New Zealand mass shooting illustrates failure of tech companies to prevent radicalization on their platforms
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Benjamin says racial and homophobic slurs are “hilarious” and got kicked off of Twitter after going on a weird rant about the genitals of a Parkland shooting survivor
PragerU, the online operation peppering the internet with viral far-right propaganda, featured bigoted Owen Benjamin in its latest video. Benjamin was kicked off of Twitter permanently in 2018 following a bizarre rant about Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg’s genitals.
Owen Benjamin's Twitter ban comes after he went on a bizarre rant about David Hogg's genitals...see for yourself https://t.co/hiztmQE3IZ
— Will Sommer (@willsommer) April 5, 2018
In his February 4 video, Benjamin attempted to dissuade PragerU’s audience from arguing with leftists by calling “raising kids without a gender identity” “a form of child abuse” and by baselessly claiming white people are being demonized “for the world’s problems.”
Benjamin is a right-wing comedian whose brand of “criminally unfunny” comedy includes using the N-word and homophobic slurs and calling it “hilarious.” He’s also a conspiracy theorist who has claimed to hundreds of thousands of viewers on his YouTube channel that the moon landing never happened.
PragerU has a history of using its massive, wide-reaching platform to push misinformation and extremism. It has blamed racial disparities on "black culture," and on Columbus Day, it featured a video that showed a racist depiction of indigenous people as cannibals wielding salt-and-pepper shakers. On Facebook, the PragerU Brasil page has posted a Russia Today article to its over 14,000 followers falsely claiming that the American Psychological Association had stated it was “bad to be a man.” PragerU’s founder, Dennis Prager, has waged a dangerous, yearslong campaign against basic facts about AIDS, once calling heterosexual AIDS an “entirely manufactured” myth.
And yet, PragerU’s propaganda and misinformation are being inserted directly into schools, as the company provides “content directly to teachers and students” and is “developing relationships with educators ‘in college, high school, middle school and homeschools.’”
Creators are profiting off hateful content
On August 6, YouTube removed the channel belonging to Infowars’ Alex Jones, citing violations of community guidelines.
"All users agree to comply with our Terms of Service and Community Guidelines when they sign up to use YouTube,” YouTube’s parent company, Google, said in a statement to CNBC. “When users violate these policies repeatedly, like our policies against hate speech and harassment or our terms prohibiting circumvention of our enforcement measures, we terminate their accounts.”
YouTube’s action came as numerous other tech companies, including Apple, Facebook, and Spotify, took action against Jones.
But for those who monitor the popular video streaming platform, it’s hard not to see YouTube’s move as a selective, belated, and inadequate action to quell the hate speech that currently thrives on the platform.
In a brief research survey, Media Matters found multiple channels with tens of thousands of subscribers -- and some videos with hundreds of thousands of views -- that seem to clearly violate YouTube’s terms of service about hate speech. These channels expose YouTube’s primarily youthful viewership to some of the vilest propaganda on the Internet, and they make a tidy profit to boot.
A Pew Research Survey found that YouTube is the most popular social media platform among teens. It showed that 85 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds reported using YouTube, and 32 percent said it’s the platform that they use most often. Meanwhile, in the last three years, Facebook usage among teenagers has fallen significantly. Pew also found YouTube to be most popular among 18- to 24-year-olds; 948 percent of respondents said they use the platform. The impact YouTube has on young people is not to be underestimated.
YouTubers with significant audiences can profit by creating content that draws advertisements. It’s difficult to say how much any individual creator makes, but Polygon estimates that a very large creator like Jake Paul -- who is in the top 100 channels in terms of number of subscribers -- makes $10 for every 1,000 views. While this rate is significantly lower for channels with smaller followings,channels that livestream their content -- common practice among far-right YouTubers -- can get additional income by using “super chats.” Super chats allow viewers to pay to have their comments featured prominently. On a livestream, there is usually a constant flow of comments appearing along the side of the video, but super chat comments are placed in a bar at the top of the chat and creators can react to or read them on air. The more a user pays, the longer their comment appears at the top.
