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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Sebastian

Youtube: Great for vegan celebrities, kinda okay for animals

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

We’ve all seen the videos. At least if you’re vegan, you probably have. You scroll through your social media and you see a familiar activist jamming a microphone in some stranger’s face—interrogating them on why they’re not vegan, extolling the virtues of a vegan lifestyle, or (most popularly) slapping down anti-vegan arguments. Chances are the activist is a man. Chances are he’s also white. Chances are he’s also young, fit, and reasonably attractive.

Perhaps you pause long enough to watch some of the video. You might even make it through the whole thing. But statistically you probably won’t. The attention span of the average Facebook user is less than 2 minutes. And these showcase showdowns can last for anywhere from 10 minutes to an astounding 45 minutes. And after you watch a few, they tend to lose their novelty.

But in addition to not retaining its novelty, as a tool of vegan activism, this just isn’t very effective.

Right about now, I’m sure that most of you will have stopped reading…that is, if you even started reading at all because statistically six outta ten of you were already piping hot after reading the title and never even opened this link. But if you’re still here, thank you, and allow me to explain.

I followed the link from Facebook to the Youtube channel of one such activist. There I found a whole catalog of these videos. And they have the most delightful titles. VEGAN VERSUS DAIRY FARMER…VEGAN VERSUS SHEEP FARMER…VEGAN DESTROYS [INSERT ANTAGONIST HERE].

The set-up is a clever, if not a (now) very familiar template. The intrepid vegan hero seeks a worthwhile opponent, sometimes going straight into the lion’s den to battle the adversaries who perpetuate animal exploitation. And he emerges victorious by slapping down the same old tired anti-vegan arguments we’ve heard ever since Cornell law professor and fellow vegan Sherry Colb wrote her book Mind If I Order The Cheeseburger: and other questions people ask vegans.

I’ll admit the premise is enticing. What vegan doesn’t get some satisfaction from watching our fearless hero engaging these villains directly? It’s a great show…the first dozen times.

But WHY isn’t it very effective activism? A few reasons!

First of all, the audience primarily is made up of people who are already vegan. I threw the names of a few minor vegan celebrities out to three dozen of my contacts (and by celebrity, I mean people who are famous for vegan activism and not famous people who happen to be vegan) and asked if they ever heard of them. Only five of them recognized one name. Of course this isn’t a very large sample size, so it’s far from a scientific study. But I would challenge any reader to do the same and come up with significantly different results.

Second, and more importantly, these videos do not convey the message we think they do. The vegans who are viewing them already know all, or most, of these anti-vegan arguments. It’s easy for us to root for the hero because we are already so inclined. But the rest of the world mostly responds to an unusual propaganda model dubbed by researchers at the RAND Corporation as the “Firehose of Falsehood,” a model wherein a propagandist bombards people with more lies than they can possibly keep up with. And these lies aren't even believable. Even clear falsehoods, repeated frequently enough, effective warp public opinion in the propagandist’s favor.

And do you know what that means in terms of animal rights activism? It means that the comfortable lies nonvegan viewers already believe about animal farming are more likely to be reinforced rather than the audience internalizing the message of our heroic vegan activist.

For example, how many folks will stare you dead in the face and say cows will take over the earth if we don't eat them and then turn right back around and say that they'll go extinct in the same sentence? People do this because they've heard it enough times to relax their critical thinking skills and just parrot back obvious falsehoods because the more powerful propaganda dominates irrespective of logic. And like it or not, we are all cognitively vulnerable to this type of disinformation.

Don’t believe me? Fine. Just look at how often this play out in the political arena. Videos are commonly shared and re-shared to different audiences with only the title changed. And comments from the viewers will show wildly different reactions depending on what side they were already predisposed to believe.

Why is this? Because the Firehose of Falsehood, a variation of the Gish Gallop, is not about persuasion. It’s actually a demonstration of power. By default, the vegan in this situation is forced to engage with what the farmer (or other antagonist) said, even though it is obviously false. It diminishes the truth by reducing it to a mere position, and it degrades us by forcing us to argue the obvious.

Where else have we observed this model? Ever argue with someone who denies anti-black racism? How about a Flat Earther? Climate change denialist? An Obama birther? In the words of Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, “There is nothing so humiliating or disempowering as trying to prove the truth.”

A better strategy for animal liberation is to skip this performance altogether and mobilize politically to dismantle the institutions themselves, something that we cover in my lecture The Political Animal.

But essentially, these videos amount to little more than vegan entertainment. Can some of us sharpen our arguments by watching them? Possibly. But you certainly don’t need more than one or two to do this. And those arguments can just as easily be sharpened by reading the source material written by educators, mostly women, who put in the work of creating the knowledge upon which these men draw (while rarely crediting them)—namely Sherry Colb whom I previously mentioned or eco-feminist Carol Adams, among many others. Of course reading books is not a style of learning accessible to everyone. That’s fine, because…

All YouTube channels devoted to activism are not created equal.

Bite Size Vegan and the outrageously popular Erin Janus (she's got her own billboard for crying out loud) are two channels that provide exceptional, high-quality, thoroughly researched, short and accessible educational content. And if you do prefer long-form content, I’m a huge fan of the extraordinary videos from long-time educator Jake Conroy (no really, check out his recent outstanding video from his channel "Are We Winning"). And in the case of the two women, both of them are underperforming in terms of financial support especially juxtaposed next to, say, the Patreon accounts of men with are raking in money hand-over-fist, sometimes to the tune of six-figure incomes.

Some people will be tempted to think this whole discussion is a hit piece on successful activists, and you’d be forgiven for doing so. But I say good on the guys who have figured out how to monetize themselves in this world which compels us to work in order to avoid homelessness and starvation. That capitalism is the devil. This piece is merely an analysis of how the classic Gish Gallop tactic operates in animal rights discourse and how, when placed in the context of media consumption, becomes a surprisingly profitable tool for generating income while not necessarily producing any meaningful progress toward animal liberation.

So if provocative and thoughtful animal rights education is our goal, why are we reproducing hierarchies that super-valorize the same handful of faces while starving out people who are creating more useful content and are consistently under-valued? Unless you just really, really like the hero show. In which case, carry on. I mean, heck, folks are still watching Grey's Anatomy well into it's astronomical 774th season too.

Anyway in closing, here are some other fun facts about creating and distributing video content in the age of digital media:

  • 96.9% of all videos published were native Facebook videos, 3% were YouTube videos, and 0.1% were Instagram videos. So for the foreseeable future, Facebook is the place to be. Also...

  • Facebook Watch will overtake YouTube as the biggest video platform. So again, Team Facebook, love it or hate it.

  • Remember that the attention span of your average Facebook viewer is less than 2 minutes, so keep it short, but...

  • If you happen to prefer Youtube, longer videos do outperform shorter videos. So be mindful of run time when deciding what content to create or share on that platform. Just be aware that it's not gonna translate well to Facebook where the bigger party is located.

  • Facebook still has double the market share of its closest platform Twitter. And Twitter itself smokes Instagram and Tumblr.

  • Pinterest is, wait, I forget what Pinterest is even for. And finally...

  • Snapchat who? OH! Yeah, hey girl, I see you over there sitting next to MySpace. Say hello to Tom for me.

If you want more information about the intersection of media theory and animal rights come to my lecture "Influencer: Animal rights in the age of digital media" at VegFestUK London 2018. And if you can’t make it, but you want me to do a talk about it, drop me an email! And if you just love the crap outta me and want to drop some coins in the tip jar, please consider supporting ME on Patreon by becoming one of the 500 Fives.

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