Politics / Internet

Fighting the Right: An Introduction to The Gravel Institute

From ordering food straight to your door to planning an entire vacation, today’s Internet is more complex, rich, and interesting than ever before. Over the relatively short history of the World Wide Web, a few sites particularly stand out. Among these, one site has remained the central hub for any length or style of video. 

YouTube, launched in February of 2005, began as a fun place to share silly cat videos and grainy homemade clips, but has since evolved to host a myriad of content. From news segments to full documentaries to feature-length movies, YouTube now accounts for around 35% of internet traffic worldwide. 

While a variety of genres have found success on YouTube, political content has exploded in recent years. For decades, television was the only place to find news, commentary, and other videos about current events. With the YouTube boom, this has quickly changed. As audiences began to turn off the TV and consume more short-form videos online, a demand for short, digestible, political videos emerged. In response, a large variety of pseudo-intellectuals, conspiracy theorists and independent journalists emerged to fill the void. However, unlike cable news companies, these new creators had limitless freedom to publish news without any sources, evidence or true liability. In addition, YouTube and its algorithm are designed to keep viewers watching by feeding them more radical and extreme content. As the website generates revenue based on advertisements, the site is incentivized to keep their audience glued to the screen through carefully selected recommended videos. When viewers are interested in politics, what is often recommended becomes increasingly extremist and controversial as that generates more clicks. 

As a direct result, a few channels, particularly those with conservative and alt-right views, quickly gained thousands of subscribers. These include channels featuring independent political commentators such as Ben Shapiro and Steven Crowder, both of whom have had their share of scandals. Crowder once stated that “Islamophobia was a perfectly rational phobia.” While channels like Shapiro’s and Crowder’s have large followings, they remain only individual pundits whose credibility relies on the trust of their viewers.

On the other hand exists one of the largest political channels on Youtube, PragerU. Short for Prager University, PragerU has a stated goal of “Serving all ages.” In their own words, their content “offers a free alternative to the dominant left-wing ideology in culture, media, and education.” They too publish right-wing videos, but utilize a plethora of academic or political figures to generate credibility. Its founder, Dennis Prager, is a right-wing talk show host and writer. Notorious for his extreme positions, he once wrote a series of columns named “When a Woman Isn’t in the Mood,” which seriously argued that a wife should have sex with her husband even if she doesn’t want to, lest she hurt his feelings and make him feel “emasculated.”

Through short form videos, PragerU brings in a range of speakers from professors, to radio hosts, to politicians, who all use cute infographics and animations to discuss right-wing ideas. Over the history of the channel, PragerU has published episodes supporting American policing, advocating against “transgenderism”, and decrying Critical Race Theory. 

In one especially charged video titled “Who Needs Feminism?”, guest speaker Andrew Klavan argues that “Feminism is a mean-spirited, small-minded and oppressive philosophy that can poison relations between the sexes.” PragerU has since expanded into podcasts, longer length videos, debates, and even children’s shows. Having gained millions of subscribers and billions of total views, PragerU is arguably the most influential political channel on YouTube. However, unlike other independent creators on Youtube, PragerU makes a great deal of their money from affluent donors. Notably, they have received a significant amount of funds from the Wilks brothers, both billionaires who became successful through oil and fracking profits. While other creators such as Shapiro and Crowder exist alongside PragerU, the professional quality of PragerU’s videos, in addition to having a large range of apparently qualified speakers, uniquely gives right-wing ideas credibility.

While there are some online leftist creators, such as Anita Sarkeesian, and YouTube shows like Chapo Trap House, they are often unable to advertise in the same ways that channels like PragerU can as a result of their wealthy right-wing donors. Additionally, the online left hasn’t had the same hub of intellectual legitimacy for its ideals which the right has found in PragerU. That’s where The Gravel Institute comes in.

The initial idea for the Institute came at the end of Mike Gravel’s 2020 bid for presidency. Gravel had long served as a senator for Alaska, supporting many left wing positions throughout his career such as free healthcare and expanding public safety nets. Famously run by college freshman Henry Williams and high school senior David Oks, the campaign never intended for Gravel to become president. Rather, the end goal was to make it to the democratic debate stage, bringing truly left wing ideas to the table. Following the end of the presidential campaign, The Gravel Institute was founded to continue to promote the same ideas Mike Gravel championed. As co-founder of the Gravel Institute, Henry Williams puts it, “The real goal of the institute is to create a new language for young people to express their political views and then to articulate some of the reasons why our generation is further to the left … to educate people and push them towards the left.” 

