Chad Prather appears on screen in classic Texan fashion. He has scruffy facial hair and wears an oversized cowboy hat. His dark-blue wash denim jeans turn white at his knees, covering the length of his square-toed boots. He sits in an angular black leather chair, next to a small table with a few witty props: a decanter of brown booze and a toy bluebird tilted toward the camera. And as he does daily, Prather begins a lengthy discussion of his take on the news to almost 300,000 YouTube subscribers.
In this particular episode he tackles the Biden campaign as the election nears. Prather does a nasally, yappy impression of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Why do they keep allowing this moron to speak to the media?” he says. Then he proceeds to make light of Hunter Biden’s struggles with addiction, before engaging in a one-sided discussion of the impending presidential election. “Get on the horse that drove you here and keep riding. You don’t switch horses in the middle of this race.”
In many ways Prather is the left’s textbook picture of a Trump supporter. He is a self-proclaimed political cowboy who thinks American culture has become too PC. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson has called him “supernaturally articulate.” A man with a deep affection for the Constitution, he regularly exercises his beloved right to free speech in his comedy tours that, after a brief shutdown, have continued into the pandemic since July. Watching him perform, it’s easy to wonder who the real Prather is: a retrograde far-right demagogue, or a savvy social media connoisseur who understands how the Web can bring instant credibility to a shockingly wide variety of unconventional voices that old-fashioned media may have once ignored — from teenagers like Claudia Conway to an ocean off fringe thinkers on the social-media app Parler to Prather himself.
I got on the phone with Prather a week before Election Day. Our conversation was more than cordial. It was friendly. The vulgar man I had come to know from BlazeTV’s “The Chad Prather Show” was much more tame. He is as charming and polite as his claim to internet fame, “Unapologetically Southern,” contends it’s a man’s right to be. He speaks clearly and artfully, and despite his conservative reputation and rhetoric, Prather claims to be a champion of social liberalism. “My gay agent is in Hollywood. My Jewish manager is in Beverly Hills. I’m very much in tune with the culture and the climate, politically and socially.”
Unfortunately for Prather, the standards of what it means to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community goes beyond the act of merely employing a gay person. On “The Chad Prather Show” he can be found laughing as he says that men can’t get periods, blatantly and intentionally demeaning the experiences of trans men who are included in the LGBTQ+ he insists he supports. He embodies a mindset that is somehow able to achieve a separation between the social and the economic that those who fall both to the left and the right of him are unable to. This sort of attitude has been largely mobilized by our soon to be former president, who despite claims of not being racist, has consistently enacted racist policies. Prather, for his part, believes calling the president racist is a cop-out that Democrats use when they cannot fight the logic of a Republican. But Prather has cop-outs of his own: As a man who can’t even grasp the possibility that someone can be biracial, aghast that Kamala Harris identified herself as Black after previously identifying herself as Indian, his understanding of systemic racism is understandably lacking. With Prather, it seems, the claim of desire for equal opportunity is just a rationalization that enables him to make crude jokes that he can claim were just that.
Comedy, Prather argues, is the last bastion of free speech. “It’s heavily under attack because of the cancel culture, the offended culture, the thin skin nature [of American society].” Being a comedian, he says, allows him to get away with things he otherwise might face greater consequences in saying. “We’ve gotten to a point where we can’t even joke anymore,” he says. “We had comedians like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin who went to jail for doing comedy.” Of course, he doesn’t say that Lenny Bruce was a progressive tackling taboo subjects: everything from abortion rights to the double standards between illegal and prescription drugs. Maybe it isn’t Bruce’s critiques of fascism that Prather admires, but rather Bruce’s use of racial and ethnic slurs.
