So the other day JD drew my attention to a video by the Vlog Brothers entitled ‘Benghazi: Explained’ and I knew we were in for trouble. I’ve been chewing on it for a couple of days, and it’s something I think we need to talk about. You’re going to want to set aside a block of time for this post, because this isn’t going to be an easy one, or one that will be a quick read. Settle in; we need to get serious here.
Who are the Vlog Brothers?
First, a little bit about the channel where the video resides. The Vlog Brothers – John and Hank Green – host the channel, one that has over 2.5 million subscribers. For several years they’ve posted short videos regularly, hundreds of them, on subjects ranging from gaming to science, from philosophy to politics, from culture to current events. One day you might see ‘Cat GIF Critique’ and the next ‘Syria in Five Minutes’ followed by ’14 Fart Facts’. The sheer breadth of subjects Hank and John are willing to delve into is staggering, and I highly recommend you take a moment now to check out the video list from their channel. Just flip through for a minute or two, and then come back here. I’ll wait.
You done? Now I know, this channel may not have anything you’re interested in. Set that aside for a minute. Did you notice the number of views on those videos? Go back and look again. Some have 300,000, some have 600,000, some have 800,000. None have fewer than 150,000 that I could find. So Hank and John are talking to hundreds of thousands of people every time they put out a video. Every. Single. Time.
I don’t know of many on the conservative end of the spectrum who can do that in ANY format, whether on a blog or a podcast or a video. And the ones with the biggest reach aren’t talking to the middle at all. We don’t have that reach. And you should know this: the Vlog Brothers are only one example of the You Tube content-creating community. Quite a few channels have the same sort of reach, but wholly different audiences. Thus, literally millions of people turn each day to You Tube for entertainment, education, hobbies, how-tos, and general goofery.
And they also turn there for news. JD and I covered one example already, which you should totally watch after we’re done here. Suffice it to say, people may come for the farts and the cat GIFs, but they’re picking up news and information as well; content that is shaping their opinions and their voting patterns. You might recall that the Vlog Brothers and several other popular content creators have had sit-downs with the president. That gave him direct access to their audiences, audiences conservatives don’t even seem to be trying to compete for.
So how did they ‘explain’ Benghazi?
Successfully, if not thoroughly. It ain’t no Sharyl Attkisson.
I watched the video multiple times, listening to Hank walk through the attack on the consulate, then all the events afterward, up to and including the latest Congressional hearing. Here’s what I took away:
Hank cited no links or sources in his presentation, not even in the video description. To be fair, he addresses the problem of sources at the end of the video, but ends up in the comments crediting Vox as a good source for his video, even as he admits their left-wing bias is often so close to his own he has trouble seeing it. Points for honesty, anyway. And he’s right that there have been efforts by agents on both ends of the political spectrum to use exaggeration to continue to ‘outragify’ people already holding opinions on the events at Benghazi. That, he says, is what makes it so hard for someone outside the politics of the thing (read: regular apolitical people) to find good information.
He’s right when he says ‘What you think about it depends on how you feel about Obama and Clinton.’ You make allowances for people you trust more, and you treat with suspicion people you trust less. That’s not unique to politics. The thing is, he seems to engage in the same behavior. He cites the mea culpas of the State department, yet casually explains that the ramifications weren’t felt higher up on ‘the food chain’, something that outrages conservatives to this day. He admits the administration was political in their decision to downplay (and outright lie) about the nature and severity of the attack (‘nobody wants to have a terrorist attack on their record’), but has no problem criticizing the multiple investigations into the events as being political in nature, launched solely as an attack on the Democratic presidential candidate frontrunner. He seems to be saying that okay, the administration was being political, but who wouldn’t be? And in the next breath, he’s saying Republicans are taking advantage of this tragedy to take out their strongest potential opponent, and that there’s nothing more to learn after so many investigations, give it up already.
He claims the investigations have found nothing new, but haven’t they? And if not, haven’t they at least the potential to learn more? As more information comes out about Hillary’s private e-mail server, as more e-mails are recovered, the chances of finding relevant material on Benghazi seem to be increasing, not decreasing. When the events happened in 2012, we didn’t KNOW that her server was private and that her communications were improperly handled. Republicans might well be launching a taxpayer-funded campaign against Clinton, but CLINTON WAS IN CHARGE. AND DIDN’T FOLLOW GUIDELINES FOR STORING AND RETAINING HER COMMUNICATIONS. Therefore it’s pretty clear, whatever you believe, that the investigating committees did NOT have all the information they SHOULD have had.
Here’s the thing: Hank and John make videos about a lot of things. Sometimes they make videos in which they explain politics or foreign affairs. They do so in a way that looks unbiased and even-handed on the surface, even as Hank admits his own biases and those of the sources he uses. I’m sure people who don’t know anything about the attack on the consulate in Benghazi watched that video and feel as though they now understand it much better. Filtered through the Vlog Brothers’ bias, the video (at this writing) has over 150,000 views, most probably by people who knew next to nothing before watching. And the impression they walked away with is that they trust Hank to explain things to them. Yes, the cat GIF guys are a trusted news source, for hundreds of thousands of people; again, people that conservatives don’t currently reach. You can mock it, you can say it ought not be so, but it’s a fact. One we need to deal with.
