Because computer gaming content on YouTube was a major focus of my interest – and the Gamergate movement had politicised gaming culture and spawned a lot of reactionary YouTube channels and content – I was well aware of what Pigpuncher was talking about.
I had long been concerned at how much damage the proliferation of right wing ideas was doing at a vital time for young people to be energised by left wing ideas and get behind efforts to tackle issues such as racism, the corporate takeover of democracy and climate change. Being a man in my early 50s who had never been involved in activism beyond occasional protest marches, I frankly felt somewhat ashamed I had done so little when this young man had achieved such a lot in a short space of time.
I had some writing, graphic design and (many years back) some experience working in video, so I decided to heed Pigpuncher’s call to action and at least make an attempt at creating a channel featuring left perspectives and persist with it for a few months to see what I could do.
Starting the Sensible Bunny Channel
One of the things Pigpuncher had advised new channel creators was to avoid using your real name or providing too much real world information about yourself. There is a history of armies of trolls organised through online forums such as 8Chan who specialise in attacking left wing figures on YouTube, members of marginalised groups and, it often seems – any woman who dares even express an opinion. They are capable of serious harassment campaigns against individuals, their friends and family. This includes “doxing”– publishing your home address and phone number, or contacting your employer to make malicious claims about you.
That didn’t sound like much fun, so I decided to heed the advice. I choose Sensible Bunny as a channel name and identity. I already had a distinctive digital art image of a rabbit nebula I had created the year before, which I suspected would be an attractive and memorable logo, and the name had both a serious and playful aspect, which reflected my creative writing style and – I assumed – what might become my video content style.
Initially filled with enthusiasm and aware from previous creative endeavours that you won’t get anywhere unless you get on with it and learn by doing, I just started making videos, initially hiding behind an image of the rabbit nebula because I hadn’t yet got up the courage to front to camera.
I started out basically copying the format I had seen on other Breadtube channels, making videos deconstructing the slippery language use of Jordan Peterson as he spread climate change denial, and the anti-Muslim propaganda I found on a far-right conservative Christian website. I also tried my hand at explaining why the right has to claim the left is a powerful force destroying Western civilisation to distract from the right actually dominating political discourse for 30 years and the failure of right-wing policies. Interested to explore the video medium creatively, and give an audience some variety, I also tried videos on other subjects such as observations of life, film and TV, and even some tutorials on Microsoft Office.
Learning to make YouTube videos
There was, I soon discovered, a LOT to learn.
I got a decent a USB microphone, but it was two weeks before I’d found out how to set it up correctly to get clear audio recordings, and speak at the right distance from the microphone. Bad audio is the one thing most viewers won’t stand, so I couldn’t even record videos until I solved these issues.
It was great to be able to get the free and open source Open Broadcast Software, which I used to make recordings of myself, other videos, web pages and picture backgrounds for my videos, but that also took some weeks of experimentation to figure out the basics of.
I only had a basic Window video editing app to start, which allows only crude editing and didn’t give me much control over audio levels, or facility for transition effects such as dissolves or wipes. It got the job done with early videos at least. When I received feedback that video production quality needed to improve to retain interest – which I also recognised myself – I got more sophisticated editing software, but that will likely take some weeks, if not months, to master, so the improvements it affords are only gradually making it into my new videos.
I tried adlibbing my commentaries and presentations at first, but found too much stop and starts, “ums” and “ahs”, so had to start writing scripts so I could maintain confident, smooth delivery of my narration. Video scripts were a whole different ball game to the blog posts and articles I was used to writing, requiring simple terms, words and phrasing that I wouldn’t stumble over when speaking them out loud. I also needed to start incorporating visual elements in videos to illustrate ideas, rather than describing them in prose as I was used to (which loses viewer interest in videos), which was another learning curve – and a lot more work.
I also had to learn how to project myself and my voice to camera to avoid sound like a mumbling rabbit in headlights and modulate my voice and give emphasis to words and phrases to avoid sounding monotone. And once someone persuaded me that I need to create personal contact by appearing on camera, I struggled with how to sit, setting up a background to film against, lighting in the small space I have available to record and problems such as light reflecting on my reading glasses (which I can’t see my scripts without).
I haven’t even begun to tackle including music in videos and/or animation or the green screen technique that many YouTubers use to superimpose themselves on footage or backgrounds. These things aren’t all essential, but everything helps engage viewers in what you have to say. If you don’t engage viewers they won’t come back for more or subscribe to a channel.
Promoting the Channel
The biggest issue is gaining subscribers – building an audience. I knew my videos would gradually improve in quality through practice in the medium and technical improvements possible through mastering more sophisticated video editing software. The trouble was, that unless I started to attract some kind of audience I was pretty sure I would eventually run out of stream after spending dozens of hours producing videos that no one ever saw.