Like super chats, donations to content creators can also come in through alternative servers that are not hosted by YouTube, like in the example below.
YouTubers also rely on Multi-Channel Networks (MCN), which provide a variety of services to YouTube creators, including aiding and increasing their monetization rates, expanding audiences, and, most importantly for extremists, appealing YouTube strikes, which are issued when YouTube reviewers are notified that content is in violation of community guidelines.
The impunity with which racists operate on the site -- and the profitability of their efforts -- make YouTube a potent ground for young people to be exposed to toxic ideologies. Or, as Zeynep Tufekci, a professor and expert in social networks, put it in a powerful editorial for The New York Times, “Given its billion or so users, YouTube may be one of the most powerful radicalizing instruments of the 21st century.”
Below is a sample of YouTube channels that Media Matters found to have violated YouTube’s terms of service, but that continue to profitably engage viewers by the tens or hundreds of thousands. In particular, these videos appear to violate YouTube’s policy against “content that ‘promotes violence against or has the primary purpose of inciting hatred against’ protected classes” -- including LGBTQ individuals, Jewish people, African-Americans, and other racial minorities.
Jesse Lee Peterson is a far-right radio host and media personality whose radio show The Jesse Lee Peterson Show airs on Newsmax TV and is reposted to his YouTube page, which currently boasts 135,000 followers. On another YouTube channel with over 159,000 followers, Peterson hosts his show The Fallen State, where he interviews activists, celebrities and other public figures.
Peterson’s YouTube content contains a torrent of anti-Black, anti-gay, and misogynistic hate. In July 2018, he announced it was “white history month,”, saying, “Happy white history month, white folks., Tthis is your country, thank you --, I appreciate it.”
In a video titled “Most Blacks Are Mentally Retarded!” Peterson said Jim Crow laws were good for Black people because they helped their “mentality” and that “most Blacks today, as I mentioned, most Blacks today -- unlike the days when I was growing up -- are mentally ill, they’re mentally retarded.” He has compared the Ku Klux Klan to Black Lives Matter, describing the latter as “a Black, radical, evil, agitated organization that was founded by a bunch of Black lesbians and Black homosexuals.” In another video, Peterson described transgender people as “messed up,” “abnormal,” “confused” people who’ve “been traumatized.” He said refusing to recognize transgender people might help them “overcome their traumas.”
On The Jesse Lee Peterson Show, Peterson gave a platform to notorious neo-Nazi Andrew Auernheimer, also known as “weev,” to spew anti-Semitic, racist, and homophobic hate with zero pushback. In the video titled “WEEV! White Nationalism, Jews, Homosexuals, and Black people - Daily Stormer,” Aurenheimer identified himself as a white nationalist and called the FBI “a Jewish terror organization.” and He said he doesn’t live in the United States because it’s a country “full of whores and faggots and pornography and wickedness.” He called for America to become a white ethnostate because Black people are “the tools of Jewry” who “betrayed the values of all common decency [and] of morality.” He said, “Righteousness and color are equivalent, because segregation increases trust within a society.”
Jean-Francois Gariépy is a YouTube personality and former Duke University student who relies on his background as a neuroscience researcher to give credence to bogus “race science” theories he pushes on YouTube. The long-standing racist trope holds that “humankind is divided into separate and unequal races.” Gariépy has two channels, “JFG Livestreams,” which has 20,000 followers, and “Jean-Francois Gariépy,” which has 40,000 followers. His show The Public Space, which normally streams daily, features a cesspool of white supremacist guests including former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, Nick Fuentes, Mark Collett, Richard Spencer, Mike “Enoch” Peinovich, and Vox Day.
Many of Gariépy’s videos are monetized through advertisement placements. Kelly Weill of The Daily Beast identified Gariépy as an advocate for a white ethnostate. She also described a legal battle he had with his ex-wife in which she alleged that he tried to kidnap their child. A separate lawsuit alleges that Gariépy had a sexual relationship with a 19-year-old autistic teenager and attempted to get her pregnant “for U.S. immigration purposes.”
