Can the Gravel Institute compete with the right-wing YouTube machine?

Men wearing headphones playing video games late at night
ByLexi McMenamin
Originally Published: 

Last year, a pair of plucky teenagers ran a presidential campaign for former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel. Gravel, then 89, handed over the reins of his campaign to the two teens, Henry Williams and David Oks, in exchange for a commitment that they would use whatever influence came from the campaign to move people to the left. “After that campaign ended in August of 2019, we went on hiatus and we tried to think a lot about how we can best do that,” Williams, now 20 and taking a gap year from Columbia University, says. “And what we stumbled on was this question of institutions on the left.” Now that the 2020 election cycle is mostly over (barring a coup attempt and the Georgia Senate runoffs), the Gravel campaign is now the Gravel Institute, focused on creating media, specifically YouTube videos, to combat right-wing video commentators PragerU.

The “Institute” itself is still mostly Williams, Oks, and a variety of helpers and supporters. But their hope is that — dependent on how they grow in the next year — they’ll be able to expand. Gravel himself is at this point loosely involved in an advisory capacity, but is not part of the day-to-day operations. (Mic reached out to representatives for Gravel but did not receive a response.)

You might’ve seen the Gravel Institute's announcement video, voiced by comedian H. Jon Benjamin, a.k.a. Bob from Bob’s Burgers. As of Nov. 30, they have over 289,200 Twitter followers and 126,000 subscribers on YouTube. Their website lists their core values as “Legislature of the People”, “Ending Imperial Wars”, and “Achieving a Just Economy.”

The Institute is solely crowdfunded using Patreon, which Williams says means they’re not beholden to the values of any funders. While Williams claims the organization doesn’t endorse one particular ideology, the Institute spreads broadly leftist views. Gen Z and millennials are more likely than previous generations to identify as socialists and with socialist-leaning policies; Williams and the others behind Gravel are hedging their bets on this increase in popularity.

A recent profile in MEL Magazine summarized the Gravel Institute’s immediate goal as “radicaliz[ing] centrists everywhere”. The longer arc, though, might be more complicated.

Their branding clearly targets young people, with tongue-in-cheek Twitter- and Instagram-friendly content. In each video, an expert explains an issue directly to the camera, mostly overlaid by animated illustrations, and each video opens with an almost PBS-style faded ombre bearing the organization’s name, calling to mind the gradients popular on Instagram slideshow graphics. The whole thing is backed by somber piano. The team also put out a merch drop the week of the election, featuring stylized graphic tees calling to send Henry Kissinger to the Hague for war crimes; two items, rolling “Pentagon Papers'' and an olive green dad cap reading “Institute for the Rapid Advancement of Leftist Media Production”, sold out.

Since the 1960s, Williams points out, conservatives and the right have heavily funded and backed right-wing media outlets, with wealth centralized by organizations like the Federalist Society and the Koch Foundation. The left had no such organized money backing, and as a result, lacked the infrastructure of an extensive popular media industry. Williams and the rest of the folks involved with Gravel took months to think about where they would have the most strategic impact. “And the one [competitor] that we identified was PragerU.”

PragerU, created in 2009 by conservative pundit Dennis Prager, was reportedly intended to become an actual university. But when founders learned that would be cost-prohibitive, they pivoted and started creating five-minute videos summarizing conservative talking points instead. They kept the name, though, because it made them sound like an educational outlet. This has evidently worked to their advantage: An Ohio public school made headlines for assigning PragerU content as extra credit for a 10th grade history class, sparking outrage from students’ parents.

“Over the last 10 years, [PragerU has] taken money primarily from oil billionaires, petrochemical companies, the Koch brothers, the Mercers, etc. ... They took that money and they used it as a cudgel for manipulating the [YouTube] algorithm.”

In a New York Times profile from January, titled “Right-Wing Views for Generation Z”, PragerU staffers said that they hope they’re providing an alternative to the often liberal or leftist campus environments teenagers are in after they leave home for college. Their most popular videos have seemingly innocuous titles, typically focused on progressive talking points; “Why I Left The Left”, “How’s Socialism Doing in Venezuela?” and “Immigrants! Don’t Support What You Fled” have all racked up over 10 million views since their posting dates, all in the past few years.

But beyond the milquetoast conservative branding lies a more sinister operation. “Over the last 10 years, [PragerU has] taken money primarily from oil billionaires, petrochemical companies, the Koch brothers, the Mercers, etc.,” Williams says. “They took that money and they used it as a cudgel for manipulating the [YouTube] algorithm and the kind of nascent world of online advertising. They saturated the airwaves such that if you're a young person and you watch YouTube videos, [or] you're online in any meaningful way, you have seen one of their videos. It's been recommended to you, it's been advertised to you.” (Mic reached out to PragerU for comment but did not receive a response.)

The success of PragerU is built on both the advertising strategy Williams explains above, but also is unique to YouTube as a platform. “Popular education campaigns usually are really dry. The truth is the most boring thing on the planet,” says Joan Donovan, a media disinformation expert and the research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

“What PragerU was able to do was to ride both the embattled nature in which conservatives believe themselves to be treated,” Donovan tells Mic, and then also feature very prominent right-wing figures as spokespeople.” By tapping into the existing community of aggrieved conservatives, and by featuring people with existing platforms, Donovan says that PragerU effectively gamed the YouTube algorithm to create an online echo chamber. Someone could get hooked on one PragerU video, then be led from there to watch videos from further-right content creators and conspiracy theorists. This same model is used to feed audiences all kinds of objectionable content, whether it’s QAnon conspiracies or violent videos targeted at children.

