Oh yes, they were riled. They went to their bedrooms, put on their headphones and whinged into the camera, and not just for five minutes. When it comes to defending their right to spew racism and misogyny on YouTube, the American far right cannot express themselves in chunks of time shorter than an hour.
What got them riled was a report from the research institute Data & Society entitled Alternative Influence, which used network analysis to show how modern fascism is spread inside a wider echo chamber of risqué controversialism, pulp academia and staged controversy on the YouTube platform.
The report shows not just that – as in the offline world – fascism thrives within a wider culture of reactionary ideas, but that YouTube has been designed to facilitate this happening.
“The platform, and its parent company, have allowed racist, misogynist, and harassing content to remain online – and in many cases, to generate advertising revenue – as long as it does not explicitly include slurs,” writes the report’s author Rebecca Lewis. “YouTube also profits directly from features like Super Chat which often incentivizes ‘shocking’ content.”
Lewis’ report provides the first forensic analysis of the techniques used by online fascists to nest their calls for action within more acceptable, jokey or academic content. She cites, for example, the “debate” between British YouTuber Carl Benjamin – known as Sargon of Akkad – and the American fascist leader Richard Spencer, which was the world’s number one trending video in January this year, and has racked up almost half a million views since then.
The debate event, which lasted four-and-a-half hours, was judged by those who reacted live to be won by Spencer: he spoke more confidently and found a whole new audience. Though vloggers like Benjamin repeatedly pose as critical friends to the outright fascist right, their function is provide an echo chamber for, and a gateway to, the most extreme ideas.
Lewis shows how the online right use all the techniques YouTube itself incentivises to drive traffic and revenue: the “superchat” button, where users pay to have their views promoted, the use of search engine optimisation, which uses keywords to drive viewers towards specific highly charged words important to the new right ideology.
They use testimonials, where the more moderate racist endorses the more extreme guy, and always frame their politics – pseudoscientific racism, attacks on political correctness etc – as the unique product of their own personal journey through hurt, rejection and censorship.
Hannah Arendt, in her discussion of the rise of Nazism in Germany, devoted a long passage to the importance of the division between fanatics and sympathisers, a division consciously fostered by the use of “front” organisations. For most people their first contact with Hitler’s party came not via uniformed street action, or a banner-toting rally, but through a cultural or economic group populated by non-fanatics. Arendt wrote:
“The sympathisers, who are to all appearances still innocuous fellow-citizens in a non-totalitarian society, can hardly be called single-minded fanatics; through them, the movements make their fantastic lies more generally acceptable, can spread their propaganda in milder, more respectable forms, until the whole atmosphere is poisoned with totalitarian elements which are hardly recognisable as such but appear to be normal political reactions or opinions.”
Though today’s alt-right organises through more networked, looser and distributed structures, it is striking that it has maintained this strategy, and achieved the same results. Through numerous online networks, ranging from anonymous Twitter accounts, the “chan” bulletin boards, closed Facebook groups and YouTube, it has achieved exactly this: the normalisation of racism, homophobia, misogyny, political violence, targeted harassment and attacks on science itself.
The difference is that the modern “front” is not simply a dilution of fascism, but loudly protests that it is not itself fascist, and – as in the case of Benjamin – makes incompetent attempts to argue with fascists as a way of showcasing them. It was the forensic way in which Lewis identified precisely this technique in her report that made her, and the two other women involved in the research, the target of a two-hour diatribe on YouTube itself by the alt-right Swedish vlogger Henrik Palmgren.
This poses a range of challenges to liberal societies and to the left. Recent academic studies of alt-right sympathisers show that they are, indeed, divided into people prepared to glorify their own violence and those uneasy about it; rabid authoritarians completely sold on destroying democracy, and a wider group suffering from cultural insecurity. The political challenge is to defeat both, but in the process the task of preventing the evolution of the authoritarian conservative into the fascist is important.
I can think of no better way of doing this than excising the entire alt-right from YouTube. Hate speech is, in many countries illegal; incitement to rape and violence is a crime, so why does the world’s third biggest company, staffed largely by liberals, feminists and rationalists, want to make money by providing an echo chamber?
Some students of the alt-right argue that, by censoring them, we feed their narrative of paranoia. That is a danger. But YouTube is not a civil society in miniature: it is a business, and has business ethics and a reputation to maintain. It has already kicked the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones off the platform; it would be very easy to remove not just the open fascists but any of the useful idiot brigade who knowingly platform them and drive customers to their books and lectures.
To do this would require a mixture of redesigned algorithms and prudent human judgement, challenging the fiction that YouTube and other social networks are “platforms not publishers”. It would mean YouTube’s executives having to take an overt business decision that they do not want their platform to be the primary means of spreading far-right ideologies such as “race science” or anti-vaccination mythology.
The far-right would still be free to make videos and send them to each other. But by depriving them of network tools and incentives, the world’s primary online video platform would be taking a major stand in favour of democracy. And their sympathisers in the echo chamber would then face a choice: stop driving traffic and attention to the outright fascists, or lose access in the same way.
Depriving fascism of its platform online is, in current circumstances, even more important than confronting it on the streets. Its strategy is not a direct read-off from the Hitlerite playbook, which begins with street violence and ends with state power. Modern fascists are quite happy operating in the parallel universe of online influence, doxxing political targets, polluting the information society, acting as a provisional wing of authoritarian conservatism, while politicians like Trump, Salvini and Le Pen do the heavy lifting in thousand dollar suits.
So it is in the interest of all of us that YouTube’s executives develop an editorial and political morality. I doubt CEO Susan Wojcicki thinks it’s cool to be running the primary transmitter of racism, fascism and misogyny in the world. But it’s time to stop.
Because, thinking strategically, an America run by Richard Spencer would have no use for YouTube, nor indeed Google as a liberally-run company, or the internet as a neutral platform. As Arendt reminded us in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “totalitarian movements use and abuse democratic freedoms in order to abolish them”.