YouTube and Populism: Professor Jamie Cohen Presents at the Salzburg Academy

By Hannah Werthan

In 2009, New Media Director and Professor Jamie Cohen taught his first Introduction to New Media class at Molloy. YouTube was full of silly cat videos. Since then, content on the platform has diversified considerably. YouTube has always been a space for individuals to talk directly via video camera to their followers - which can sometimes number in the tens of millions - often from their own bedroom or office. However, some YouTubers have now migrated from using the platform to discuss primarily lighthearted, at times even mundane, topics to leveraging YouTube as a place to push their beliefs, which can be extreme at times. This summer, Jamie lectured on how YouTube has become a commodity space for populist movements at the prestigious Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change.

The Salzburg Academy on Media and Global ChangeThe Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, which was held from July 16 through August 5 this year, is a life-changing opportunity for a group of international students to hear from the best experts in the field. Every lecturer does not apply to speak; he or she is personally invited. This year's topic was "Voices Against Extremism: Media Responses to Global Populism."

In his lecture, which is available in condensed form on Medium, Jamie discusses how popular -and controversial - international YouTubers such as Swede PewDiePie and Canadian Lauren Southern have been able to attract so many followers. Part of the formula is using a specific tone of voice to draw the audience in and keep them engaged. Tyler Oakley, one of the earliest YouTubers, perfected this with his standard greetings of "Well hello everybody!" and "Hey guys!" The setting and the usage of jump cuts (quick edits that cause "jumps" in the viewing experience) are also important, says Jamie.

Jamie points to PewDiePie and Lauren Southern as two examples of influencers who have created dark, or extremist videos. PewDiePie produced a video where he hired freelancers to hold up a sign anti-Semitic text and claimed it was a prank. Lauren Southern is leading an anti-migration movement that has progressed to a point that is almost too bizarre to believe. YouTube has become a site to spread potentially dangerous rhetoric.

It is important for all New Media students to understand how YouTube has become a major promotion platform for populist movements, says Jamie, which is why he and New Media colleague Matt Applegate are adding this topic to their Introduction to New Media classes this fall. The course, which can be taken online or in a physical classroom, is a requirement for all New Media majors and minors and is open to other students as a liberal arts elective.

Jamie also teaches a Video Storytelling class in the spring semester. Though there are some classes in colleges across the country that focus on video blogging - or vlogging - as a tool, Molloy's Video Storytelling course is unique in that it assumes that students already know how to shoot a video, technically speaking. Instead, the class focuses on voice and delivery and personal expression. Students actually create a YouTube channel, and several of them continue to produce content after the semester is over. This past spring, Jamie had an Education major, Marissa Croce, in his class whose channel has been getting outside attention. In July, she posted a video about artist Dalton Rapattoni's new album. Dalton actually tweeted about the video. Because of Dalton's tweet, 1,350 people have viewed Marissa's video and she has approximately 300 subscribers to her channel. Marissa had never made a YouTube video prior to Jamie's class.

For Jamie, the goal is that students will come out of his classes with the skills they need to become civic actors and engage with their community. "We want our students to do, make, and create every day, whether they are in the classroom or have graduated and are now in the workforce full-time. I hope the New Media program inspires them to use their knowledge for good," he says.        

Next summer, Jamie would love to be invited to speak at the Salzburg Academy for another year. He says that he would likely speak about YouTube and populist movements again and believes that his talk will be much different as influencers continue to shape our international political climate. Will YouTube ever go back to being just about cat videos? "Honestly, I think YouTube is now a space for so many different types of political expression," says Jamie. "But, anything is possible."