Gariépy’s The Public Space recently streamed an episode titled “The Truth About German Racial Ideology” with Weronika Kuzniar, a cosplayer and proponent of Third Reich revisionism with multiple books for sale on Amazon who says she works to “De-Weaponize Third Reich History.” During her appearance on Gariépy’s YouTube channel, he described Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf as “pretty solid in terms of understanding basic issues of biology [and] basic issues of race.” Kuzinar responded by citing “a good book” that “denies that there is any anti-Semitism that can be detected in Hitler’s background.”
In a monetized stream he titled “A Discussion with Ryan Faulk about Race, IQ and Nationalism,” Gariépy and guest Ryan Faulk -- the founder of the white nationalist site The Alternative Hypothesis -- discussed the potential for violence that would be required to establish a white ethnostate in America. Faulk claimed that “from a historical sense,” the United States has always been a white country, and “the only real solution today is a full on partition of the United States” based on racial lines. Faulk conceded that “a violent civil war” might be a result of trying to achieve that goal. Gariépy endorsed the idea that violence is possible despite a “modern society that is very polite” because there is “within humans a capacity for violence that can express itself within a few days if people are in the right condition for violence.” They also discussed what Gariépy characterized as the “very mainstream idea” that “there is an observed phenotypical difference” in IQ levels between racial groups.
During a stream with “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer, Gariépy called white nationalism “great” and “a romantic vision and one that could be, even in pragmatic terms, a reality. That would be the only option in the future when the white race has lost so much power across western civilization.” Gariépy has also hosted Patrick Casey of the “alt-right” group Identity Evropa in a monetized stream where Casey said that “the best framework for … human civilization overall to be able to exist” is “a degree of separation between ethnic and racial groups.” In another monetized stream, the anti-feminist Lacey Lynn (who has also appeared on neo-Nazi YouTuber Mark Collett’s show, This Week on the Alt-Right) argued that the movement for women’s suffrage was an “anti-male, … communist, anti-family, anti-nation movement” and praised the “privilege that women had being under coverture” laws, which made women legally subordinate to their husbands.
Nick Fuentes, host of America First with Nicholas J Fuentes, is an “alt-right” online personality whose channel has 17,000 followers and streams approximately five days a week. He was previously fired from Right Side Broadcasting, an online pro-President Donald Trump outlet, after he called for the people who run CNN to be “arrested and deported or hanged.” He also was a participant in the Charlottesville, VA, Unite the Right rally last summer. In a YouTube stream titled “Embrace the State feat. Lucian Wintrich,” Fuentes described himself as an “authoritarian.” During the same stream, in a discussion about the film I Feel Pretty starring Amy Schumer, Wintrich called her a “fat, ugly slob” and Fuentes said she “should be a literal punching bag in some cases.”
During a recent stream titled “The Death of Mollie Tibbets,” Fuentes attacked Hispanic immigrants in the United States, saying, “The problem that we see is it’s the people -- it’s not the culture, it’s not their legal status, it’s not their paperwork; it’s who they are. It’s coursing through their blood, it’s their DNA. They’re different. Race is real. These people are different. They’re not European. It’s not arbitrary that they come from Mexico.” In a different stream, titled “White Identity Gaslighting,” Fuentes applauded the Trump administration for revoking passports from American citizens in Texas. He called this development a “big white pill,” meaning a reason for white supremacists to have hope, and called it one “of the more aggressive approaches to solving the demographic issues.”
In a stream titled “Who *owns* the Media? Hello,” a reference to a tweet from Elon Musk in which he asked the same question, Fuentes called whistleblower Chelsea Manning a “tranny freak” and said she is “mentally ill.”
Fuentes frequently hosts white supremacists on his show. This includes Matt Colligan, known online as “Millennial Matt,” who was a participant in the 2017 rally in Charlotteville and once waved a flag featuring a swastika during a Periscope stream with Lucian Wintrich. During a stream titled “THOT WARS,” Colligan denied the Holocaust, calling it “one of the greatest lies in history,” and said his goal was “to become a public Holocaust revisionist.” Other extremists seen on Fuentes’ America First include Identity Evropa’s Patrick Casey; white nationalist Douglass Mackey, A.K.A. “Ricky Vaughn”; conspiracy theorist and anti-Muslim carnival barker Laura Loomer; and fellow YouTuber Gariépy.
