Jerry Hernandez was 13 in 2018. Like most kids his age, he spent his time watching videos on YouTube. As he bounced between videos on games and memes, YouTube suggested videos like “Feminist Gets Owned,”  “Social Justice Warrior (SJW) Freakout,” and “Why SJWs are Bad.” While Hernandez didn’t click on these videos, he couldn’t escape them. It was his first exposure to
the alt-right.

The alternative right, also known as the “alt-right,” is an online-based political movement. The movement’s ideology centers around White supremacy, anti-establishment, and anti-immigration, according to a 2021 study from the Sage Journal. The study added that the movement gained momentum during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. During this time it “took an active role in cheerleading Trump’s candidacy and several of his controversial policy positions.”

Richard Spencer, founder of the alt-right movement, gained a large following during the 2016 presidential election due to his political beliefs. In a 2013 VICE interview, Spencer said, “Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.”

Spencer and his followers used memes and provocative language to spread their message online. “We memed the alt-right into existence,” Spencer said in a 2017 VICE interview.

Memes attracted Jerry Hernandez to iFunny, an app advertised on YouTube. The app markets itself as a place for “cool memes and funny videos.” He downloaded the app expecting memes but found alt-right messages wherever he looked. There, Hernandez began to see the word “liberal” as an insult.

“I didn’t really use iFunny to search for specific things. I’d pretty much just use the featured tab… The featured tab showed top memes of the day… So literally any post you could open the comment section to people saying all sorts of things,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez didn’t understand what the “liberal” meant and assumed it was another insult to throw around. “Liberal,” “SJW,” and “feminazi” were just some of the words used in these spaces. But Hernandez, who was only 13, didn’t grasp the political meaning behind these terms. He only saw them as insults.

During a gaming session, Hernandez got into a small argument with his friend. During the argument, he called his friend a “liberal” as an insult. His friend got upset and told Hernandez to never call him that again.

“That’s when I realized ‘Wait, I don’t even know what this word means’… That made me take a step back and be like ‘What am I doing?’” Hernandez said.

After that interaction, Hernandez stepped away from those spaces. And as new memes went viral, his interests began to change. He didn’t pay attention to the videos in his suggestion box, and life moved on.

However, not everyone can walk away from these spaces. As trust in the mainstream media decreases, social media’s influence increases. As a result, people are more likely to fall into the “radicalization pipeline” on YouTube, according to a 2020 study by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).

YouTube’s algorithm makes it easy for users to go from watching Joe Rogan interviewing celebrity politicians to videos of Richard Spencer supporting White supremacy. These creators not only share the same platforms but often engage with each other. According to the AMC study, this proximity may create “radicalization pathways” for audience members and content creators.

Radicalization via algorithm is what happened to Oliver Camu.

Into the Rabbit Hole

Oliver Camu grew up in a Texas household founded on conservative Christian ideals. He looked to his father for answers about the world.

In 2019, Camu asked his dad about abortion. His dad explained it, and Camu didn’t understand why it was so controversial. To make the pro-life argument clear, his father showed him a video of Ben Shapiro, a conservative pundit and favorite creator in alt-right spaces. Not long after, Camu’s social media feed became an echo chamber for alt-right propaganda. 

When the 2020 election came around, Camu, at 14 years old, had been radicalized.

“My point of view came from TikTok… It further developed my alt-right perception of the world… I didn’t perpetuate any of the violence, but I think had I continued, I think that was definitely a possibility,” Camu said.

While he didn’t engage in physical violence, Camu still engaged in political arguments online and in person. The more confrontations he encountered, the more his ideas about the “blue-haired leftists”  were validated. This fueled his hatred of those he viewed as different or wrong.

Another confirmation of his political ideals was his religious beliefs.

