Fascism: Livestreaming and Mainstreaming

Far-right radicalisation on YouTube has recently become a talking point in several big news outlets, mainly due to the story of Caleb Cain or ‘Faraday Speaks’, a left-wing YouTuber who has been vocal about his prior radicalisation by the alt-right on YouTube.[1] There is a significant, profitable and tight-knit far-right network on YouTube: an illuminating report from Data & Society (an independent nonprofit focusing on the social implications of data-based technology and automation), called the ‘Alternative Influence Network’, has traced the strong interconnections between a large group of far-right YouTubers, who often feature each other in their videos.[2]

Though a smaller collection of left-wing YouTubers, known as ‘BreadTube’, have recently been getting welcome press attention and increased subscriber count, currently far-right YouTube is ahead in the subscriber stakes: for instance, prominent white-nationalist and anti-feminist YouTubers Stefan Molyneux and Carl Benjamin are both nearing a million subscribers, while the most well-known member of ‘BreadTube’, Natalie Wynn, has 700,000 (other prominent BreadTube members top out at around 450,000).[3]

As the Data & Society report points out, when far-right YouTubers feature on each other’s videos, their collaborations often take the form of live debates and livestreams: videos which are screened in real time and which attract a smaller, dedicated pool of subscribers. These livestreams are a powerful tool for radicalisation, driven both by the content creators and by the viewers themselves – and we haven’t been paying nearly enough attention to the specific role of the livestream in radicalisation. Unfortunately, far-right creators have been doing so, and there are indications that they’re preparing to reduce what little chance we have of interrupting these insular hives of hatred.

Livestreaming: what’s the danger?

Livestreams often include ‘live chat’, where viewers can comment in real time, and YouTube has a feature called ‘Super Chat’, which allows viewers to donate during the livestream and have any accompanying comments with their donation featured more prominently in return. This can make live chat extremely lucrative: Carl Benjamin has made as much as £300 in an hour in previous livestreams,[4] though his channel has now been demonetised after he made rape jokes about MP Jess Phillips, so he can no longer earn money from Super Chat.[5]

But more important is what these creators’ live chats are actually doing. The vast majority of live chats associated with far-right creators look the same – a high-speed stream of violent bigotry. Content creators are often dependent on staying shielded behind a veil of euphemism and plausible deniability, even if that veil is laughably thin, but live chat commenters have no obligation to do the same. Content creators can’t say ‘gas the Jews’, but live chat commenters can, and they will.

If you join a livestream, intending to watch an interesting debate, you will become submerged in extreme talking points – so extreme that they could never dwell outside of subtext within the videos themselves – to a degree where horrific ideology will quickly start to seem normalised, especially because there is no policing of these live chats, not by YouTube and certainly not by the content creators. Even if the creators themselves may not always be fans of the viewers sending in £14.88 donations, those viewers are certainly profitable. (1488 is a white supremacist reference: 14 is a reference to the ’14 words’ slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”, while 88 is a reference to the 8th letter of the alphabet, HH = Heil Hitler.)

Of course, YouTube comments are famously awful, and plenty of racist and fascist talking points abound in ordinary videos’ comment sections, but the speed of live chat is a particular issue. In the busiest livestreams, multiple messages will come through per second, and they act as an accelerated induction into dangerous far-right rhetoric. The motion of the ‘stream’ adds an extra layer to the problem, because life has been injected into the ordinary poisonous utterances: when viewers log into the stream, they are seeing dozens or hundreds of people talking alongside them – and they’re all saying the same things. This exerts a powerful social force.

Besides jumping up a notch on the extremism scale, live chats are also an immersive induction into the particular rituals and codes of the far right: the dialect, the layers of irony and nod-nod-wink-wink, the dehumanisation and alienation of minorities and leftists through the incessant repetition of minimising language. The content creators themselves will teach you an ideology, but it’s intense environments like live chat which weave you into a community. Man cannot dine on slanted statistics about immigration alone.

