Digital Turf Wars: PragerU vs the Gravel Institute

Claire Saunders
April 27, 2022

If you’re politically engaged on Twitter, or any other social media platform, chances are you’ve heard of either PragerU or the Gravel Institute (and probably both). While they represent very different ideological constituencies, these two content creators are today’s digital real estate moguls – as they fight for our national political culture, PragerU and the Gravel Institute continue to expand, each competing to lay claim to as much of our virtual landscape as possible. How did we get here?

PragerU, short for Prager University, is a conservative think tank founded in 2009. Legally registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, PragerU takes a relatively humorous and lighthearted approach to its work, disseminating multimedia content (often hosted by right-wing pundit Dennis Prager himself) across several social media channels. Vanity Fair has written that the think tank “packages right-wing social concepts into stylish videos” covering everything from happiness to religion, crediting PragerU as “one of the most effective transformation tools for young conservatives.” With almost three million subscribers and over one billion views on YouTube, PragerU had nearly conquered our digital, political ecosystem – until two years ago.

The Gravel Institute, founded in 2020, is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit known for hard-hitting, no-nonsense digital media content. Though they launched on Patreon, the Gravel Institute now boasts a rapidly growing social media presence and website – an infrastructure intentionally created to help them, in their words, both beat the right on their own turf and push non-traditional political audiences to the left. The Gravel Institute is named after former Senator Mike Gravel, who passed away just last year, and is heavily influenced by longtime Democratic political strategist Henry Williams. It also sells a wide range of branded merchandise.

Independent of its war with the Gravel Institute, PragerU is often criticized for spreading misinformation. Both Reuters and the Weather Channel have found that PragerU’s videos promote inaccurate and misleading claims about global warming, for instance – and according to several other reputable sources, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, PragerU has basically become an avenue for conspiracy theorists to peddle the sordid details of their conjectures. Conservative cultural institutions also criticize PragerU from time to time, most prominently around its decision to disavow Hollywood comedian Owen Benjamin and its in-your-face support of Israel.

Why is this ideological battle worth paying attention to? Well, primarily because it’s happening right in front of us; PragerU and the Gravel Institute often go directly toe-to-toe online. On launching, for instance, the Gravel Institute published a video discounting PragerU as a stream of lies funded by oil billionaires, telling readers to swarm their enemy’s YouTube comments sections. PragerU retaliated by reposting their own advertisements under every single negative comment left on their videos – a deceptively brutal and scathing countermeasure, especially given their simultaneous refusal to even acknowledge the spat in the first place.

It's also important to understand this cultural war in the context of our incredibly polarized general political climate. Search “PragerU” and you’re as likely to find comments like ‘Delete PragerU from the internet” and “PragerU is transphobic” as you are to find praise. Search the Gravel Institute and you’ll see just as many critiques – think “the Gravel Institute is PragerU for 15-year-old communists with anxiety disorders” – as you will celebratory remarks. There seems to be little room for middle ground in this fight for generational hearts and minds.

While PragerU still clings to its digital political culture crown, the Gravel Institute is well on their way to outpacing the conservative think tank – though PragerU dominates YouTube, the Gravel Institute is quickly gaining ground on social media platforms (especially Twitter), and it’s not difficult to see why. The Gravel Institute is a crowd-funded community, as opposed to PragerU’s top-down approach to its work, and relies on followers to not only consume its content but to both create and promote their own videos as well.

PragerU and the Gravel Institute are fighting, loudly, throughout our digital marketplace of ideas. One side is supported by corporate elite with deep financial pockets; the other is supported by donations and earned media. The Gravel Institute seems to be winning, for now – type “PragerU” into YouTube and the platform now shows videos from their leftist counterpart debunking their original conservative content; PragerU even sued Google for alleged discrimination in search result listings (and lost).

Of course, there’s no guarantee that the Gravel Institute can truly eliminate PragerU from social media entirely. It’s likelier that the two will have to learn to share the space, locked in ideological and petty disputes until some seismic shift occurs in our national political culture. Whatever happens, though, it’s an undeniably epic battle for now.

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