Video sharing turbulence: Alternative platforms hosting hate speech and misinformation


The Buffalo shooter livestreamed his rampage on Twitch, a platform owned by Amazon, which quickly removed it. But the gruesome footage was reposted on BitChute, where it stayed for days. — Photo by Leon Bublitz on Unsplash

Continued from ‘New breed of video sites thrive on misinformation and hate’

Since 2020, under rules enforced by the British media regulator Ofcom, BitChute must protect the public from “harmful content”. This means, primarily, content that would be deemed a criminal offense under laws relating to terrorism and child sexual abuse, or content that incites violence or hatred against particular groups. Ofcom can impose heavy fines or even suspend a platform.

Ofcom and BitChute told Reuters they had consulted with each other on content to ensure compliance – “while maintaining our free speech guidelines,” added BitChute. But that doesn’t mean BitChute has removed all potentially harmful content. Ofcom told Reuters that the regulations don’t require BitChute to proactively police itself; rather, BitChute only has to remove content that someone – for example, a user or advocacy group – has reported as a violation of its terms and conditions. Moreover, the regulations apply only to BitChute’s videos and not to its user comments.

A Reuters review of BitChute’s British site found myriad examples of content promoting hate and violence, including the videos of white men beating black men and the racial slurs in their comment sections.

Ofcom said it hadn’t launched any investigations or issued any fines under the 2020 regulations against BitChute or any other company.

BitChute issued a public report in June on how it had moderated tens of thousands of videos. Most were flagged for copyright issues; others promoted terrorism, violent extremism or incited hatred. BitChute said that, in most cases, it either removed the videos or restricted their distribution in certain countries.

Reuters found that some videos blocked by BitChute in Europe remain on BitChute in the United States, where free-speech protections for social media are especially robust. In addition to constitutional protections, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act stipulates that social media firms cannot be held legally responsible for the content that users post on their platforms.

The BitChute content blocked in Britain, but still freely available in America, includes swastika-adorned videos that attacked Jews and Blacks, and adoring montages about Adolf Hitler with names such as, "We Need You Now – Happy Birthday Mein Fuhrer.”

A lizard person

BitChute’s online traffic grew 63% in 2021 over the previous year, to 514 million visits, according to Similarweb, the digital intelligence firm. For comparison, that’s more than double the online audience of MSNBC.com, the website of the cable news channel known for left-leaning opinion hosts.

But BitChute’s funding model appears fragile. In the December interview, Vahey said he had turned down investors because he refused to compromise on free speech. He said he mostly covered his monthly running costs of US$50,000 (RM223,375) through donations and subscriptions. The site also has some advertising.

BitChute’s closest rival, Odysee, attracted 292 million visits last year. But it has taken a different path to get there.

Odysee grew from a company called LBRY (pronounced "library”), co-founded in 2015 by Jeremy Kauffman, a US tech entrepreneur and radical libertarian who financed LBRY by creating his own cryptocurrency. The company’s other founders did not respond to requests for comment.

Kauffman, 37, lives in New Hampshire, where he’s running a long-shot campaign for the US Senate on the state’s Libertarian Party ticket in November’s midterm elections. His hardline version of the Party’s anti-government philosophy includes abolishing the Federal Reserve, the Internal Revenue Service and child-labor laws.

Kauffman promoted his Senate campaign with a bizarre video posted on Twitter in May. He addresses the camera in an ill-fitting crocodile costume and speaks as images flash on the screen of snarling aliens, Godzilla and President Joe Biden with a forked tongue. "I want to become a lizard person,” Kauffman says. "I would like to rule you.”

The act appeared to reference the lizard-people conspiracy theory, which holds that governing elites are really blood-sucking alien reptiles in human form.

Kauffman also posts provocative statements on Twitter. "Being unvaccinated and being Black are both choices,” he tweeted in August 2021, with a picture of a light-skinned Michael Jackson. He told Reuters the tweet was a joke.

"I think it’s funny,” said Kauffman, the sole occupant of LBRY’s plainly furnished headquarters in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire. "If you don’t think it’s funny,” he said, "you don’t have to look at it.”

