Josh Citarella on Politigram

The Left can meme...

Josh Citarella is an old friend of mine from New York, whose work I’ve been following closely for the last few years. He’s an artist and now a researcher whose main focus is Gen Z political subcultures, especially those native to Instagram. Not all teens find clout in aspirational lifestyle content. Some find it by being the best at explaining abstruse tomes of political philosophy. Josh’s work was recently featured in an article in The New Yorker. I decided to catch up with him and chat about Politigram. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Sean Monahan

Josh, could you introduce yourself and your work?

Josh Citarella

I usually introduce myself as an artist, doing research into online political subcultures. For the last few years I've been researching and writing about a number of different communities. My primary point of interest is Politigram.

Sean Monahan

What is Politigram?

Josh Citarella

Politigram is an online community: ages generally 13 to 17, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male, and mostly right wing—but with a few interesting anomalies, left wing accounts, etc. I've been following it now for four years. Pursuing the initial research question: can the left meme? 

It’s been answered. Where I've seen young people who started participating around age 13 or 15 are now on the other side, some of them have joined political organizations, some of them have enlisted in the military. I've watched them folks, some of them now have children. 

I've seen the radical Gen Z kids grow up and choose how to live their lives after going through crazy meme subcultures, spending all day in those corners of the internet. Some of it is actually surprisingly beneficial. At this point, I'm learning from them. They know that the full history of the of the Comintern and the Unified Friends and Edward Bernstein and revolutionary socialism and the First, Second and Third International. It's fascinating. That's been my project last few years and I've written two books about it.

Sean Monahan

What is your sample size?

Josh Citarella

I've done 10 interviews now. I did 20 in the book. Previous to that, there were another 20 people I interviewed in depth. There is one trend that I can isolate in all of the 10 interviews that I've recorded and publicly released as podcasts. All three of them that entered these right wing influencer spaces at age 13 came out the other side at age 16 describing themselves as a Marxist, a communist or an anarcho-communist. 

Sean Monahan

Who are the Poligrammers more broadly?

Josh Citarella

The general demographic breakdown in my observation—so take it with a grain of salt—seems to skew disproportionately towards red states and rural areas. It’s mostly kids who are introverted. Imagine a personality type that spends all day on Instagram after school rather than going out and playing basketball with their friends. They’re kids who do not have easy access to socializing, outside of the internet. You're not really finding people who are in, say, New York or LA or densely populated metropolitan places. You're finding kids who are socially and geographically atomized.

Sean Monahan

How many of these kids who take on these political identities online are making political commitments beyond posting? Are they activists? Or are they just having a dorm room debates in Instagram comment threads?

Josh Citarella

I think we need to classify these things in gradients of politicization because the dorm room debates are not meaningless because eventually over time they do bear fruit and they blossom into some form of a political commitment. So the work that I've been doing, trying to get these deep highly detailed interviews in the podcast format is uncovering what was the influence or life experience that moved you towards the politics that you have now. 

It's different for everybody. I can tell you now that there are kids who are 16 years old who have paper membership to internationalist communist organizations. I've seen people who've joined the National Guard, and I see them on Instagram, posting, doing their service, so I know that's real. I've watched people canvass for different candidates. And I've seen them go to protests. But I think what's important to emphasize is that had they not been doing the posting or the dorm room debates, a year or two years earlier, they would have never gotten to the point of voting, posting, protesting. 

What you have to find is: what are the key nodes within the network diagram? What makes someone close to political activation? And then very often, it's a roll of the dice in that there's external life experiences like a divorce between your parents, a breakup with a girlfriend, or losing your job—that is the spark to the tinder of all the political content you've consumed.

And now you are officially a libertarian or you're officially a democratic confederalist or you’re any number of other things. Yeah. And of course, without beating a dead horse, as the multifaceted crises of American life unfold, more and more people are having the rug pulled out from under them. More and more people are getting radicalized. It becomes a self fulfilling feedback loop.

Sean Monahan

You mentioned this in your New Yorker interview, but to what extent is climate change radicalizing Gen Z?

Josh Citarella

Climate change is the most frequently mentioned topic. If you were to do a word cloud of issues, climate change would be the biggest. But I don't think we can actually comprehend what climate change is. And the way that people list issues is generally in this fashion of “I don't have a future and I'm stressed about the economy and I'm downwardly mobile and then there's climate change on top of everything else.” So, for me, climate change is really a placeholder for all of these other compounding downward trending trajectories in American life and broadly across the developed world. Climate change can radicalize people but there's more than just the total parts per million of carbon that's up in the air. I think, especially when you're talking about a kid for them it's an existential dread. That makes it a very convenient projection screen for all of your other anxieties.

Sean Monahan

In my mind, climate change in this capacity is kind of like losing the Mandate of Heaven. It represents total institutional civilizational failure. I presume children encounter the idea of climate change through school. Your teachers essentially admit the other adults tasked with solving this problem are failing to solve the problem.