“I don’t think [we should use] censorship, but discernment in what we reveal, and what we try to talk about,” Prather says. He believes it should be the responsibility of the individual to self-regulate who and what they post about. The issue at hand, however, that companies like Twitter and Facebook are faced with is not rooted in who is speaking, but rather who is consuming — because individual consumers, through their posts, are now producing what’s commonly accepted to be news, without any checks and balances to regulate accuracy or motive or hidden agendas. Case in point: Claudia Conway. If four years ago you were asked who a more trustworthy source of information is, the President of the United States or a fifteen-year-old girl on an app that originated with lip sync videos, I imagine your answer would be the former. Now, you might answer the latter without hesitation or embarrassment.
Conway, daughter of President Donald Trump’s now former counselor Kellyanne Conway, was quickly and adoringly adopted by the internet as her TikTok account embodied the type of rebellion against her parents that most kids only dream about. Conway, with an extremist conservative for a mother and a “reasonable Republican” for a father (a Never Trumper) has beliefs that fall on the opposite side of the spectrum to those of her parents.
The Conways were never the picture of the idyllic American family. But the breakdown of the conservative family that their teenage daughter’s intimate, seconds long portraits have facilitated is the exact kind of drama that serves as breeding grounds for people on the far right and the far left to project their beliefs onto. She broke the news of her mother testing positive for coronavirus on her TikTok account. A video of her cowering as her mom screamed at her about the aforementioned video followed. She later made claims about the president’s health that contradicted his own (which she later redacted after an overflow of media attention leading to further protest from her parents). While her speculation is likely just that, many took to trusting a teenage girl who could have potentially overheard a conversation among those close to the Trump administration over the ever-changing and conflicting statements coming from the White House.
Conway is unique in her proximity to the White House, but the root of her rebellion is exemplary of a major change in the way people, and young people especially, consume politics. Young people today have more options for news consumption than their parents ever could have dreamed for. Where previous generations may have been limited to the two cable news channels they had access to and the politics their parents spewed at the dinner table, kids today have innumerous sources of news and information. The change is not just in that Conway was able to dramatically defy her parents and speak her mind and divulge something that seemed confidential to the public; it’s that she did it using the Internet, which gave her a megaphone that previous generations did not have.
This new ability to both consume and project ideologies doesn’t mean that people aren’t still stuck in their own insular echo chambers. The Internet has made it easier than ever to live in a bubble, but the bubbles that people like Conway’s parents were stuck inside have been replaced by new ones — the self-chosen kind that range from Fox News to the political posts of their favorite Twilight fan page.
There are other young people who, like Conway, are trying to break through the media noise, but in more organized and less slapdash ways. Ivy Jaguzny is an 18-year-old activist at Zero Hour, a youth centered movement founded out of frustration around the inaction of elected officials and youth voices being ignored in conversations around climate change and environmental injustice, which connects youth all over the country via the internet. “When I got into climate work, I noticed I was often the youngest person in the room,” Jaguzny says. “The adults working on these issues didn’t feel the same sense of urgency I have always felt.” In terms of consumption of news, she sees herself as an exception among her generational contemporaries; “I’m a weirdo, I have always loved traditional media. As a kid I used to read the New Yorker and I still do. But most of my friends rely on social media for their news, or through each other by word of mouth.”
Prather is approaching 50 now. He is not the face that appears in your head when you think “influencer,” but that is essentially what he is. He has found a career on social media, making a name for himself on platforms like YouTube and Instagram. Notably, he was early to Parler, a social media platform born out of restrictions on Twitter. Parler’s mission is one of unadulterated free speech. The newfound restrictions and censorships of misinformation that have appeared in some social applications do not exist on Parler.
Prather recognizes the limits of Parler as an echo chamber. The first place he goes to get his news is Twitter. “I get instant feedback,” he says. “I can find out anything I’m looking for. I can get people’s opinions on things, which is good, if you know how to interpret those opinions. Because we don’t want to just be pooling our ignorance.” He says he gets his news from a range of sources, the left leaning and the right leaning.
