Why are politicians getting 'schooled' and 'destroyed'?

"Corbyn Schooled by Boris": A still from one of the Conservative Party's most popular recent videos Image copyright Facebook
Image caption A still from one of the Conservative Party's most popular recent videos

Political videos with aggressive titles are cropping up in the UK and other countries. Is this American language import the sign of a growing trend?

The Conservative Party hasn't had many viral video hits lately, but two recent exceptions jump out.

"Boris Johnson schools Jeremy Corbyn" racked up more than 700,000 hits this week. And "Michael Gove takes apart Jeremy Corbyn" got 1.6 million views on Facebook earlier this year.

These are examples of a growing international trend - political videos with highly confrontational titles.

Johnson 'schools' Corbyn

The trend for videos where someone "schools", "beats", "takes apart" or even "destroys" their opponent appears to come from America's polarised political culture. Often the titles include the key verb in ALL CAPS.

This sort of combative video title is especially popular in US right-wing political circles, says Chris Stokel-Walker, author of YouTubers: How YouTube Shook up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars.

"There's a massive fire hose of content out there and you have to do something to stand above it," he says. "On YouTube there are 500 hours of video uploaded every single minute - you get a sense of why people tend towards the extreme in their titles."

Mr Stokel-Walker highlights the example of Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist who has taken aim at a campus culture of "social justice warrior, left-wing radical political activists" and who features in dozens of viral hits with titles such as "Jordan Peterson Destroys Entire Panel on Transgender Pronouns".

The trope is also heavily used by Ben Shapiro, the founder of conservative website The Daily Wire. The site's YouTube channel regularly uploads his clashes with liberal opponents, often with confrontational titles.

Daily Wire hits include "Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism And Pro-Abortion Arguments," and "Shapiro DESTROYS Feminist Who Says Originalist Judges Are Sexist".

Earlier this year, Shapiro was interviewed by the BBC's Andrew Neil - and in several clips posted online found himself dubbed the "destroyed" rather than the "destroyer".

Image copyright YouTube
Image caption Some liberal commentators thought Shapiro got "destroyed" on the BBC

Although confrontational video titles seem to be more common on right-wing US outlets, they certainly aren't exclusive to conservatives.

Democratic Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez has a huge online following, and can often be found on left-wing YouTube channels "destroying" the competition.

What's happening in the UK?

The Conservative Party's recent viral hit came as part of a flood of videos posted by the party's Facebook page.

The Conservative ads highlight familiar Johnson themes - delivering Brexit by October 31 and spending more money on police.

But one of the ads - which was boosted by paid-for promotion - has far more views than any of the the others.

The caption on the associated adverts is also confrontational: "Watch Boris Johnson take apart Jeremy Corbyn for five solid minutes".

Since Mr Johnson took office the Labour Party has also been posting negative Facebook adverts, attacking the prime minister as reckless, untrustworthy, and only looking out for the wealthy.

None of the official Labour videos use words like words "destroyed" or "schooled" but this style can be spotted in videos put up by Corbyn supporters, with titles like "Jeremy Corbyn DESTROYS Tories" and "Jeremy Corbyn demolishing Theresa May at PM Questions (Again)".

Videos posted on The Independent's Facebook page in 2017 racked up millions of views with titles like "Jeremy Corbyn just destroyed Theresa May" and "When Jeremy Corbyn destroyed Theresa May in one sentence".

Image copyright Twitter/@JeremyCorbyn

And political destruction is not just an English-language phenomenon. Earlier this year Rezo, a German music producer, uploaded a 55-minute video attacking Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.

It has now been seen over 15 million times. The title? "The destruction of the CDU."

Is it really new?

Of course, writing a punchy headline to grab audience attention has always been one of the most important skills in journalism. But on the internet this translates even more directly into success - if something makes people angry they will click on it, like it, share it, and in turn more people will see it.

Chris Stokel-Walker says these sorts of clickbait headlines are popular in non-political content across YouTube, for instance prank videos and conspiracy theories.

"[Politicians] are picking up now on the impact and potential of that sort of outrage language," he says.

In a recent BBC interview Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube engineer, revealed how the company decides which videos to recommend to users.

"We're pushing people to hate each other, to attack each other, to humiliate each other," Chaslot says. "That's good for watch time but that's not healthy for society."

We have a natural instinct to pay attention to fights, he says, which encourages video makers to emphasise confrontation over collaboration.

Chaslot runs AlgoTransparency, a site which analyses YouTube videos and monitors which ones are being recommended.

One part of the site tracks the verbs most likely to be included in titles of recommended videos, It found the number one verb was "dismantles". Although milder terms such as "educates" and "debunks" also score highly, confrontational words like "obliterates", "shreds", "owns", "insults" and "destroys" make up a substantial portion of the list.

Chaslot says the turbulent state of British politics is "excellent" from the point of view of the YouTube and Facebook algorithms - the computer codes that dictate what we see in our social media feeds.

The current situation "makes people more upset on social media, more engaged, spending more time... so the algorithms are going to try and reproduce this division," he says. "The algorithms are putting oil on the fire."

As the government tries to deliver Brexit by 31 October, we can probably expect more political "destruction" and "schooling" to come.

Blog by Joey D'Urso

For more about YouTube's algorithms, listen to the BBC Trending podcast: "How YouTube decides what you should watch".

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