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Right-wing views for Generation Z, 5 minutes at a time

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 1/4/2020 Nellie Bowles

BERKELEY, Calif. — Will Witt walked through the University of California campus doing what he does professionally, which is trolling unwitting young liberals on camera.

He approached students who seemed like good targets: people with political buttons on their bags, androgynous clothing, scarves. It was safe to say that the vast majority here in the heart of progressive culture would be liberal. Witt told the students that he had a question for them.

“How many genders are there?” Witt asked before turning and staring deadpan at the camera. Some people laughed and walked away. Most, knowing the camera was rolling, engaged.

“As many as you want?” a recent doctoral student responded.

After some of the footage was edited in the back of an SUV in a parking lot nearby, the video headed to Prager University, a growing hub of the online right-wing media machine, where Witt is a rising star.

Last year PragerU videos racked up more than 1 billion views, the company said. The Prager empire now has a fleet of 6,500 high school and college student promoters, known as the PragerForce. And this year, the company is expanding its scope. PragerU executives are signing stars of the young new right to host made-for-the-Internet shows to fuel 2020 content, including a book club and a show geared to Hispanics called Americanos.

The goal of the people behind all of this — Dennis Prager, the conservative talk show host and impresario of this digital empire, and the venture’s billionaire funders — seems simple: more Will Witts in the world. More pride in US history (and less panic over racism), more religion (specifically in the “Judeo-Christian” tradition), less illegal immigration, more young people laughing at people on the left rather than joining them.

Witt, 23, said he was raised in a relatively liberal home by his mother, and when he arrived at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he was already leaning conservative. But he found his zeal for the culture war on campus. One of his classes offered students extra credit for going to a political protest. Witt submitted that he would go to a nearby speech hosted by right-wing star Milo Yiannopoulos. The teaching assistant told him that would not count, he said.

He was frustrated, feeling lonely, and at home watching videos on YouTube. The site prompted him with a bright animation made by PragerU.

“I must have watched every single one that night,” Witt said. “I stopped going to class. Pretty much all the time, I was reading and watching.”

He did not graduate from college.

The videos are five minutes each, quick, full of graphs and grand extrapolations, and unapologetically conservative. Lessons have titles like: “Why Socialism Never Works” (a series), “Fossil Fuels: The Greenest Energy,” “Where Are the Moderate Muslims?,” and “Are Some Cultures Better Than Others?”

To the founders and funders of PragerU, YouTube is a way to circumvent brick-and-mortar classrooms — and parents — and appeal to Generation Z, those born in the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Prager sees those young people as more indoctrinated in left-wing viewpoints than any previous generation, but also as more curious about the right.

The way PragerU presents its alternative voice is in the measured tone of an online university, carefully avoiding the news cycle and President Trump.

“They take old arguments about the threat of immigration but treat them as common sense and almost normative, wrapping them up as a university with a neutral, dispassionate voice,” said Chris Chavez, doctoral program director at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.

PragerU’s website has a fine-print disclaimer that it is not an actual academic institution.

“PragerU’s ‘5 Minute Ideas’ videos have become an indispensable propaganda device for the right,” the Southern Poverty Law Center warned on its blog.

On PragerU’s website, there is little differentiation between its video presenters. So the late Pulitzer-winning Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer appears on the same page as Michelle Malkin, the commentator who has defended overtly racist elements of the right. For a teenager approaching the site, each headshot in the same size circle, it would be hard to tell the difference between them all.

PragerU began in 2009 as a nonprofit to promote the conservative religious values of Prager, a popular talk radio host and author of books on Judaism. Originally, the idea was to build an actual physical university. Allen Estrin, his producer, would spearhead it.

But a physical building was prohibitively expensive.

“Just to get started would be $250 million,” Estrin said.

He had another idea. He was obsessed with Internet video. Estrin taught screenwriting, but the conservative content he saw online was rambling and baggy. He pitched the early PragerU group: They could make a right-wing university online, in tight five-minute courses.

Marissa Streit, who had been a Hebrew tutor for another PragerU backer, joined as chief executive in 2011, and videos started going out.

“We released a video and had 35,000 views,” Streit said, “and I still remember Allen looked over to Dennis and said, ‘Can you imagine a classroom of 35,000 people?’ ”

Dan and Farris Wilks, hydraulic-fracturing billionaires from Texas, came in with donations. The conservative-leaning Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation joined, too.

Prager leaders said many of their young fans come from liberal homes, and the key for their mission is to reach these people and rescue them from what they describe as liberal indoctrination.

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