The YouTube platform is very much based on a neo-liberal model – you are an atomised, individual brand competing among other brands in a crowded marketplace. When you first start a new channel the YouTube algorithm won’t promote your content until it detects established, consistent viewing and audience retention. It’s also become a lot harder to have traffic put your way since YouTube has changed its algorithm to favour mainstream political content. This followed criticism that it wasn’t doing enough to tackle far-right use of the platform, extremism and the promotion of fake news. While it’s probably a positive that more viewers aren’t being directed to far-right or conspiracy videos, it also hurt small and even reasonably large content creators on the left, some of which have seen massive drops in viewer traffic.
I could see that I was probably going to have do as much work promoting Sensible Bunny as actually developing skills and making the content, and see a long hard road ahead, joining forums, commenting, posting videos wherever I can, building up a social media presence and using whatever means I can find to spread the word.
The Cognitive Society and The Humanity of Small Left Wing YouTube
After my first few weeks of learning the ropes and creating content for my new channel I came across a video by another young YouTuber with a fairly small but growing channel, The Cognitive Society which further inspired me, as Pigpuncher’s video had initially.
In his video call to action The Humanity of Small Left Wing YouTube: A Response to Noncompete, “Cog” (as I shall call him for short), made an appeal for content creators on the left to support one another, for bigger channels to give smaller channels exposure, and for smaller channel in general to make connections and to work together.
I was impressed by Cog‘s message. I felt that this was very much in the spirit of the left, building community around campaigning for progressive issues and using the power of people, rather than money and elite power, to promote and advance left perspectives and goals. I could also see potential in people on the left cooperating to create channels, pooling different talents and skills to build channels, or simply collaborating.
Accordingly, I made my own response video to this Left wing activism and YouTube: a response to The Cognitive Society.
I also set about trying to do what I could to take action on this. As a tiny channel with only a handful of subscribers I wasn’t in much of a position to give a leg up or exposure to any other small channels but I felt I had to at least make an effort. So I decided to focus on finding channels in my range of 10-100 or so subscribers and started subscribing to them and making comments with support and/or feedback to connect – or at least provide a sense of others engaging with and supporting what they were doing.
After spending a few days finding as many of these channels as possible, I created a show reel of six of them: Six small left-wing YouTube Channels – a show reel. with the idea of encouraging my small audience and others I might connect with on social media to visit these channels, watch their videos and (hopefully) also subscribe to them.
It was never going to be widely seen hosted on my own tiny channel, and had some technical issues, but it give them some extra exposure and subscribers and did connect me with some of the creators I had featured in the video, who have already been friendly and supportive. It has also created the potential to work together with some of them in the future; I am already discussing a collaboration with one creator.
So there’s still a long way for me to go with my attempt to get a left wing YouTube channel up and going and reach out to other small YouTube creators. I am only at present at 27 subscribers (which has taken several weeks to build up) and still have a lot to learn, and yes, I need your support, but so do other small creators on the left.
Sensible Bunny’s call for action
We need more voices on the left on YouTube to help counter the truly massive grip the right has on the platform. If you have made it this far please consider checking out – and importantly subscribing to – some of the small channels below. There are several dozen of the more established small YouTube channels in the tweet link from The Cognitive Society and I have listed the very small channels I tracked down myself below that. There are many more out there.
Some are just starting out, still have technical issues to overcome and have a way to go with improving content, some are already producing excellent quality content and analysis, but at this early stage especially, your support can make a lot of difference to them feeling encouraged to persist with their channels, improving and growing them.
The Cognitive Society’s tweet thread with a list of small left wing YouTubers with under 5,000 subscribers: https://twitter.com/CognitiveSoc/status/1154452642501943299?s=19
The very small youtubers – mostly around 100 or less subscribers – that I discovered (not on the list above):
Lefty Philosophy: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCg9SlItxjwkg0rrtr_LHY1A
Left eye view: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCj0fEnsbGn-2woN9GCQg3tw
Woohooligan Comedy: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUXIKOdES_4dkSUjJ1N85zQ
Cuñado de izquierdas: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCetrzdWYUfY6n_FZra-6l4g
Explain Capitalism: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbmB0teIsU2UNhAa_GUu5cQ
Left Tube Watch: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFyv_k69G23vYad_s1WxFVQ
The Leftist Lemon: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCElwY-acQqH6zt4ko2FHc3Q
Clifton Mays: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCpMOlYXKuUre22ZayugnEhg
Hammable of Carthage: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCJXzROslLMTAQpJtfJf7G9w
Low T Charlie: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxf1iHWTijFgYLW4cDTQCzA