Josh Citarella

When you and I were in school, I remember sitting in third or fourth grade and they were telling us “Yeah, climate change is real. Here's a graph. Here's a diagram. Don't worry. Our best people are on it.” Now it's like “Yeah you guys are fucked. We can't be sure it will get fixed.”

Sean Monahan

For millennials, climate change seemed like something that would be solved via world trade. A bunch of men in suits would fly to a capital city in Europe or Asia and have a summit. There would be a press release. Problem solved! This was an era when globalization seemed mundane. Anxiety about it was constrained to the threat of Americanization. Everyone eating McDonald’s was the worst case scenario. “How can we harmonize regulations and tariffs? How can we best move huge quantities of manufactured goods across the Pacific Ocean? How can we effectively price carbon?” Climate change was just another issue smart brainy people would hammer out in a treaty.

Josh Citarella

That’s one of the fun wedges I like to throw into people's belief systems. For example, if you could properly price carbon, climate change should be totally solvable, right? If you could actually include the negative externalities of pollution into the price signal within global capitalism, you could actually solve it. And then the question is: why can't we put that into the price signal? Why can't we incorporate that information? What is actually causing the dysfunction in our political economy that we're not able to introduce that after having known about it for so long? That opens up to the world of Politigram for adults where you are tasked with sandboxing a new political economy from scratch, not having a functional model anywhere? It starts to get really fun because between the experts and the meme accounts, sometimes you find really good ideas in unexpected places. My favorite part about this is when the Politigrammers back up into really insightful critiques and actually actually shape a stronger discourse than what you see in the mainstream media.

Sean Monahan

Speaking of the mainstream media… I’m curious if the Politigrammers are interested in pop culture and its outrage cycles? Do they care about the Grammys?

Josh Citarella

Oh that's a good question. They will post memes with celebrity characters like Billy Eilish, or something like that. But you'll mostly see people from the streamer class in their memes. You’ll see Destiny and Hasan Piker and Vaush. But you don't see Beyoncé. They don't care about who's in the Grammys. They're really into Acid House, which is an 80s UK electronic music genre.

Sean Monahan

To what extent for Politigrammers has political content replaced pop culture content in their media diet?

Josh Citarella

That's part of the issue. There's been a total collapse of counterculture.

Sean Monahan

My question specifically was more are they streaming Netflix or MCU movies when they’re not on Politigram. Or is Politigram content a substitute for that?

Josh Citarella

Video games. They're not hardcore competitive gamers. They're mostly casual gamers now. They don't seem to watch movies and television, other than the really core essential things, but it’s not in the Millennial fashion of how you or I might unwind on the couch and watch a Netflix TV show. They seem to spend their leisure time, in most cases, making music, drawing and painting, getting up to other creative activities or gaming. Then they live this double life, where they have all of these online friends in this insane political world  and then they have a few IRL friends, where they do more interactive gaming, music playing, art making. It’s less passively consuming the latest like Netflix drama.

Sean Monahan

Do their IRL friends share their political opinions? Or are their political identities a secret that they don't disclose to their friends and family?

Josh Citarella

In almost all cases, there are barriers. You’ll know that this person is politically engaged but you won't know how extreme their beliefs are. They have concentric circles. At the very very core of their of those concentric circles, you will have a few IRL friends and a few URL friends that overlap, but we're talking about a circle of three to five people. It's a very tight network of trust, similar to a group chat with your friends where you can finally speak candidly. You don't have to watch what you say like on social media, monitoring every single tweet.

Sean Monahan

In The New Yorker article, you talk about the radicalization funnel. Did you pick up that term from marketingspeak?

Josh Citarella

That's it's great because the two places that the funnel analogy is prevalent is in counterterrorism and advertising. What’s similar about those two fields is that they're both using click through rates as a metric. I picked it up from researchers I'm in contact with that work in this field in a much more professional and serious fashion than I do. I also picked it up from the famous video from Faraday speaks, who was the New York Times profile the case study by Kevin Roose “The Making of a YouTube Radical” in his video he says “I fell down the alt-right rabbit hole.” He describes it as a funnel, which is language, most likely that he picked up from watching these spaces and watching similar related research to online radicalization.

Sean Monahan

In the research on online radicalization, do they distinguish between upper funnel and lower funnel?

Josh Citarella

They do, there's different terms of classification. The one that I find is most useful is tacit supporter and active supporter, meaning is someone going to watch a video. Are they going to tolerate it on social media? Or are they going to go out and protest, are they going to go break a window? What is the level of commitment they're willing to make? 

