Carlos Maza, a socialist who calls YouTube "deeply unethical and reckless," is trying to bolster the video site's left wing.
Carlos Maza believes that YouTube is a destructive, unethical, reckless company that amplifies bigots and profits off fascism.
Now it's also his meal ticket.
Maza, 31, announced several weeks ago that he was leaving Vox, where he had worked as a video journalist since 2017, to become a full-time YouTube creator.
The move shocked some of Maza's fans, who have watched him become one of YouTube's most vocal critics for failing to stop a right-wing pile on against him last year. The controversy that followed that campaign, which was led by a prominent conservative YouTuber, turned Maza into a YouTube mini-celebrity and made him a sworn enemy of the site's free-speech absolutists. He received death threats — and was temporarily forced to move out of his apartment.
Rather than swearing off YouTube, Maza, who is a New York-based socialist, decided to seize the means of his own video production.
"I'm going to use the master's tools to destroy the master's house," he said in an interview. "I want to build up an audience and use every chance I get to explain how destructive YouTube is."
It's not rare for YouTubers to criticise YouTube. (In fact, among top creators, it's practically a sport.) But Maza's critique extends to the traditional media as well. He believes that media outlets have largely failed to tell compelling stories to a generation raised on YouTube and other social platforms, and that, as a result, they have created a power vacuum that bigots and extremists have been skilled at filling.
"On YouTube, you're competing against people who have put a lot of time and effort into crafting narrative arcs, characters, settings or just feelings they're trying to evoke," he said. "In that environment, what would have been considered typical video content for a newsroom — news clips or random anchors generically repeating the news with no emotions into a camera — feels really inadequate and anaemic."
The YouTube series that Maza hosted at Vox, Strikethrough, drew millions of views with acidic takedowns of Fox News, CNN and other mainstream media organizations. But he took aim at YouTube itself last year after Steven Crowder, a bargain-bin conservative comedian with more than 4 million YouTube subscribers, began taunting Maza, mocking him as a "lispy queer" and repeatedly making off-color jokes about his sexual orientation (gay) and ethnicity (Cuban American).
In response, Maza compiled a video of Crowder's insults and tweeted them out, blaming YouTube for its inconsistent enforcement of its hate-speech policies. (One tweet read: "YouTube is dominated by alt-right monsters who use the platform to target their critics and make their lives miserable.")
After an investigation, YouTube found that Crowder's videos did not violate its rules. That set off an avalanche of criticism and provoked backlash from LGBT groups and YouTube employees, who urged the company to do more to protect Maza and other creators from harassment. The controversy even ensnared Susan Wojcicki, YouTube's chief executive, who was forced to apologise. Late last year, the site revised its harassment policy to address some of the concerns.
A YouTube spokeswoman declined to comment.
Inside the world of YouTube partisans, Maza's feud with Crowder made him a scapegoat. Some creators blamed him for setting off an "adpocalypse" — a YouTube policy change that resulted in some videos being stripped of their ads. Others wove elaborate conspiracy theories that NBCUniversal, an investor in Vox, was using Maza to drive viewers and advertisers away from YouTube and toward its own TV platform.
In July, Vox ended Maza's show, and after a few months in limbo, he decided to hang his own shingle. He set up a YouTube channel and a Patreon crowdfunding account, bought a camera and hit record. For all its flaws, he said, YouTube is essential for people who want to get a message out.
"The one thing that YouTube offers that's really good is that it does give a space for independent journalists to do important work and build an audience without requiring a huge investment of capital," Maza said.
YouTube can be harsh terrain for a professional leftist. The site is nominally open to all views but in practice is dominated by a strain of reactionary politics that is marked by extreme scepticism of mainstream media, disdain for left-wing "social justice warriors" and a tunnel-vision fixation on political correctness.
In recent years, some progressive YouTubers have tried to counter this trend by making punchy, opinionated videos aimed at left-wing viewers. BreadTube, a loose crew of socialist creators who named themselves after a 19th-century anarchist book, "The Conquest of Bread," has made modest stars out of leftists like Natalie Wynn, a YouTube personality known as ContraPoints, and Oliver Thorn, a British commentator known as PhilosophyTube.
But these creators are still much less powerful than their reactionary counterparts. Maza attributes that gap to the fact that while a vast network of well-funded YouTube channels exists to push right-wing views, liberal commentary is still mainly underwritten by major news organizations, which have been slower to embrace the highly opinionated, emotionally charged style of content that works well on YouTube.
"People understand the world through stories and personalities," he said. "People don't actually want emotionless, thoughtless, viewpoint-less journalism, which is why no one is a Wolf Blitzer stan."
In order to reach people on YouTube, Maza said that the left needs to embrace YouTube's algorithmically driven ecosystem, which rewards "authentic" and "relatable" creators who can connect emotionally with an audience.
"There is a need for compelling progressive content that gives a young kid on YouTube some sense that there is a worldview and an aesthetic and a vibe that is attractive on the left," he said.
Maza's first video, a five-minute introduction to his channel, hints at how he intends to do that. The video is half political manifesto, half self-deprecating monologue. Playing all three parts himself, he has an imagined conversation with his "left flank," a hammer-and-sickle socialist, and his "right flank," a tie-clad centrist, along with his therapist, who warns him that YouTube can transform decent people into "cruel, ego-driven" attention-seekers.
It's a funny, knowing skit, and it shows how familiar Maza is with the customs and culture of YouTube. He doesn't wear a suit or plaster himself with stage makeup. He doesn't take himself too seriously or adopt a Walter Cronkite-like pose of objectivity.
He gets that YouTube, while a serious forum for political discussion, also requires a kind of pageantry that can be hard for people steeped in the ways of traditional media.
With just 14,000 subscribers, Maza has a long road ahead to building a platform as large as the one he left at Vox. But he sees no better route to relevance than going all in on YouTube, even if that means embracing a platform whose politics he detests.
"There needs to be some swagger to leftist politics," Maza said. "And YouTube gives you a space to have that swagger."
Written by: Kevin Roose
Photographs by:Ricky Rhondes
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES