Caleb Cain was sucked into a world of alt-right beliefs by high-profile YouTubers, but soon found himself in over his head. After the Christchurch massacre, he sensationally quit his former life – and now helps others do so.
CALEB CAIN BOUGHT a Glock pistol soon after the death threats started. The then-26-year-old had just posted a searing, heartfelt confessional video on his YouTube channel – a kind of “coming out” – in the wake of the Christchurch shootings.
“I thought I had discovered a truth. That’s what a red pill is. That I’m waking up from the Matrix, and that if everyone woke up we could build a society that’s great for everyone.”
That’s what he’d once thought. But as 51 worshippers lay dead in two mosques in New Zealand, Caleb – a college dropout living at the time with his grandfather in rural West Virginia – spoke close to tears.
“This guy [the white supremacist terrorist, Brenton Tarrant] … when I researched this guy, when I watched his video … he was tuned in. When I read his manifesto, he understood this ideology, he was deep in it. And he was repeating back to me all the things I believed.”
And then the tears did break and he gulped.
“I watched that video and he – he just murdered those fucking people. They didn’t put up a fight. He just slaughtered ‘em. Then I saw the memes; he was meming the whole time! It made me realise I’d shared those same memes. I’d shared them ironically, because I was shitposting, and some of them I saw was spreading my message.”
A pained look crossed his face. “I couldn’t wait any longer. I want to help other people out of this. Because this is a dangerous fucking cult that sucks you in.”
Interventions and inoculations
Today Caleb Cain, 27, no longer lives in the small, poor West Virginian town of his childhood.
A self-confessed college dropout who got sucked into a world of ‘alt-right’ beliefs, he is now part of a cutting-edge initiative called ‘PERIL’ (Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab) run by the Washington D.C.-based American University, under the wing of noted extremism expert Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss.
As a programme associate, Caleb’s role is to engage with the young and those at risk of radicalisation on the platforms they’re most likely to frequent – on gaming chat and video services like Discord (once called “the alt-right’s favourite chat app”), where he runs a server, as well as the YouTube channel on which he so spectacularly renounced his former alt-right views and where he’s known as ‘Faraday Speaks’ – using something called “contact hypothesis” to help those who spend time engaging, perhaps, to potentially shift their viewpoints.
“I think it’s harder to dehumanise somebody if you hang out with them,” he says during the first of our conversations. “We create an environment where everyone on the Discord server hangs out; we’ve got far left people, far right people in there, more centrist people in there. I moderate the language, I moderate the behaviour, and the hope is they might be able to rub off each other in a positive way.”
PERIL’s broader role is to develop and test initiatives, particularly in education settings, in community contexts and aimed at the young, to help “inoculate” youth against the lure of extremism. A mix of academics, experts and also “formers” (ex-extremists) form part of the team, which has recently produced a toolkit for parents and caregivers, in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center, to help them recognise the signs of youth radicalisation in the Covid-19 era.
Indeed, Caleb uses terms like “intervention”, “inoculation” and “counter-messaging” to describe his efforts. His YouTube channel hosts debates and podcast-style discussions with those who are both former extremists, as well as experts – and even those who still hold highly controversial views (he recently hosted a debate between the socialist YouTuber Vaush and Mark Meechan, the self-described Scottish “comedian” who calls himself ‘Count Dankula’ and who taught his dog to raise its paw when he spoke the phrase “Do you wanna gas the Jews?”).
The main goal originally was to “deprogramme people – if I could talk to someone long enough, I could just talk them out of their belief”. But, he says, “I don’t think you can really do that: that’s a much more personal experience.” (Though he does mention one person who said they were completely deradicalised by interacting with others on his Discord server.)
I felt like I was chasing uncomfortable truths
When Caleb and I first started to speak, it was just as lockdown had fallen in the US. He’d made it back by the skin of his teeth, after an emotional trip to New Zealand. He’d visited the scene of the Christchurch massacres and met with those who had survived the attacks. By any step of the imagination it was a brave thing to do.
Before we spoke, I sat and watched Caleb debate with a well-known ex-Moonies cultist, Steve Hassan, as the two shared stories and swapped theories about how the alt-right world and plethora of self-help, men’s rights and “tradcon” commentators Caleb once watched in some ways mirrored those of new religious movements, with the vulnerable sucked in and often cutting off from those once closest to them.
It’s a theme – being in a cult – that Caleb returns to many times: how it’s easy to be taken in when you’re looking for something, feeling lost, and there are prominent and charismatic figures on platforms like YouTube offering answers. But some of these ideologues are also weaving in concepts such as “race realism”, misogyny amid the talk of men’s rights, or even ideas around a supposed “great replacement” of white people into their pseudo-philosophical ‘shell’.
“When I found this stuff, I felt like I was chasing uncomfortable truths,” Caleb admits. “I felt like it was giving me power and respect and authority.”
Inoculated in the world of trolling and “shitposting” from years of a gaming and online existence, it was the March 2019 terror attack that proved the final nail in the coffin of a journey that had seen him swallow many extreme beliefs.
“Christchurch hit me so hard because it felt like an online event,” he says.
Those he once so avidly followed, alt-light YouTubers such as Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern (who at the time was still part of the ‘scene’), called the killer a left-wing “eco-terrorist” and claimed that linking the shooting to far-right speech was “utter insanity”. For Caleb, the attacks pushed at an already open door, one that had been opening since 2018.
Going down the rabbit hole
In some ways, Caleb’s story has a familiar ring. He grew up rural and poor in postindustrial Appalachia. He was a gifted student, but part of a dysfunctional family unit that saw him adopted by his conservative Christian grandparents.
As a teenager, he browsed 4Chan – the “lawless” messaging board – and like many other teens, gamed online with friends. He was shy, awkward, bright, held liberal views and at one stage in high school was attracted to punk. Then he went to college. When there, he seemed to lose his way; an ADHD sufferer, he no longer had access to a guidance counsellor or other support from his school years. He dropped out after three semesters.
Living back at home with his grandfather, the world felt like it was closing down. Broke and depressed, spending his days in bed or at the computer, Caleb began looking for help. And guess where he turned? YouTube.
From there, as he now says prophetically: “I fell down the alt-right rabbit hole.”
One day in late 2014, YouTube recommended a self-help video by Stefan Molyneux, a Canadian talk show host and self-styled philosopher (who HOPE not hate has categorised as part of the ‘alt-light’ wing of the wider “alternative right” movement).
Like Caleb, Molyneux described a difficult childhood, and talked about overcoming hardships through self-improvement. He seemed really convincing, taking on big questions and offering practical life advice. His channel had a huge following – until YouTube finally banned it and others in June this year (the big followings had meant big bucks to many on the right, so deplatforming has represented a substantial potential cap on their earnings).
Molyneux has described himself as an “anarcho-capitalist,” but he had a political agenda alongside the self-help and philosophy. He was a men’s rights advocate who said that feminism was a form of socialism and that progressive gender politics were holding young men back.
“He was willing to address young men’s issues directly, in a way I’d never heard before,” Caleb confesses. “I was young and naive, and quite dumb… I assumed he was honest; or at the very least, correct.”
(The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Molyneux as a “skilled propagandist and an effective communicator within the racist “alt-right” and pro-Trump ranks, his promotion of scientific racism and eugenics to a large and growing audience is a serious concern.”)
As he watched Molyneux talk, Caleb started to adapt his ideas about society and politics, dragging himself further to the right as Molyneux’s guests debated Islamism, feminism, and other ills “threatening” society.
“I thought, oh Stef’s vetted these people, so I would set up these people as authority figures and go to their YouTube channel and watch their content.”
Over time, he viewed dozens of clips by conservative comedian Steven Crowder. From there he moved to Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, then Proud Boys (“Western Chauvinism”) founder Gavin McInnes, and as he joked to a New York Times reporter, his “fashy bae” Lauren Southern, who lit up the entire alt-right world for a while. His every waking moment seemed to be consumed with these figures, as YouTube’s algorithm delivered more and more suggestions and his favoured YouTubers featured other guests who he’d then follow.
Stefan Molyneux seemed to be veering further to the right, too. He fixated on “race realism,” a favoured topic of white nationalists, and went on an Infowars show to discuss his opposition to multiculturalism with Alex Jones. Caleb watched Jones’ protégé, the London-based far-right conspiracy theorist, Paul Joseph Watson. Molyneux also hosted far-right figures on his channel, too, including veteran alt-right figure Jared Taylor of American Renaissance, as well as Brittany Pettibone, a self-described “American nationalist” who has pushed the Pizzagate conspiracy theory (which falsely alleged that leading Democrats were involved in paedophilia, using a famous DC pizza restaurant, which led to an attack on the restaurant in 2016) and is the partner of Generation Identity figurehead, Martin Sellner.
Speaking now, Caleb says some of the stuff he took in was positive, and that he was a “tradcon” – not a full far-right believer, or someone who ever bought into notions like “ethno-states”. But still, wasn’t there a cost to all this? On his original ‘coming out’ video, he’s searingly honest.
“I would try and convince friends and family and girlfriends… God, I almost lost every single friend I had. I had gay friends, black friends, trans friends. I understand why they got the fuck away from me. I realised the part I played in it. As small as part as it was, it was a little crumb of this poisonous fucking cookie and so I couldn’t just stay silent any more. It’s going beyond memes now. It’s going beyond philosophy, it’s going beyond the exploration of ideas. It’s affecting the real world.”
Out the other side
So how did he get out? Caleb says he began watching a Twitch streamer (Twitch is a live-streaming platform often used by gamers) called Destiny. Real name Steven Bonnell, Twitch was a liberal YouTuber who debated the far right. One day he debated Lauren Southern about immigration. Caleb, going through a painful breakup with his fiancée at the time, was blown away.
“He destroyed her. He mopped the floor with her! She looked like a complete idiot.” He laughs. “I liked his style, he was entertaining, … it was impressive. But it was also terrifying. It was very terrifying. Because how could I be so wrong! He pulled up all this data, statistics, and all Lauren had was this appeals to emotions and when she would throw up stats, he would go through why that’s taken out of context, why that’s wrong.”
As he watched Destiny more, he came across another YouTuber called ContraPoints (Natalie Wynn, a former academic philosopher). “I had all these goofy ideas at first about trans people, but Natalie, she spoke to me, she spoke my language, she was like one of me. We were about the same age, she understood the culture I was in. She understood the memes, she understood the philosophy, she understood the motivations.”
Contra’s videos were rational, logical, he says, “and I realised just how fucking wrong I was, how utterly stupid I was. I was terrified, devastated and I didn’t know what to do.”
The more he watched, the more YouTube’s algorithms began to recommend other left-wing creators, some of whom would deliberately mock and spin around terms the right used, like “snowflake” or “triggered”.
From there, Caleb says he’s come full circle, becoming a progressive, believing the things he once believed in high school “but now I knew why I believed them”. Eventually his very public coming out led to an email from Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss of American University, which has given him his current position.
Blaming the algorithms
But were the algorithms to blame all along then for his descent? That’s what many seem to believe.
Caleb’s not so sure. “Most American journalists are like ‘the algorithm’s radicalising kids’. But the algorithm’s only supplying a demand. And there’s a reason that there’s a demand for this content.”
What’s that? “I think masculinity is at the core of much of this.”
“I feel what we have done is a really good job with feminism, to build this story and protection in society for women; I don’t think we’ve done that good a job of that for men. In the vacuum of that comes in, on the most innocent side of it, figures like Jordan Peterson, and on the sinister side of it figures like Molyneux, or go further than that.”
He pauses for a second. “There’s a reason young men are choosing fascism. Because fascism teaches strength, it’s a spiritual movement with a spiritual ideology: I think young men are attracted to that because it gives them a position and meaning in life. If we want to stop this thing, it’s not just going to be deplatforming and wiping these people away, we gotta reorient that thing and it’s gotta be done in a way that’s positive for everyone else.”
For Caleb, his journey remains a message in and of itself.
“They take you to the next step and the next step and the next step – and that’s how you become radicalised. You don’t become radicalised because some Nazi walks up to you and Sieg Heils and says ‘hello would like to preserve the white race?’ It doesn’t work that way! They convince you through a pseudo rationality, and they prey upon your biases, they prey upon your circumstances, they prey upon who you are. They prey upon your very – look at me [he shows his white arm] – your very identity! And they use that against you.
“For me, I had to speak out.”
[Illustration by @thatgrimling1]
You can listen to a podcast featuring Caleb Cain and Cynthia Miller-Idriss with Nick Ryan on the HOPE not hate podcast
Author of a critically-acclaimed journey inside white supremacist groups worldwide (HOMELAND: Into a World of Hate), Nick is an award-winning journalist and producer, and nominee for the Paul Foot Award for campaigning journalism. He is a communications strategist and HOPE not hate's former communications director, and as a strategic consultant today heads up our special projects work, including editing the HOPE not hate magazine.Twitter