But not everyone has the time or energy to do that regularly. The limitless bounds of having a supercomputer at your fingertips is overwhelming, making it difficult to maintain both involvement and sanity simultaneously. The wave of news we face each day is only complicated by the mess of information mixed with misinformation and the unclear lines of fact and opinion. “The internet has increased my distrust of authority, Jaguzny says. “I see the clown show that is our current government and that has made me more radical.” Perhaps this is why we tend to latch onto our own self chosen echo chambers in the form of media, apps, and public figures — it’s more tangible than consuming everything all at once.
As much as we want to tell ourselves that we are immune to the charms and influences of the internet, whether that be the suspiciously targeted ad for a mop or a deep dive into the rabbit hole of an extremist way of thinking outlined by a succession of unending YouTube videos, we are not. It is easy to romanticize the capacity of a complex worldview that the internet can provide but its power is just as capable of wielding the opposite mindset, sucking one into a single ideology.
A tweet to Prather’s 200,000 followers on Twitter (where his bio, among other descriptors, reads “freelance gynecologist”) says “No more masks. It’s time to start shaming the mandates. If you’re scared stay home.” Top replies to this tweet include personal stories and medical information contradicting Prather’s claim, alongside messages of support. On Parler, he shared the same message, generating a mass of comments referring to Covid as the “China virus” and a claim from a user that he can prove that Covid was spread by Democrats smuggling illegal immigrants into the country, who they are now supposedly camouflaging with masks.
Parler is the perfect manifestation of an echo chamber. It fosters an alt-right community with unfailing dedication to freedom of speech without bounds. Among those with a strong presence on the app are Eric Trump, Proud Boys, Senator Ted Cruz and Prather. There is no conversation; it is endlessly self-validating. And while the immense power that a monopoly of sorts gives apps like Twitter is frightening, it’s also possible that the decentralization of discourse with the emergence of spaces like Parler could pose an even greater threat — intensifying the dangerous political polarization we already face.
The day after our conversation, I tuned into “The Chad Prather Show.” He mentions me and how on our call, like many of his conversations with “the liberals,” he outwitted me. I was unable to fight his logic, he claims. Aside from his apparent schooling of me, Prather acknowledges that we had some disagreement. “Pistols at dawn would solve a lot of friggin’ problems in this country,” he says. While this seemed like a joke, the heart of the matter — his desire for a world where people like myself would be unable to challenge him — seemed to contradict his claimed adoration of open, uncensored political discussion. (And I do hope he is joking, as he is the proud owner of many guns and I proudly am not. Maybe I should borrow one of his?)
These echo chambers are hard to escape. Whether it’s the limits of access faced by previous generations, or the algorithms promoting confirmation bias that we face today, it takes a conscious effort to avoid them. Prather may not be limited to echo chambers in his own consumption, but he has created one himself, spouting an adoration for Trump uncomplicated by anything that doesn’t suit his narrative. Surely Prather must have some understanding of Trump’s failings; in the 2016 primary season, he didn’t understand his appeal at all, favoring Ted Cruz, whom Prather called “the smartest guy in the world.” And given that Prather disliked Hillary Clinton in part because he despises political dynasties, what must he make of Trump installing family and close friends into positions at the White House? When I press Prather on this, he has no problems with it, replying “Jared Kushner has done some good things.”
The polarization that has plagued our country is just as much a product of the confirmation bias of echo chambers as it is one of access to more ideas and information. The unlikeliness of any form of cohesion seems to be one of the few things Prather and I agree on, though we have very different ideas about whether that cohesion is even desirable. But it says something that, despite how confrontational he can be inside his bubble, Prather clearly was catering his answers to me, an outsider, masking his beliefs in a way he thought would be more palatable to someone on the left.
I asked what his reaction to a Biden presidency would be. “I am a constitutional guy,” Prather said. “I want to see a peaceful transfer of power. I think there are a lot of people who take to the streets, they may not even be registered voters in some cases. And they have gotten a taste of blood and they like it. They are going to protest, riot no matter what happens. I hope that doesn’t happen.”
Answering the same question to his followers on his show he said, “Get ready. Buy guns. Lay your ammo out. Prepare for the worst.”