Platform Drama: ‘Cancel Culture,’ Celebrity, and the Struggle for Accountability on YouTube (2022)

Rebecca Lewis and Angèle Christin, New Media & Society

Abstract: Recent years have witnessed debates about so-called “cancel culture” and more broadly about online accountability practices. Here we revisit this topic through a study of YouTube “drama,” a hybrid genre where creators provide commentary on the scandals, scams, and feuds between YouTube celebrities. Drawing on cultural studies scholarship, and based on qualitative interviews and content analysis, we argue that YouTube drama embodies a range of cultural and moral negotiations that take place on social media platforms. We conceptualize accountability practices on YouTube as an ongoing “platform drama” in which creators engage in perpetual and highly visible power struggles with celebrities, audiences, legacy media, other creators, and YouTube itself. Within the context of this “platform drama,” structural issues and interpersonal conflicts become blurred, as do accountability practices and monetized spectacles. We analyze “cancelation” on YouTube as a ritualistic practice in which structural tensions are publicly negotiated and performed, even as accountability itself remains largely elusive.

The Drama of Metrics: Status, Spectacle, and Resistance Among YouTube Drama Creators (2021)

Angèle Christin and Rebecca Lewis, Social Media + Society

Abstract: How does it feel to have one’s online worth and status be based almost exclusively on metrics? We examine this question through a qualitative study of YouTube “drama” channels. Drama creators cover the conflicts and scandals taking place among top YouTube celebrities. As producers of meta-commentary, they often rely on metrics as indicators of influence and celebrity on YouTube, thus constituting a relevant site to examine the connection between social media metrics and status. Based on interviews with English-speaking drama creators, we report three main findings. First, creators have a double orientation toward YouTube, which they understand as a site of both economic opportunities and tight-knit relationships. Second, the meanings that creators attach to metrics—their own and the ones of top YouTubers—reflect this double orientation: for them, metrics correlate with economic revenue and social status. Due to this central and multifaceted role of metrics, we find that traffic numbers can turn into a spectacle of their own for drama creators. Third, even in a context in which metrics are central, we identify several distancing strategies on the part of creators. We conclude by discussing whether—and why—resistance to metrics can be found everywhere.

“We Dissect Stupidity and Respond to It”: Response Videos and Networked Harassment on YouTube (2021)

Rebecca Lewis, Alice Marwick, and William Partin, American Behavioral Scientist

Abstract: Over the last decade, YouTube “response videos,” in which a user offers counterarguments to a video uploaded by another user, have become popular among political creators. While creators often frame response videos as debates, those targeted assert that they function as vehicles for harassment from the creator and their networked audience. Platform policies, which base moderation decisions on individual pieces of content rather than the relationship between videos and audience behavior, may therefore fail to address networked harassment. We analyze the relationship between amplification and harassment through qualitative content analysis of 15 response videos. We argue that response videos often provide a blueprint for harassment that shows both why the target is wrong and why harassment would be justified. Creators use argumentative tactics to portray themselves as defenders of enlightened public discourse and their targets as irrational and immoral. This positioning is misleading, given that creators interpellate the viewer as part of a networked audience with shared moral values that the target violates. Our analysis also finds that networked audiences act on that blueprint through the social affordances of YouTube, which we frame as harassment affordances. We argue that YouTube’s current policies are insufficient for addressing harassment that relies on amplification and networked audiences.

“This Is What the News Won’t Show You”: YouTube Creators and the Reactionary Politics of Micro-celebrity (2019)

Rebecca Lewis, Television & New Media

Abstract: This article explores the implications of micro-celebrity practices employed by political and ideological influencers on YouTube. I take a case study approach, performing a content analysis of the videos from three political YouTubers from January 1, 2017, to April 1, 2018. My analysis reveals that for these influencers, micro-celebrity practices are not only a business strategy but also a political stance that positions them as more credible than mainstream media. All three conflate the mainstream media with “social justice” politics, claiming both are sensationalized and silence dissenting voices. 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.

Alternative Influence: Broadcasting the Reactionary Right on YouTube (2018)

Rebecca Lewis, Data & Society White Paper

In this report, I present data from approximately 65 political influencers across 81 channels to identify the “Alternative Influence Network (AIN)”; an alternative media system that adopts the techniques of brand influencers to build audiences and “sell” them political ideology.

Alternative Influence offers insights into the connection between influence, amplification, monetization, and radicalization at a time when platform companies struggle to handle policies and standards for extremist influencers. The network of scholars, media pundits, and internet celebrities that I identify leverages YouTube to promote a range of political positions, from mainstream versions of libertarianism and conservatism, all the way to overt white nationalism.

This research was covered in outlets such as The Guardian, The New York Times, Wired, Columbia Journalism Review and Harper’s Magazine.

Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online (2017)

Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis, Data & Society White Paper

This report offers comprehensive insight into why the media was vulnerable to manipulation from radicalized groups that emerged from a variety of internet subcultures in 2016. The study illustrates how online groups take advantage of the current media ecosystem to manipulate news frames, set agendas, and propagate ideas. We also investigate the techniques of “attention hacking” to increase the visibility of far-right ideas through the strategic use of social media, memes and bots–as well as by targeting journalists, bloggers, and influencers to help spread content. Our research reveals that the far-right exploits young men’s rebellion and dislike of “political correctness” to spread white supremacist thought, Islamophobia, and misogyny through irony and knowledge of internet culture. We argue media manipulation may contribute to decreased trust of mainstream media, increased misinformation, and further radicalization.

This report was covered in outlets such as The Guardian, The New York Times, Mashable, VICE News, and Business Insider.