Home > Essays > YouTube’s Radicalization of an 80-Year Old Posed Ethical Question for One of his Children… a Microcosm of an Issue that Our Nation Faces

YouTube’s Radicalization of an 80-Year Old Posed Ethical Question for One of his Children… a Microcosm of an Issue that Our Nation Faces

April 21, 2021

The NYTimes column on ethics offered this dilemma for the consideration of Kwame Anthony Appiah: 

For nearly his entire life, my 80-something-year-old father has been a quiet, gentle and deeply religious man who went to Mass and said the rosary daily. Although his political views have always been conservative, he has also always believed in kindness and fairness. Since the start of the pandemic, his social interactions have become severely reduced, limited to daily calls from me (I live across the country), weekly visits from my brother and the occasional shopping trips and church attendance. As our mother passed away before the pandemic, his one loyal companion has been his iPad and YouTube. Because of his viewing of religious programs, YouTube has increasingly steered him toward conservative media, so that he is now obsessed with right-wing extremist politics and is absolutely against taking the Covid vaccine. Every time my brother or I have a conversation with him, he talks politics and pushes his views, and even after we asked him to stop, he tries to get the last word in by sending us angry emails or texts. Now both of us try to avoid having any interactions with him. I have the password to his YouTube account from a year ago when I helped him with a tech problem. In order to preserve our relationship, I’m thinking about going into his account to delete and pause his viewing history, and perhaps put in some links to more wholesome entertainment such as music and soccer to counter the constant bombardment of extremism. My justification is that if he is being brainwashed by an algorithm, then I might as well use the algorithm to steer him back to his old self so that we can at least have a normal conversation. What is your view on this?

Mr. Appiah’s recommendation was to confront his father on this issue and offer him this ultimatum: “He either stops talking about this stuff with you, or you’ll stop spending so much time with him.”

But as readers of this blog realize, this ethical dilemma is one that faces our country as a whole and the legislators who are trying to craft bills that stem the flow of misinformation and disinformation. While Mr. Appiah’s advice might be helpful in the individual circumstance where withholding a relationship contingent on refraining from sharing political perspective, writ large it would only contribute to the divisiveness our nation is experiencing. The advice seeker’s father, after all, COULD find another place to share his political perspectives and in the sharing of those perspectives he would find solace for his predicament and, in all likelihood, advice to just give up on his children completely. The radicals who spew the information would likely see the conduct of the 80-year old’s children as evidence that they are grossly misinformed themselves! 

The real problem going forward it twofold: convincing those who have entered the many rabbit holes of disinformation that they are on the wrong path and sealing the entryway to those rabbit holes for the future.

I have FaceBook friends in my age bracket who believe that God set Donald Trump to free America from the heathen grip of “woke” leftists, others who are convinced that mask mandates are a conspiracy by those who want to take away our freedom, and still others who are convinced that Bernie Sanders was robbed by a neoliberal plutocrats within the DNC who wanted the Progressives marginalized at all costs. The one thing all of these friends have in common is a deep and abiding mistrust in the “mainstream media”, a shared belief that is troubling for anyone like me who believes that we need a common narrative in order to retain any semblance of democracy. It is also problematic if we hope to disabuse these true believers of the often contradictory “facts” they believe in order to maintain their belief systems because any discrepant ideas that fall outside their echo chambers are rejected as apostasy. 

More concerning are the younger generations who have been drawn into YouTube and Facebook rabbit holes. Young snd idealistic, they are drawn into conspiracy theories that, like those of my generation, have only one common thread: the mass media is bad! They believe the media is bad because it is a tool of the capitalist consumer culture, controlled by the “leftists” or the dark money Koch-Brothers-crowd, or— yes—a cabal of child pornographers. As a result I find myself explaining to my 12-year old Grandson that the Q-channel newsfeeds he is getting are unreliable and fanciful even though they are far more engaging than the real news the mainstream media provides via the Apple feed.

Schools find themselves inexorably drawn into this argument thanks to legislation like HB 544 in NH, drafted using the same language Donald Trump used in an Executive Order he issued in his waning months in office. From the perspective of the legislature, we should let 12-year olds decide the truth instead of giving teachers the opportunity to present media literacy courses that might include topics like race, gender, and religion. Unless schools are free to offer instruction, the entertaining Q-feeds will be mistaken for REAL news and we will have a generation of know-nothings graduating from our schools. Democracy depends on balance…. and balance depends on a common narrative that is somewhere between left and right…. 


  1. Byron Knutsen
    April 26, 2021 at 10:12 pm

    And balance also means that because you seek religion, both actively and passively, this action does not make the religious person a far right person. The two do not go hand in hand. A mistake that is made by those in YouTube and Facebook and sometimes by the far left.

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