In college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, Kauffman studied computer science and physics, and played competitive frisbee. He had little experience in publishing when, in 2015, he set up LBRY with four others, promising to bring "freedom back to the web,” according to an early investor pitch.

LBRY’s business model relied on sales of its own cryptocurrency, called LBC. Launched on the cusp of a crypto boom, the price jumped, pushing the company’s value to $1.2 billion.

But in March 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued LBRY, alleging that selling a cryptocurrency to finance its operations amounted to an unregistered securities offering. Kauffman attacked the commission in tweets and interviews as "monsters,” and told Reuters he had spent US$2mil (RM8.93mil) on legal fees on a "Kafka-esque” fight. The Securities and Exchange Commission declined to comment on the case, which is still pending.

Even before the suit, demand for LBC was faltering. After its 2016 launch, the currency’s value swung up and down, reaching US$1.29 (RM5.78) in early 2018 before collapsing, according to CoinGecko, a website that tracks cryptocurrency values. It now trades at about two cents.

The company started a streaming platform in late 2019 called LBRY.TV. It courted creators who specialized in technology, cryptocurrencies or science, but also attracted conspiracy theorists and extremists seeking an alternative to YouTube. Paul Webb, a web developer who joined LBRY in 2017, said he raised objections when he found out the site featured videos of a leader of the Proud Boys, the far-right group whose current leader and four associates are now charged in connection with the Jan 6 Capitol riot.

On a video call with Kauffman, Webb presented research on the Proud Boys by groups that track extremists. Webb said he argued that "we have a responsibility not to give people like that a platform.” Kauffman disagreed and said the controversy generated publicity for LBRY, according to Webb, who now works at a digital design agency based in Canada.

Asked about the exchange, Kauffman said: "Even morally questionable groups, such as Reuters journalists or the Proud Boys, should be allowed to speak to others that want to hear them.”

LBRY.TV was rebuilt and rebranded as a new website, Odysee, in late 2020. The following year, the operation was put into a new subsidiary of LBRY called Odysee Holdings Inc, with a new chief executive. Kauffman remains the CEO of LBRY, but Odysee is now run by Julian Chandra, both men said in interviews. Chandra had worked at the popular Chinese-owned short-video app TikTok before joining LBRY and taking over Odysee.

He told Reuters he wants to make Odysee a profitable platform that serves a bigger, more mainstream audience, moving beyond Kauffman’s libertarian politics and his original vision for the video-sharing site. Odysee is seeking to grow revenue through advertising and premium ad-free subscriptions.

Odysee’s traffic has grown exponentially. Like BitChute, it has fed off the turbulence surrounding Covid-19 lockdowns, mass vaccinations and Trump’s false claims about the US election in November 2020. That month, Odysee’s visits doubled to about 6 million, according to Similarweb. In January 2021 – the month Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol – it almost tripled again, to 17 million. By August, the total almost doubled again, to 33 million.

Odysee still bills itself as a bulwark for free speech. When YouTube last year removed several videos condemning alleged human rights abuses by China against Uyghur Muslims, Odysee provided an alternative home. It did the same for RT and Sputnik after YouTube and Facebook blocked the Russian propaganda channels in March. In a statement on Twitter, Odysee said: "We are not banning any news network. It’s a slippery slope.”

It remains a sanctuary for controversial figures. Megan Squire, a professor at Elon University in North Carolina who researches online extremism, has identified more than 100 channels on Odysee from right-wing extremists and conspiracy theorists.

Chandra acknowledged that such content existed on Odysee but said it didn’t define the platform. He said the company removes content that promotes terrorism, hatred or violence towards other groups.

Yet Odysee remains a home to neo-Nazis. Joseph Jordan, who produces videos under the pseudonym of "Eric Striker,” co-founded the white supremacist National Justice Party. In his videos on Odysee, he praises Hitler, denies the Holocaust happened and argues for policies protecting whites against Blacks. Jordan did not respond to a request for comment.

"You want me to delete this person because of what exactly? He hasn’t broken any laws,” Chandra said. "You don’t like a channel, don’t watch the channel. It’s very simple.” – Reuters

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