“Honestly, I look at kids that have done horrible things when they lash out at society and I can relate to that in a sense,” Caleb Cain told me when I interviewed him.
I first became aware of Cain in March 2019 upon watching a video of his entitled ‘My Descent into the Alt-Right Pipeline’. The video saw Cain explain how he came to embrace and later abandon far-right politics while on YouTube. He broke down in tears at one point during the video as he told his story. The video now has more than 500,000 views on YouTube.
Just a few weeks after publishing that video, Cain’s story had become the subject of a lengthy New York Times article, entitled ‘The Making of a YouTube Radical’. Cain shared a download of his YouTube history from 2015 onwards (comprising more than 12,000 videos and 2,500 searches) with the New York Times, demonstrating how he had fallen down the alt-right rabbit hole.
When I asked him what the circumstances were in his life that led to him being attracted to the alt-right movement on YouTube to begin with, Cain’s answer was revealing. The 27-year-old talked about how, while growing up in the US state of West Virginia, he was bullied at school and had a difficult relationship with his family. “I didn’t have any confidence when I was younger at all,” he admitted.
Despite his low self-esteem at the time, Cain was a capable student who managed to secure a place at a community college to study environmental engineering. However, the sudden absence of a guidance counsellor from his life, who he had come to rely on as a mentor while at school, meant he struggled to adapt to life at college. He dropped out after three semesters. “I stopped going to class and just started watching TV or hanging out with friends or sleeping all day,” he explained.
Upon becoming a college dropout, Cain went back to his West Virginia home. He was depressed and struggling to lift himself from the disappointment. “I was basically spending all my time back home in West Virginia laying in bed, watching videos on YouTube or Twitch,” he recalled. It was during this time, in late 2014, when Cain began to search for self-help content on YouTube. This led to him, a liberal 21-year-old at the time, stumbling upon the work of far-right content creator Stefan Molyneux.
Cain began regularly viewing Molyneux’s self-help videos as he became attracted to what he described as his “charismatic” personality. He also felt a personal connection to Molyneux, who like him had a tough childhood. “Honestly, I saw myself in Stefan a lot,” he said. “I kind of saw him as like a father figure…and I was even a little bit conscious of that,” he added.
But Cain eventually came to discover that Molyneux also espoused far-right beliefs through his content. Consequently, he was given the impression that he would have to adopt those beliefs to self-improve and develop a sense of self-fulfilment. “He would just always tie it together,” Cain explained. However, his fascination with far-right videos didn’t end with Molyneux . He became an avid watcher of other far-right content creators who he was introduced to through Molyneux’s channel. He soon came to believe the US should expel Muslims and Marxists from the US, who he came to view as “invaders” and “traitors” respectively.
Cain had become captivated by a network of far-right creators who together made him feel as though he was part of a group of people chasing hidden truths. In light of this, people calling him a racist did nothing to persuade him that his far-right views were wrong. In fact, it only reinforced his view that his opponents couldn’t handle uncomfortable realities. “Moralising people doesn’t do anything,” he told me.
In 2018, Cain began his journey towards leaving the far-right behind as he began to find that left-wing content creators were appearing in his YouTube recommendations. According to Cain, this process was inadvertently started by him going on YouTube to view a debate on the subject of immigration between one of his favourite far-right YouTubers at the time (Lauren Southern) and a liberal content creator known as Destiny (whose real name is Steve Bonnell). Cain reluctantly admitted to himself that Destiny won the debate, despite not knowing much about him. He decided to continue watching his YouTube videos. From there he discovered left-wing voices on the platform, like Contrapoints (whose real name is Natalie Wynn) and Michael Brooks. Despite initial resistance from Cain, these content creators and others eventually encouraged him to leave the far-right behind as they countered alt-right narratives through their videos.
The de-radicalisation process was a gradual and uncomfortable one for Cain. During the summer of 2018 he would listen to white nationalist speeches at work and then listen to Contrapoints or Destiny during his car rides home. He explained: “By the time I got home I’d just be gaslighting myself. I didn’t understand what was going on.” As our interview continued, Cain also reflected on the difficulty people have when it comes to changing their mind in general. He said: “When you’re that wrong, you have to destroy your whole world. You have to admit that your whole reality was wrong. Who wants to do that?”
One thing that’s significant about my interview with Cain is it took place in September, just over a couple of months after YouTube took the decision to ban Stefan Molyneux from its platform. “We have strict policies prohibiting hate speech on YouTube, and terminate any channel that repeatedly or egregiously violates those policies,” the Google-owned firm said in a statement on the matter. Cain told me he agrees with what YouTube did. “It is censorship, and I don’t care,” he said. Elaborating on his point of view, he said: “These tech platforms are super-weapons. They are the machines that you need to perform psychological warfare and I don’t want white nationalists having access to sophisticated weapons of war.” It’s worth pointing out that, by contrast, Cain doesn’t support government-enforced hate speech laws.
Cain did acknowledge that he didn’t see YouTube censoring far-right content creators as a perfect solution to combatting radicalisation. “De-platforming does a really good job of killing people’s careers, but it doesn’t kill ideologies,” he explained. As Molyneux continues to upload his videos to Bitchute, Cain also conceded that many far-right creators who get banned from YouTube would still upload content to other lesser known platforms. “They’re still going to be somewhere,” he said. Cain also spoke of how he doesn’t like the power big tech companies have and how “they’re starting to take on the world’s problems”. “I don’t like that this little oligarchy is becoming who we’re dependent on,” he said.
Something that was incredibly noticeable from talking to Cain was how he is very willing to self-reflect in light of what he has gone through. He notes that he still has a “conspiratorial mindset” as well as an “overactive brain” which can lead to him overthinking things. He also recognises that, since leaving the far-right behind, he pays more regard to how systems impact individual behaviour and also has become more left-wing. “I’m probably a socialist of some kind,” he told me.
Last year’s New York Times piece on Cain claimed that, after leaving far-right politics behind, he would still watch dozens of YouTube videos a day and hang on the words of his favourite YouTubers. “It is still difficult, at times, to tell where the YouTube algorithm stops, and his personality begins,” the piece stated. Cain told me that he found that assessment to be unfair. He said: “I find it really unfair because I’m surrounded by socialists and communists and anarchists all the time and all I do is disagree with them.”
Cain went on to tell me he was “critical of YouTubers all the time now” as well as those listening to them. He said he even dislikes people repeating phrases they’ve heard from their favourite YouTubers. I did ask Cain if he was mindful of potentially entering into a left-wing echo chamber having left a far-right one behind. He responded by emphasising he was aware of the possibility and that he tries to “stick to base reality” as much as he can. “I try to just be sceptical,” he noted.
Speaking broadly about US society, Cain cited the number of people believing the QAnon conspiracy theory as something he is concerned by in particular. He added that although he’s “hopeful in a lot of ways” about what the future holds for his country, he’s also “scared” by what he sees as it “falling apart” amid the Covid crisis. As our interview came to and end, he joked: “I guess I’m a Doomer and a Bloomer at the same time.”