You’ll absorb the language fast; you’ll gain a feeling of pride from being able to recognise the symbols, adeptly apply the jokes. And that knowledge – that other people think like this, too – may strengthen radicalised people in their convictions.

How the far right is protecting their live chats

There’s little sign of YouTube adequately monitoring live chat, but the recent demonetisations may herald more, and some far-right YouTubers appear to be realising that non-far-right people being able to see the bile in their live chats may constitute bad optics. (Several prominent far-right YouTubers, such as Lauren Southern, have turned off live-chat replay, so you can rewatch the livestream but you can’t view the original comments.) But there are signs that the far-right are intending to both regain live-chat as an income source and reduce its visibility even further.

Enter Canadian tech startup Chthonic Software.

Chthonic Software are offering a product called ‘Entropy’, which piggybacks off of YouTube (or any other live video streaming service), and which provides a similar service to YouTube’s live chat and Super Chat – live comments, live polling of viewers, viewers can make donations – while promising ‘half the fees and no censorship’, as well as streamlining some of the more muddled elements of YouTube’s live chat and making comments more easily visible.[6]

Through Rachel and Emmanuel Constantinidis, two of Entropy’s three core devs, appear to hold conservative political views, they have stated that they prefer to “stay neutral” and “keep [their] personal politics out of the company”.[7] This claim holds up to approximately three seconds of scrutiny, given where they’ve advertised their product: all of their promotional interviews have been with far-right creators, most prominently Red Ice TV (a channel hosted by Lana Lokteff and Henrik Palmgren, prominent white supremacists and Holocaust deniers) and Mark Collett’s channel (Collett is a white nationalist and former chair of the Young BNP).[8]

They have also Tweeted at conservative media personality Jesse Lee Peterson after he was demonetised, inviting him to “add censorship free interaction and monetization to [his] YT livestreams” by using his product.[9] (Peterson does not wish that women should be able to vote and has stated that black youth should go “back to the plantation”, despite being black himself.)[10]

Chthonic Software are clearly aiming their product specifically at the far right and are cultivating a specifically far right user base. If live chats move to a different platform which can only be accessed during the stream itself (it is unclear whether Entropy keeps records of stream comments which can be accessed after the stream has been screened, though I have seen no indication that they do so), these intense hubs for radicalisation may become even more inaccessible and invisible to the public.

What should we do now?

Entropy is still in its early stages and does not currently have a large amount of engagement, and who knows what size it will reach; though it’s a highly interesting case study, it’s not specifically what we should be focusing on. The point is that the far right know – unlike us – what a powerful tool their live chats are, both for revenue and for circulating their rhetoric in a distilled format.

Breaking open and shedding light on those streams is a very important thing for us to do, and with applications like Entropy, the far right is aiming to keep us from doing so. We need people infiltrating, documenting, reporting, and, most importantly, publicising.

 

 

 

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/08/technology/youtube-radical.html
[2] https://datasociety.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/DS_Alternative_Influence.pdf
[3] https://socialblade.com/youtube/user/stefbot; https://www.statsheep.com/UC-yewGHQbNFpDrGM0diZOLA; https://socialblade.com/youtube/user/contrapoints/realtime
[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I89Pq3cvEwI
[5] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/carl-benjamin-rape-sargon-of-akkad-youtube-jess-phillips-labour-mp-a8909296.html
[6] https://chthonicsoftware.com/#/home; https://twitter.com/EntropyDevs/status/1143260838649716736;
[7] https://discordapp.com/channels/578271038681645059/578271038681645065 – it’s in the #general in their discord, from Emmanuel Constantinidis, on 21/07
[8] https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/from-alt-right-to-alt-lite-naming-the-hate; https://www.adl.org/blog/mark-collett-britains-alt-right-social-media-propagandist;
[9] https://twitter.com/EntropyDevs/status/1162405429139234818
[10] https://www.ibtimes.com/rev-jesse-lee-peterson-sexist-sermon-greatest-mistake-america-made-was-allowing-women-vote-video; https://www.laweekly.com/south-l-a-rev-jesse-lee-peterson-wants-to-send-black-youth-back-to-plantation/