Just as the Internet and social platforms more broadly have been accompanied by a range of techno-utopian mythologies, so too has participatory culture and micro-celebrity. These mythologies, promoted through mainstream media discourses, technology firms, and at times, in academic scholarship, often highlight the potential of social media to promote progressive ideals of social equality. Specifically, they promote social media—and the micro-celebrity it enables—as a fundamentally democratizing force where anyone can have a voice and help shape public discourse.
In recent years, a range of Internet scholarship has begun to challenge some of these mythologies. For example, scholars of online micro-celebrity and influencer culture have highlighted the inherent neoliberal self-commodification involved in these processes, in which users brand themselves through influencer marketing (Abidin 2018; Marwick 2015). Media historian Fred Turner (2018, 144) has argued that platforms such as Twitter and YouTube have enabled “charismatic, personality-centered modes of authoritarianism” in which the expression of individuality online can ultimately serve authoritarian ends.
By adopting micro-celebrity practices that stress relatability, authenticity, and accountability, they differentiate themselves from both the mainstream media and progressive politics as they perceive them. Thus, the YouTubers in this study align micro-celebrity practices with a reactionary political standpoint. These findings complicate previous mythologies of Internet celebrity that treat participatory culture as inherently progressive.
certain political influencers have specifically aligned micro-celebrity practices with reactionary, anti-progressive, and frequently conspiratorial politics.
Importantly, by stressing the ideals of relatability, authenticity, and accountability—all of which have positive connotations—the practices of micro-celebrity, when paired with reactionary politics, can serve as an entry point for more extreme views. The rejection of mainstream media is often the first step in radicalization for many young people, as their previous worldviews get destabilized (Marwick and Lewis 2017). YouTube provides a fertile environment for this kind of radicalization: its recommendation algorithm frequently encourages users toward increasingly extremist content, and political YouTubers (including those included in this analysis) frequently collaborate with more extreme guests, thus giving them a platform for their views (Lewis 2018; Tufekci 2018).