“I was hiding behind my religion to support these nasty beliefs… I was one of those conservatives that was very Christian… I was very homophobic. I was very transphobic… I was a misogynist. I would use slurs like the f-slur and the n-word… My friends perpetuated it. I think that’s what’s so dangerous about that rhetoric — How causal it can be,” Camu said.

So, how do these alt-right talking points become the norm? What causes these beliefs to escalate? Why do these boys and young men seek these communities? Camu and Hernandez both shared their ideas.”

“I think these spaces appear to be the most relatable and the most easy to understand at first. They put on a facade like ‘Oh, don’t you hate getting rejected by women?’… They lure you in with that and then they drive you to more and more radical ideas,” Hernandez said.

Misogyny is a common factor in radicalization and is often used as a gateway to bring people into these groups. Whether it’s being rejected by women, criticizing the MeToo movement, or negative views on women’s sexuality and abortion. A 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center found that 21% of women between 18 and 29 have been victims of online sexual harassment. Additionally, a 2020 study from News Media & Society found that the most common forms of online harassment were “casual sexism, emasculation, and antifeminism.”

“Misogyny is so ingrained in our culture… They might have had one bad encounter with a woman where they get rejected, and they feel less than and they don’t feel desirable. So their reaction is to hate women instead of figuring out what might be wrong with them. Because it’s easier to blame people than to blame yourself,” Camu said.

Finding a Way Out

After the 2020 election, politics’ importance in Camu’s life faded. As he returned to his regular teenage life, he began to question the ideals he had held onto.

Camu explained that the main contributor to his change in mindset was music. Music had always been his passion. This led him to understand the message behind the music. As he heard the political message from bands like Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down, two “very politically aggressive bands” as he described them, he began to feel a shift in his political ideology.

“As time progressed, I was paying attention to the lyrics. One song by System of a Down was ‘Prison Song’… They list US prison statistics and it was kind of jarring,” Camu said.

Music wasn’t the only thing that helped change his mindset. He also expanded his social circle. These new friendships helped Camu understand the harm of his views. Since the conversations weren’t taking place in a political space, he was more open to listening to what his friends had to say.

Since letting go of his alt-right beliefs, his only struggles have been with his family and his faith. During his time in the alt-right, he used his religion to defend his beliefs, but as he stepped away, he felt the need to tackle his religion from a non-political setting.

As Camu began to question his beliefs and talk to his dad about them, a quote from Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel “Dune” came to mind — “There is probably no more terrible instant of enlightenment than the one in which you discover your father is a man — with human flesh.”

He no longer saw his father as someone he could ask for advice but rather someone who was using religion to justify his hate. And this became clear to Camu during a talk with his father about homosexuality. As the conversation escalated, Camu felt forced to come out as bisexual.

“At that point, I had already lost a lot of respect for him and I thought ‘What do I have to lose?’ So I told him, and his reaction was that I’ve been influenced by the people around me,” Camu said. “This man doesn’t accept me for who I am and thinks I’ve been led astray. So the main struggle was family issues on my dad’s side.”

Camu, now 18, has spent the last four years looking back on his actions and trying to create a new path. He’s removed himself from alt-right spaces and has thought a lot about the ideals he used to hold.

“I look down on people like that now. I’m ashamed that I perpetuated these ideas,” Camu said.

And for those in alt-right spaces who may be questioning those core ideals of misogyny, racism, and homophobia, Camu suggests broadening their social circles. Similar to Camu, Jerry Hernandez also suggested talking to new people.

“Don’t surround yourself within such a small bubble… Don’t be encapsulated by one small community… If you get so trapped within on small circle, that’s gonna be your whole world. So try to realize there’s other communities out there,” Hernandez said.

Camu hopes his story will help spread awareness about how easily radicalization can happen. He’s also working hard to ensure his younger brothers don’t fall down the rabbit hole like he did.

“It’s not a good path to go down… You know, hate breeds hate,” Camu said. “These spaces aren’t going to bring you happiness. A community rooted in hate isn’t a community at all.”