I released a PDF in January called Radical Content that gets what I think is a helpful classification system. I break it down into five stages. You can make those distinctions at whatever resolution is useful. Some studies do it in three. Some of them do it in five. But the point is that it needs to be a gradient. There isn't a binary between the political extremist and normie. It's a slow drift. And the point is to understand the drift in greater detail.

Sean Monahan

I understand this from marketingspeak land, where the point of the funnel is to get you to make a purchase. What's the transaction that that this funnel leads to?

Josh Citarella

Sometimes the funnel leads to extremist violence and that is more so in the counterterrorism modeling. Putting that aside for a second, and looking more at the marketing analogy here. What is the purchase? That can be answered in two ways. At the end of the funnel of political activation, it's joining a dues paying organization. For some of these left wing organizations, it's not like the DSA where you give them 20 bucks and then you get the newsletter and that's that's it. Some of these organizations are quite expensive. It’s a serious time commitment and financial commitment. 

The other thing that is really interesting, which I think is an anomaly specific to our post-political era. There are not effective political organizations to really join. These things are fringe. They're interesting, but to be totally honest, they're completely irrelevant. It's like 70 year old people in a group of a dozen communist nerds. They are not wielding political power. I mean it's great. I love that stuff, but it's not a serious political project. 

The thing that seems to be replacing it is donating to influencers and becoming part of these influencer communities that exist in the void of political activity. We’re beginning to see (especially on the right now that it's been growing for so long) that these media brands are verging on political organizations. They have boots on the ground for various protests. There’s people waving the flags, etc. So that is the interesting rupture that I'm paying close attention to. Who is going to make the shift from influencer to political actor in a serious way? I think that's gonna happen very soon.

Sean Monahan

One rumor—maybe more of a joke—that I heard was that Kim Kardashian will run for governor of California after Newsom is recalled. What a fabulous post-divorce revenge lifestyle being the governor of California.

Josh Citarella

My instinct though is that it's going to be much more targeted. For example, Kim Kardashian: enormous following. In the funnel analogy, she could mobilize her core audience, because her reach is so large. But if you look at someone like Destiny, who has probably 500,000 to one million followers on Twitch—it's a big audience but it's not Kim Kardashian at all. But his conversion rates, meaning mobilizing his following to take political action is much higher. He was able to get I think 150 people to go and canvass in Georgia in advance of the Senate runoffs. 

That’s the earliest sign of where these influencers are going. They have a big reach. They have a high conversion rate because there are high trust networks. He was able to mobilize more than the mass organizations. I think this was the first instance of a streamer becoming a more potent political actor than a classically defined political organization.

Sean Monahan

That's interesting. Kim Kardashian actually is probably not quite the best example. If somehow Kim Kardashian is elected governor of California, she'll be following in the footsteps of Schwarzenegger, even Reagan. Entertainers have a long history of being elected to California’s highest office. On top of that, she’s more of a transitional case between a traditional celebrity and influencer. It will probably feel much more insane when a Twitch streamer gets elected to Congress.

Josh Citarella

Not someone who becomes a member of Congress and then gets on Twitch. We're waiting for the person who's on Twitch and then becomes a member of Congress that's where it gets interesting.

Sean Monahan

In the model you’re predicting: are Politigrammers paying for access to a political influencer’s Discord server so they can participate in the political organizing that is happening there?

Josh Citarella

Potentially. In the case of Destiny, there was a separate Discord server set up to organize the canvassing in Georgia. What I think we will see is something more like Ben Burgis who is a Gen X, lefty logic professor. He's writing a book about socialist policy and making a blueprint for a political economy that would include a market socialist transition from neoliberalism into social democracy. He’s literally just a guy on YouTube who's giving his university class as a video lecture. You can support his work on Patreon. He is writing something that will very likely be adopted by people in elected office and that is being published by Jacobin. Bhaskar Sunkara is the co-author of the book. That to me is a very interesting trajectory. Maybe Matt Breunig is a useful example here as well with his People's Policy Project which is crowdfunded think tank. They didn't actually have anything that was adopted by the Bernie campaign, but they consulted behind the scenes and had several other candidates including Ilhan Omar adopted some of his policies. These things are newly being facilitated by crowdfunding on the web. There’s room for development.

Sean Monahan

Final question, in The New Yorker piece you said that the biggest trend is just towards more extremism, never back towards the center. What are the most popular flavors of extremism currently?

Josh Citarella

I think essential one to know if you're not familiar, is paleo-conservatism. That is far and away the banner under which most of these dissident radical right communities have now recollected.

Sean Monahan

Like Pat Buchanan?

Josh Citarella

Pat Buchanan, yeah.


NOTE: Apologies for going radio silent. I’ve had some health issues this winter that I needed to deal with and unfortunately that upended my writing flow. I’m going to be doubling up these next few weeks on content, finishing some in process essays on the rise of Indie TV, the death of Pop Culture (as we know it), and why no one seems to really understand what an NFT is—yet. Stay tuned…