Mark Collett is a 37-year-old British far-right activist and author of the book The Fall of Western Man, which features chapter titles including “The Role of Feminism --The Destruction of the Family Unit.” An open reactionary with extreme white supremacist views, he was once featured in a documentary called Young, Nazi and Proud. He was also acquitted in Britain on charges of inciting racial hatred after a television interview in which he called asylum seekers “cockroaches.”
Currently, Collett has a YouTube channel with 42,000 subscribers. Just last month, he featured David Duke in a livestream called This Week on the Alt-Right. Other recent videos include “The Jewish Question Answered in 4 Minutes,” “The Plot to Flood Europe with 200 Million Africans” (for which, as of this writing, YouTube has “disabled certain features” because it was identified “as inappropriate or offensive to some audiences.”) and “The Death of White America.”
“The Jewish Question Answered in 4 Minutes” includes graphics singling out and identifying journalists as Jews -- which surely violates YouTube’s Community Guidelines. The hate speech policy at YouTube prohibits content “that promotes violence against or has the primary purpose of inciting hatred against individuals or groups based on certain attributes, such as race or ethnic origin [and] religion.”
”In addition, this explicitly anti-Semitic video posits that “Jews have attacked the glue that holds our communities together, with the aim of breaking up Western society” and that Jewish people “seek to strip … power from those of European descent.”
In another video, “The Holocaust: An Instrument of White Guilt,” Collett engages in a winking, coquettish flirtation with Holocaust denial, a classic abuse of the “just asking questions” format. He continually refers to the Holocaust as the “alleged extermination of 6 million Jews at the hands of the German people during World War II.” Ultimately, Collett bemoans the fact that “the Holocaust is the one historical event that cannot be questioned,” and ascribes this to “Zionist power.” At the video’s conclusion, he seems to suggest that the Holocaust was inspired by righteous forces: “The Holocaust is the most powerful tool in the promotion of a mindset that is foisted upon those of European descent in order to make them feel guilty for pursuing self-determination, to make them feel guilty for loving their own."
Another video with over 100,000 views blames Jewish people for the pornography industry.
In addition to explicitly anti-Semitic content, Collett also traffics in conspiracy theories about the cruel regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad (“Assad Didn’t Do It -- Faked Syrian Gas Attack”) and about LGBT individuals, whom he claims are seeking to “normalize paedophilia” through “debased degeneracy.” Although the latter video was flagged as “inappropriate,” it has garnered over 137,000 views.
Red Ice TV is an explicitly racist channel that boasts an impressive viewership: With 227,000 subscribers, its hosts claim to reach 1 million viewers a month. Most of their videos draw audiences in the tens of thousands.
The channel was founded by Henrik Palmgren and his wife, Lana Lokteff, far-right white supremacists whose content is consistently racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant.
The channel has hosted extremist Richard Spencer and featured Holocaust denier Kevin Macdonald discussing the “JQ” (Jewish Question).
Lokteff has received attention in the media as one of the few female faces of the “alt-right,” while her husband and cohost Palmgren took part in the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, VA, which resulted in the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer after a white nationalist drove a car into a crowd.
In a June video (which as of this writing has been flagged as “inappropriate” but is still accessible after a couple clicks) titled “Why Interracial Relationships are Pushed on White Women,” with over 500,000 views, Lokteff stated, “I do not accept the promotion of interracial relationships, it is very targeted and promoted to white people… You should think your race is the most attractive.” Later in the video, she claimed that “a mulatto baby” was a “trendy” accessory for modern women -- “forget the purse.”
The channel continually stirs up fear about immigration -- calling immigration advocates “anti-white poison” -- and stoking the racial fears of a white, male audience.
Many commentators have noted the radicalizing effect viewing increasingly extreme content can have on viewers. YouTube’s ongoing decision to continue to allow channels that are in blatant violation of its terms of service while rewarding their extremist creators through monetary incentives is a dangerous abdication of responsibility on the part of the media giant.
