Reid Brown remembers the first time he got sucked in by the algorithm — he was just 13, watching videos after school when YouTube started pushing him to controversial content.
As time went on, the videos became increasingly extreme, says Brown, now 21.
“It started out pretty benign,” he recalls. “You’re watching something about teen fashion and then the next thing you know, the algorithm would push you to a Ben Shapiro video.”
Though Shapiro describes himself as a conservative political commentator, his views are controversial — and some are outright discriminatory. He’s suggested, for example, that transgender people suffer from a “mental disorder.”
But he has a combined 9.4 million subscribers and followers on YouTube and Twitter, many of whom are young people, like Brown was when he got pushed in Shapiro’s direction.
While Shapiro is not affiliated with any hate group, experts in media, gender studies and the radicalization of young men say that the commentator’s content is prevalent in online extremist communities.
And the exposure to controversial — and increasingly harmful — views about masculinity, the objectification of women and the LGBT community has these same experts raising concern about how extremist, far-right groups are using TikTok, YouTube and other social media apps in a drip campaign to slowly radicalize vulnerable teens and young men.
Though TikTok’s decision to remove influencer Andrew Tate’s account for misogynistic content the company said violated its policies put the discussion in the spotlight, the personal stories of people like Brown offer unique insight into the effect the content can have on teen boys.
The videos Brown watched as an early teen were often misogynistic, he said, and it started to affect the way he thought and how he interacted with people at school.
“I remember repeating some sexist attitudes, things about the wage gap .… Especially when I was hanging out with my guy friends, we were repeating all these things we were seeing on the internet. A lot of sexism and misogyny.”
Seeing his friends act out these things in person made it “more real” than just watching an idea online, he said.
It can escalate in the comments
That’s exactly how online radicalization works, says Ellen Chloë Bateman of Brown’s experience.
A documentary and podcast producer who researches online radicalization among young men and incel subculture, Batemen describes radicalization as a “slippery slope” that can begin as algorithms pushing boys to video that’s increasingly harmful.
Then “someone might engage you in a comment thread and tell you to join their Discord group [where] the content gets darker and darker, and it’s edgy,” she said. “It’s entertaining for some young guys, and before you know it, you’ve stumbled into an extremist subculture.”
The targets are often young men who feel lost or isolated; they look to these groups as a way to escape those feelings, she says.
“The allure of these hate groups is that they provide isolated young men with a sense of community and power — often for the first time in their lives — and give them a target, someone to blame for the challenges they perceive in their lives.”
Some young men may also see messages of empowerment for women and girls as an attack on masculinity, says Joanna Schroeder, a writer whose work focuses on gender and media representation.
“Maybe they see Me Too stuff … maybe they see a T-shirt or bumper sticker that says, ‘The future is female,'” she said. “There’s a lot of encouraging content out there for girls … and if [young men] aren’t given an opportunity to talk through their feelings on this, they may see that as, ‘Men are irrelevant.’
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s happening … but they may feel that way.”
So how can our society give young men a way to work through their feelings in a healthy way?
That’s what Morris Green found himself asking — and what he says he hopes his organization can offer.
Finding a healthy outlet
Green is a health education consultant who is part of GuysWork in Nova Scotia, an organization now in its 11th year.
Green says he began working with schools in Nova Scotia in 2012, hoping to give young men a safe space to talk about their feelings, mental health and to disrupt problematic ideals about masculinity.
Those harmful social norms can include anything from the pressure on young men to drink alcohol, to not wanting to be seen as vulnerable or ask for help, he said.
There’s also often homophobia and a concern that being anything other than straight may be perceived by peers as “not normal.”
“We wanted to basically normalize help-seeking behaviour,” he said.
Green said GuysWork sessions focus on fostering a sense of safety and inclusion for young men who might not have an adult role model or someone they feel they can talk to.
“We’re really trying to be creative … with the lessons and the facilitation, to create that safety for some really important conversations that are simply not happening in most cases.”
And it’s paying off.
In 2020, GuysWork took part in a study with St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. There, Chris Gilham, an associate professor and the lead researcher, found that GuysWork was able to positively shift young men’s views on some masculine norms that he said can be harmful to short- and long-term health outcomes.
Many of the 180 students who participated said they felt they no longer needed to perform a “certain kind of typical and traditional masculinity,” and instead could be “gentle, caring, kind and considerate,” Gilham said.
Bateman and Schroeder both agree that role models are critical to the healthy development of young men. They say it’s important that parents are talking with their kids about the kind of content they consume online.
“[Parents] need to look out for signs of radicalization, including language and behavioural changes,” Bateman said.
How to have healthy conversations
While parents can’t get ahead of all the technology their teens might use, Schoeder said, they can offer help by teaching them media literacy — and early on.
“We start doing media critique with them when they’re quite young, so they have the skill to analyze something when it’s put in front of them.”
And it’s important to be inquisitive with teens rather than reacting with anger if they share that they’re watching controversial videos, she said.
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“Ask them questions about how they’re feeling about [the content] and then affirm their goodness for talking to you about it.”
As for Brown, he’s now a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at Dalhousie University. He said he was able to avoid being pulled into more extreme content by using social media less often — and instead reading literature and diverse media publications.
For him, it really comes down to the impact of social media.
“Young men aren’t inherently sexist. I think it’s the algorithms that can really make them this way.”