So what are we supposed to do about it?
Oh, my friends, I have been pondering this one since I watched this. When I got to the end, all I felt was helplessness and anger. Helplessness, because I don’t have the resources or reach to compete with something like this. Anger, because the people I know who could seem to be focused on other things, and even if they did, it would be rejected. Not by the left, but by the right.
Let me explain.
So much of what succeeds in conservative circles are the RED projects. By that, I mean content that is specifically (and only) directed towards those who are already conservative. The big talk radio names, the right leaning television news and opinion shows, the conservative bestselling books, the rightest of blogs – these seem much more often to be speaking just to conservatives. Call it the echo chamber, call it the conservative support group, call it what you will; there is very little that is ‘evangelical’ or persuasive coming out of these creations. Thus, they aren’t usually designed to expand conservatism into places it isn’t currently found. Instead, they’re often designed to direct or lead the conservatism that already exists.
If you don’t believe conservatism needs to be expanded, you should stop reading now. This post isn’t for you, and I have nothing further to say to you. Except you might be really bad at math. And compassion.
But if you believe, as I do, that conservatism isn’t just an ideology to play with or a thing to talk about and argue over, but a real system of beliefs that can help people live better, more productive, more successful, and happier lives, stay with me. If we truly think we have a better way, we ought to do whatever we can to spread that.
I know a lot of people who believe in freedom, liberty, conservative values. They can talk at length about them. They can debate them all day long. But what happens is that too many of them come to the idea of liberty with a certainty that we’re undeniably right (and we are, of course); they believe that the force of their logic alone will persuade people. People will just be forced by that inherent ‘rightness’ to acknowledge the superiority of the conservative position, and all will be well.
Consider: sometimes the best products never take off, even though they do everything better than their competitors. The marketing has to be good as well. And marketing is done without altering the factors that make the product the best. Instead, it just finds points of connection with people in the market. It relates the product you’re selling to their lives in some way, makes it personal and relevant. But it’s still the same product.
We suck at marketing conservatism because we tend to care more about winning arguments than winning converts.
You can win an argument when you have nasty memes shared around Facebook. You can win an argument when the pinnacle of interaction with another person stops at ‘In your FACE!’ Battles like that may feel really good, but are they drawing people to the cause? Are they inspiring people to give conservative ideas a listen? Are they converting anyone?
And remember, that’s important. Numerically, conservatives can’t win elections alone.
But back to those RED vehicles for conservatives.
Left media is designed to make conservatives and people who hold traditional values feel like freaks and outliers who just need to get with the program like everybody else. But the RED vehicles resonate with the right; they make people on the right feel less like aliens in a strange land. They make people on the right feel normal again; make them see that there are many others who feel the way they do. Those are all good things.
What’s bad is when conservatives limit their exposure to anything that ISN’T a RED vehicle. There is a loud portion of the conservative movement that revels in dismissing some content creators, and therefore their content, as ‘insufficiently conservative.’ Rather than look for conservative messages and themes – which are still everywhere in entertainment, for example – and exploit them for explaining and promoting conservatism, they reject anything that doesn’t carry the Good Rightkeeping Seal of Approval.
Say we’re talking about civil asset forfeiture to someone who doesn’t know what it is. There are some good, matter-of-fact illustrations about it from solid, dependable conservative sources. But you know what? There are also takedowns from Huffington Post and Vox and NPR. There’s also a great bit from John Oliver that simply skewers the entire concept; he ridicules asset forfeiture in a memorable way, one that is far more likely to stick with a person than a mere blog post on a conservative site. And he serves up the narrative in a way that we can lift for our own conversations. No, John Oliver is in no way a conservative, but here he is MAKING OUR CASE. And yet so many of us reject the opportunity to learn from it, use it, make it our own.
What does all this have to do with Benghazi?
I’m glad you asked.
There’s no one on the right successfully doing what the Vlog Brothers and others like them are doing. My argument is that IF THERE WERE, they would be summarily rejected. A conservative who delved into ‘presenting both sides’ would be accused of being a RINO, a sellout, or seen as ‘attacking conservatives.’ Instead of supporting content creators who talked about the same things we believe, using different delivery or terminology, we’d let them wither and die at best, and hound them out of conservative circles altogether at worst.
Yet here we have Hank Green making a video that takes hits at both Republicans and Democrats for things they did, and 150,000 people watched it; 150,000 people whose first, and probably only, impression about Benghazi comes directly from that ten minute video on You Tube. Created by a guy with no special knowledge, just some talent for telling a story and editing video. And a left bias.
I don’t know how we fill that hole, I don’t know how we break into that market, but I do know that we had better get busy trying, and soon. The vast number of people influenced by non-traditional news sources is only getting bigger, and if we don’t try to reach them, we’ll be shutting ourselves off from millions of people, people we need to influence and educate and convert to the conservative cause. I’m tired of losing, and I’m tired of always feeling like we’re playing catch-up. We need some aggressive efforts from creative people on the right to convert more apolitical people. And we need the RED crowd to resist the urge to shoot them in the back as they do it.
Go watch the video JD and I did about Phil DeFranco to see what I mean about even-handed news from non-traditional sources. And then let’s start talking about how we can expand our toolbox and sell conservatism in the most creative ways we can find.