For a brief time, searching for Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg on the video site brought up baseless accusations
On the morning of July 30, if you were searching YouTube for Tom Hanks or Steven Spielberg -- wanting to learn a little about Hollywood royalty, or just to find that funny clip from Big you loved years ago -- you would have been in for an unpleasant surprise.
As NBC’s Ben Collins first pointed out on Twitter, the search results for Hanks and Spielberg were dominated by conspiracy theories, alleging that both Spielberg and Hanks -- along with other celebrities including like Seth Green and Macaulay Culkin -- were pedophiles and, a part of a nefarious ring of Hollywood child predators that online conspiracy theorists had dubbedentitled #Pedowood.
The videos that popped up upon searching for Spielberg and Hanks were low-quality-fi, rambling, close-up shots, several made by a man named Isaac Kappy, a minor actor who has spent the last week posting video-recorded rants on YouTube with titles like “Famous Actor Exposes Hollywood Pedophiles! Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks And More! #Pizzagate.” Thanks to rapid dissemination on message boards Reddit and 4chan, the videos garnered hundreds of thousands of views and shot up in the YouTube rankings, eclipsing interviews and movie clips featuring the stars.
The hashtag #Pizzagate included in the title of Kappy’s video is a reference to the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which posits that prominent Democrats are running a child sex-slave ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. The conspiracy theory culminated in one adherent firing an automatic weapon inside the pizzeria. According to BuzzFeed, the newfound allegations of pedophilia against Hanks can be traced back to Twitter user Sarah Ruth Ashcraft, a prominent member of the QAnon conspiracy theory community, which grew out of Pizzagate and has mushroomed into baroque complexity. The ever-growing QAnon conspiracy theory, which is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of events, asserts that a broad array of prominent figures with liberal leanings are part of an international child sex-slavery operation. The theory has hundreds of thousands of devotees on Reddit, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter and countless dedicated blogs. (Roseanne Barr is a prominent believer in QAnon.) People are even showing up to Trump rallies dressed in "Q" apparel.
People lining up for the Trump rally in Tampa today. A lot of the chan anons might treat Q-Anon like a LARP, but by all appearances there are plenty of people who take it seriously irl. pic.twitter.com/uys7kmnAs1
— Travis View (@travis_view) July 31, 2018
Ashcraft, who frequently uses the hashtag #QAnon, has over 45,000 Twitter followers and uses her page to decry “Ritual Abuse, Mind Control, Child Porn, and Sex Trafficking,” focusing her ire on the alleged wrongdoings of celebrities like Hanks. (Since Ashcraft’s accusations against Hanks made headlines, and after BuzzFeed pointedly reached out to the social media company, her Twitter page has been restricted.)
After NBC’s Collins reached out to YouTube for comment, some of the conspiracy-theory videos dropped in search rankings for the celebrities. A spokesperson for YouTube told Buzzfeed, “We’re continuously working to better surface and promote news and authoritative sources to make the best possible information available to YouTube viewers.”
The hyperconnectivity of social media can make constructive messages spread fast -- and destructive falsehoods spread even faster. This latest incident is another powerful illustration of the ways in which social media can be gamed by conspiracy theorists. It’s an issue social networks have struggled to fully grasp; any suppression of conspiracy theorists’ pages, after all, lends credence to the notion that they are oppressed keepers of vital truths. Infowars’ Alex Jones was recently personally banned from Facebook for 30 days after the platform determined that several videos he shared were determined to have violated community standards; Jones and his fanbase reacted with predictable opprobrium and claims of censorship. But Facebook did not assert that Jones’ penchant for spreading baseless conspiracy theories was part of the rationale for the ban; instead, it focused on policies regarding hate speech and bullying. That, in turn, raised questions of why Infowars as a whole did not receive a ban.
Social media platforms that purport to be concerned with the spread of "fake news" must consider -- and contain -- conspiracy theories proactively, not just when journalists point them out. Left unchecked, those conspiracy theories have a direct connection to subsequent harassment and worse.