A few months ago, I was given the opportunity to interview Williams about his political origins and those of The Gravel Institute. When he was in middle school, Williams says he picked up his passion for politics from his mom, a registered Democrat voter. However, it was the 2016 primaries that really awoke Williams’ passion for politics. After mostly being exposed to more moderate democrats, the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders showed that voters did not need to settle. “Seeing that Bernie represented an almost entirely different kind of politics showed a different possibility for what politics could be about.” Says Williams. 

Over the next four years, the Trump administration radically changed American politics. Pulling out of climate agreements, rolling back taxes on the wealthy, and suppressing the true nature of the Covid-19 pandemic all represented the rise of the alt-right ideology that was fueling organizations like PragerU. Williams notes that this period of time was incredibly influential in developing his own views, citing the regressive policies of the Trump administration as only further evidence that the left needed its own online platform.

The Gravel Institute specifically calls out right wing think tanks and organizations, writing on their website, “Conservative groups like PragerU flood the internet with slick misinformation, pulling huge swaths of Americans to the right. We’re building an institution of popular education to fight them on their own turf – and spread progressive ideas to new audiences.” While on a rudimentary level the Institute spreads left wing ideas through producing digestible and engaging videos, Williams also acknowledges that there is another key role the Institute serves: “On a bigger level,” he says, “I think there’s a signaling power that comes about when you start putting out polished, authoritative messaging online.”

While there was already a demand for a channel like the Gravel Institute, the pandemic only increased this demand.  “Ever since COVID, we basically all spend a lot of time online,” says Williams, “I mean, that’s almost a universal cache to people. If they work professional jobs, they work from home.”

The Gravel Institute began as a Twitter account, one which now boasts nearly 400,000 followers. Through this account, the Institute posts about salient political issues and comments on current events. Their Twitter is also used to post updates on videos and inform their audiences about other future projects. While Twitter was a great place to begin, The Institute quickly realized YouTube made more sense for the future of the platform. “When we were first thinking of getting started, it seemed clear to us that YouTube was that platform. It still remains the largest website and largest video media website in the US. It’s used heavily by young people. And so the goal and the idea was to let us really build a platform on YouTube. We knew that Twitter was not going to be the place that we could start to do these videos.” 

Among their published Youtube videos, many of which have hundreds of thousands of views, some of the Institute’s most popular titles include “Why America Throws the Poor in Prison” and “The Murderous Police Gangs of Los Angeles.” While all the videos unabashedly express left wing ideas and points, they are diverse in their lengths and styles. Many are similar stylistically to PragerU videos — roughly ten minute snippets that use interesting graphics and animations to make their arguments more compelling. Others are longer documentary style videos that are closer to 30 minutes and focus on interviews and narration to drive home the point.

While YouTube may be The Institute’s main platform, that certainly does not box them in or limit the numerous plans they have to expand. With the hope to eventually offer a complete crash course on leftism, Williams described how “[we] want to greenlight and back a few more ambitious documentaries in the 30 to 40 minute bridge that really go deep into a topic. We also want to do a sort of podcast interview series with some of the people who have been in our videos and with interesting people on the left in general.” Diversity in formatting their content is important because “not everyone likes the same kind of thing online. There’s a lot of specialization and differentiation. And so we have to keep that in mind…The goal is to find maybe five or six sorts of shows or formats that we then produce multiple of each.”

While The Gravel Institute quickly found its footing, having amassed over 350,000 followers in under two years of video production, competing with PragerU is no small task. One challenge that emerges revolves around funding. Without the backing of oil billionaires, The Gravel Institute runs off of many small donations through sites such as Patreon. But while this may limit the budget, Williams points out the upsides to their method of raising money. “We’ve been very heavily crowd-funded since the beginning,” he says, “Funding has come from Patreon. It’s come from ActBlue. It’s come through merch sales, and a very small number of larger donors. That gives us a lot of flexibility. It means that we have a lot of room to kind of decide our destiny, decide what content we make.” While relying on crowdfunding to keep funds coming in is inherently less reliable than using large donors, Williams explains that their funding methods highlight the importance of listening to their audience and producing high quality videos. While PragerU can spend tens of millions (40% of their budget every year) on marketing, “we simply can’t do that.” says Williams, “We need our videos to actually be good, they have to go viral. [We] have to build [our] own diehard audience and the people who want to watch all our videos.” 

They are not the first leftist advocates online, but their impact already far outpaces most attempts to bring new ways of thinking to a younger crowd. As we continue to shift into a world where the Internet is the dominant political battleground, organizations like The Gravel Institute will become increasingly vital in the left’s fight against a predominantly right-wing online sphere.