On the internet, strong opinions are magnets for trolls, but that hasn’t deterred Riley J. Dennis from her efforts to create change online.

Riley J. Dennis
Subscribers: 73,253
Uploads: 187
Video Views: 6,884,638
Channel Type: Entertainment
User Created: Jul 7th, 2011

Riley J. Dennis’ channel exists between fame and invisibility. To people outside of queer activism circles, she’s just another left-wing political channel. To those who are aware of her work, she’s a world-changer and queen of dealing with harassment. We grabbed Riley for a chat in between her rigorous video schedule and travel experiences in Australia. We decided to chat about inspiration, dissension and Mario Kart.

Riley J. Dennis with Like button pillow in background

While her channel now leans towards political change and queer culture, it began with book reviews. “I made some videos about books and other random things to do my part to contribute to that [small YouTuber] community, and maybe make some friends,” Riley explains. This was before acknowledging that her “opinionated side came out,” prompting her to make videos about feminism and politics.

“As those videos gained popularity, I was kind of forced out of ‘small YouTube’ by large waves of harassment that made it nearly impossible for me to engage positively with people on YouTube,” Riley states. “So, now I’m making videos not for a community for myself, but because I know my videos inspire and help people, especially young and/or closeted queer people,” she notes.

Riley J. Dennis with picture in picture of Luigi from Mario Kart
Though much of Riley’s content digs deep into important political and social issues, you’ll still find the occasional Mario Kart video.

Being a role model to those who watch her isn’t easy. Plus, heavy involvement in American politics can certainly drag just about anyone down. That’s why Riley includes the occasional video on light-hearted topics. These include videos on which Mario Kart characters are queer (spoiler: all of them). Or, videos on the best parts of being a lesbian (spoiler: it’s the girls). More importantly, Riley explains that “While I think we should all be informed about what’s going on in the world, we also need to take some time to chill and relax.”

If that relaxation includes video games and queer culture, then we’re 100% here for it.

Riley J. Dennis in thumbnail from Perks of Being a Lesbian video

Making politics accessible

The content that Riley J. Dennis creates is the definition of passion with purpose. Her love for creating content truly aligns with her aims to make a difference in the world, or at the very least in how people view the world. “With my educational videos, I want to make seemingly-complicated topics easy for everyone to understand. A lot of times I read articles or watch videos about political topics and they’re steeped in jargon. They require a lot of prerequisite knowledge, which makes it highly inaccessible to people who aren’t familiar with the topic.”

Riley J. Dennis in video on marginal tax rates
Riley’s goal is to make difficult subjects more accessible. You don’t need to be an economics expert to understand marginal tax rates.

Riley’s videos break down complex issues, such as marginal tax rates and universal income. The aim is to ensure that those who have little to no background in politics, economics or intersectional feminism can understand what’s going on in the world. This is the cornerstone of Riley’s online presence. It’s this impressive, well-researched work that has seen her efforts recognized by GLAAD, Bustle, Autostraddle, and Broadly. The Independent even called Riley a “Lesbian Icon,” which she has incorporated seamlessly into her branding.

Activism vs slacktivism

Being a well-known activist garners Riley a lot of attention, whether she likes it or not. Critics sometimes label her work as slacktivism. The term critiques people who talk about issues online instead of going into the “real world” to protest.

“I think that any form of activism is useful — not just ones that require you to go to a physical place. Lots of people  —  especially lower-income folks  — have jobs that don’t allow them to make it to protests. Oftentimes protests aren’t super accessible for disabled folks. And people from communities of color might not feel safe going to a protest where there may be a police presence. In those cases and many others, people can turn to online activism as a way to help. To me, being an activist means fighting to make the world a better place, regardless of how you do that.”

Riley’s educational activism is crucial for creating good in the world. This is particularly true in an age where “fake news” floods our timelines, and thus opinions come without any data to back them up. By creating videos that require hours (or days) of research, Riley is able to cut through the nonsense and deliver edu-tainment at its finest. And she does consider her videos to be a form of activism. “Educating people and giving them a clear path to how they can help…is a kind of activism,” she explains.

YouTube as a broken home

YouTube, Riley’s primary home on the internet, has been under scrutiny in the past for how it supports LGBTQ+ creators, or rather the lack of support in that area. From placing queer videos in a “restricted mode” setting, to demonetizing all sorts of trans-related content, it’s no surprise that many LGBTQ+ YouTubers are disheartened by YouTube’s efforts to care for its thriving LGBTQ+ community.

Despite this, Riley acknowledges that the platform’s existence has helped many queer creators to find their voice. YouTube’s low start-up costs also contribute to the success of some YouTubers. “You don’t need to have the connections and money to make a deal with a massive TV or media company, because YouTube allows anyone to get started literally just from their phone or a cheap camera.”

This accessibility is important in bringing awareness to the experiences and voices of marginalized groups. The criticisms of the platform often come from a place of love and of wanting to see YouTube do better.

Put the haters on mute

Critics have consistently called YouTube out for allowing large amounts of hateful and extremist content to go live. Barriers for repeat offenders often come too late or not at all.

Riley’s channel has certainly seen the worst of it. Throughout 2017 there were several ongoing harassment campaigns against her. This trend saw channels gain hundreds of thousands of subscribers just by talking about Riley. New channels even popped up dedicated to tearing her down.

Riley J. Dennis with How to Apologize at the bottom of the image in white text on a pink background

Riley has consistently risen above it all. She chooses not to respond to people who need her upload schedule and name in order to maintain their own relevancy. “Eventually I learned that the only way to really cope with it is to not see it. I rarely look at my comments sections or anything like that. So those angry, hateful people are just shouting into an empty void. As far as I know, there is no healthy way to engage with so much hatred at that scale. Humans just weren’t built for that. So I’m a big proponent of doing whatever is necessary to protect yourself.”

She has some advice for people dealing with harassment online. “Stay offline for a bit if necessary, lock down your social media profiles, block whoever you want, mute certain words, etc,” Riley urges.

“There is no secret to dealing with online harassment ,” she continues. “You just got to do your best to not see it.”

Staying motivated

Creating videos about politics and feminism certainly comes with its fair share of negativity. It’s a relatively easy decision, however, for Riley to continue making videos. The political landscape, particularly in America, has been tumultuous at the best of times during the last three years.

Riley says that she “enjoy[s] helping people navigate these extremely confusing and frustrating times. I love getting messages from people saying that I helped them understand something or change their mind on an issue. There’s so much happening in the world right now that it can all feel a bit chaotic and hopeless, and I just want to give people hope that we can make things better.”

It’s this message of hope that makes Riley’s content shine through. Her videos help to remove the feelings of hopelessness that many marginalized communities are experiencing during the Trump era. The content that Riley creates aims for sustainable impact over fleeting influence. Riley believes that “if we focus on centering compassion for marginalized groups, we can achieve amazing things.”

Riley J. Dennis smiling slightly with a hand on her face with the ocean in the background

Education leads to change

Making politically-charged videos in an arguably hostile political environment is a challenge, with positives potentially difficult to pinpoint. Riley’s focus on education instead of mere influence ensures her motivation is hard to kill.

“My favorite part of doing all of this is knowing that I might be contributing to making the world a slightly better place, one video at a time.”

Creating change for good, focusing on impact instead of influence and a passion for making education entertaining and accessible are drivers that will see Riley go far. We can’t wait to see where it will take her next.