“We saw it as an existential threat, because it's a way of taking young people, and preventing them from being on the left,” says Williams. “If you're just looking for an answer to a seemingly innocuous question, like what is the electoral college, or what is American history? If you Google those questions, chances are you're going to find a PragerU video, and they're going to masquerade to you as a university.”

But “they're not a university,” Williams says. “What they are is very clever and very effective propagandists.”

“We can't ever have as much money as them. ... But what we do have is an organic following and the power of the online left.”

The Gravel team saw an opening in the environment fostered by PragerU and decided to coordinate with insiders and leftist leaders they had connected with during the Gravel campaign, such as former Bernie Sanders campaign leaders Briahna Joy Gray and Winnie Wong, to fill it.

“We can't ever have as much money as them, and we're never going to be tied into this sort of lightning network that they have. But what we do have is an organic following and the power of the online left,” Williams says. Williams, Ochs, and the other people involved in brainstorming the Gravel Institute’s tactics believed that online leftist communities were craving a polished and accessible platform to help in pushing liberals and centrists to the left. So they’re making it.

Since their launch in late September, they posted about a video a week up through the election, raising the funds for production through Patreon. As of Nov. 30, their uploaded videos average between 95,000 to 190,000 views. This is nowhere near PragerU’s posting schedule and content production; they post three or four times a week, and recent videos range in views from 33,000 to nearly 3 million. Still, given that the Gravel Institute doesn’t really even have staffers yet, it’s hard to compare the two fairly.

Their video titles cheekily imitate the basic format used by PragerU, but instead of inviting on partisan shock-jocks in Prager’s style, video stars so far include popular members of Left Twitter: Fordham Law professor and former New York gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout, Princeton professor Matt Karp, and former Bernie Sanders press secretary Briahna Joy Gray. Their most recent video, uploaded on Election Day, featured Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara explaining the limitations of the Electoral College.

“Anybody who's ever been on Facebook or YouTube understands that there is an inundation of right-wing material, and that the broad left has largely ceded that ground,” Gray tells Mic. “I've thought that should be a priority for years.” Gray cites other content creators, like Contrapoints and the late Michael Brooks, as people who have pioneered these efforts on the left. “I think there's a perception among some establishment liberals that it's not worth doing any outreach to younger disaffected people. But the reality is that conservatives do think they're worth fighting for, and they're fighting and they're winning.”

Youth voter participation went up 6% from 2016 in the 2020 election, and nationwide 62% of youth voters supported Joe Biden. While youth voters of color overwhelmingly went for Biden, white young voters were nearly split: 45% supported President Trump while 51% went for the former vice president.

Gray and Williams are both hopeful that the Gravel video series will begin to combat the success of PragerU. “It's geared toward a 20-year-old, maybe who has read some Ayn Rand, who thought some ideas about individualism and self-reliance sounded good and felt right, but haven't really been exposed to the broader range of [leftist] ideas,” says Gray. “And who is also being courted by some of the PragerU videos, which tell a very specific, often factually wrong or aggressively misleading, story about why a conservative ideology is actually justified on the facts.”

It’s an admirable goal. But last month, Vice asked the all-important question: Can this work? As popular YouTube video essayist Lindsay Ellis put it to Vice: “What is the Gravel Institute going to be a gateway to? ... There's nowhere to go that isn't already pretty mainstream, and there isn't a vast underbelly of leftist content that Gravel can redirect toward.”

Donovan says there’s merit to Ellis’s question, given YouTube’s unique algorithmic demands. “You have to think about YouTube as a network, in the sense that you don't want to just have discrete pieces of content and you hope one of those pieces makes an impact. You have to think about it as developing a brand that crosses many different channels in different genres,” she says. Donovan reiterates that Prager’s early success was based on featuring existing celebrities like Adam Carolla and Dirty Jobs’s Mike Rowe, putting political content in YouTube searches that might not be looking for it.

“The hardest thing about trying to run a leftist media association, media network, is that the audience doesn't feel themselves to be silenced and censored like conservative media audiences.”

“It's hard to say when and why certain things are gonna catch on, and when and why certain things just flop,” says Donovan. “I think the hardest thing about trying to run a leftist media association, media network, is that the audience doesn't feel themselves to be silenced and censored like conservative media audiences.” This cuts across media platforms: “The most popular news channel, even though it is Fox [News], Fox will tell you that they are somehow not enjoying the same platform as other cable news networks.”

In other words: The audience on the left doesn’t tend to traffic as deeply as the right does in self-pity or, at least, a sense of deep unfairness perpetrated upon them by the other side. And that might be Gravel’s biggest hurdle.

Conservatives are more likely, according to Donovan, to align their personal identity with “subversive” media, as part of their “underdog” identity. But leftists “don't necessarily feel like information is being denied to them in certain ways. ... Conservative audiences are loyal in a way that I just don't see it replicating on the left, in terms of the ethic and community of what it means to say that you're a ‘proud watcher of PragerU.’”

But Gray and Williams, perhaps predictably, are both optimistic about Gravel’s chances. “We describe ourselves as countering PragerU, but not ‘the left's PragerU,’ because we are very well aware that's impossible,” says Williams. “What PragerU is is an astroturf outlet for wealthy interests, and we are never going to be able to be funded by wealthy interests. We're going to be funded by people: small donors, and maybe grants from foundations, if we get lucky.”

In that way, the Gravel Institute is a “fundamentally different proposition to begin with,” Williams says. “It's true that the left doesn't currently have what the right has,” he adds, but it's also true that it needs something “slightly different.” Whether Gravel is “slightly different” in the right ways isn’t yet clear. But given the copious news coverage the Institute has already received — not to mention their healthy success on Patreon — they plan to spend the next year finding out.