In 2018, British far-right activist Tommy Robinson posted a video on YouTube claiming to be assaulted by an African migrant in Rome. The thumbnail image and eight-word title promoting the video indicated that Robinson was allegedly assaulted by a black man outside a train station. In the video, Robinson hit the man in the jaw, causing him to fall to the ground.
The video has been viewed over 2.8 million times and has been featured in every right-wing UK tabloids, in which Robinson was quickly gaining notoriety for his anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic positions.
For Caolan Robertson, a videographer who worked for Tommy Robinson and helped him create the video, it was an enlightening moment that showed him what the key ingredients were needed to get attention on YouTube and other platforms. social media.
The video confirmed and fueled anti-immigrant sentiments in the UK and Europe. He was focusing directly on a confrontation, quickly cutting between screams and shoves before showing Robinson’s punch. And it gave a false impression of what happened in reality.
“We picked the most dramatic moment – or then we staged it and made it more dramatic,” said Robertson, 25, in a recent interview. “We realized that if we were to have a future on YouTube, that future would have to be fueled by confrontations. Every time we’ve created something like this, the video has gone a lot more viral. “
Caolan Robertson would end up producing videos for a whole range of right-wing YouTube personalities on both sides of the Atlantic, including Lauren Southern, Stefan Molyneux and Alex Jones.
The videos were tailor-made for the “echo chamber” often created by social networks like YouTube. To keep the viewer’s interest alive, YouTube offers videos similar to the ones they’ve watched before. But the more time someone spends watching content on YouTube, the more extreme the videos can get.
“This process can create some very radical people who are like gurus,” says Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube engineer who criticized the way the company’s algorithms direct people to extreme content. “In terms of time spent watching videos, a guru is fantastic.”
Tech companies, regulators, and individuals around the world are struggling to understand and control the enormous power of YouTube and other social media services. In 2019, Farshad Shadloo, a spokesperson for YouTube, said in a statement that the company had made “major changes in the way we recommend videos, to prevent the spread of false information and hateful content.” YouTube arrested Molyneux and Jones. But extreme videos continue to spread.
Robertson said that over time he realized that the videos he created fueled dangerous hatred. And in 2019, at a UK conference hosted by a left-wing newspaper, The Byline Times, Robertson distanced himself from his far-right work. His change in posture has sparked some skepticism.
“He has been described as a prodigal son,” commented anti-fascist activist Louise Raw, who was on stage when Robertson performed his “mea culpa”. “But he has not yet been held accountable for what he did.”
Robertson now explains how he and his associates searched for matchups in order to gain popularity on YouTube.
Efforts to contact Tommy Robinson were unsuccessful, and Alex Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Lauren Southern said she shouldn’t be described as a far-right activist, saying she was just a conservative. She said she was not involved in “a horrible far-right scam aimed at getting people to view our content.” “We were just doing what any other YouTuber does.”
Unedited footage from the Rome episode, provided by Robertson and magazines to the New York Times, shows that the YouTube video was edited to give the false impression that Tommy Robinson was threatened. Full pictures show he was the perpetrator.
In the more than two years he has helped produce and publish videos for Tommy Robinson and others, Robertson has learned how skillful video editing and a focus on confrontations help attract millions. views on YouTube and other services. He also learned how YouTube’s recommendation algorithm often steers people towards more extreme videos.
“That’s why we made more and more radical videos,” said Robertson. He grew up in Ireland. When his parents divorced, he moved with his father to a working-class area in the north of England. Realizing from an early age that he was gay, he often felt like a stranger. But he said he encountered more pronounced homophobia when he went to college in London and wandered around the predominantly Muslim neighborhoods of the East End, east of the city.
After the 2016 gay nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida – when a Muslim man who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militia killed 49 people and injured 53 others – Robertson developed extreme hostility towards Muslims, especially immigrants. He said his anger was largely fueled by the videos he saw on YouTube.
He started watching videos from mainstream channels, such as an episode of the HBO show “Real Time With Bill Maher” in which Sam Harris, author and host of a podcast, postulated that Muslim beliefs should be criticized more. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm steered him towards more radical videos involving figures like Tommy Robinson (original name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon), a former member of the British Nationalist Party, a neo-fascist group and a white nationalist .
In 2017, Robertson searched for Robinson. Soon after, she started working with him as a video producer. At the end of the year, he was also collaborating with Canadian activist Lauren Southern.
The following year, Robertson and Southern traveled to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to create similar videos. Since the creation of the Southern YouTube channel, according to statistics from channels the New York Times had access to, its videos have been viewed more than 63 million times.
Over 71% of people who watched the videos did not subscribe to the activist’s YouTube channel. In 2018, at the height of its popularity, at least 30% of views came after the videos were automatically recommended to viewers by YouTube’s algorithms.
Molyneux avoided the type of conflict Southern embraced. He introduced himself as an online philosopher. But the documents Caolan Robertson edited included “far-right ideas that appealed to ethno-nationalists – far-right audiences,” he said.
In 2018, the two men traveled to Poland to make a video describing the country as a place free from conflict and hardship. The subtext was that this was due to the fact that its population was predominantly white.
In an email to the New York Times, Molyneux said: “It was nice to be in a country where I didn’t have to hire security.” He said he felt the same when he visited Hong Kong.
In early 2019, said Robertson, he was disappointed. There has been a noticeable drop in the popularity of Lauren Southern’s YouTube channel. Around the same time, YouTube began removing more videos that the company was planning to encourage violence and spread misinformation.
After an Australian killed 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, inspired in part by anti-immigrant ideas posted on YouTube, Robertson said he understood the videos he made had led to the same type of violence in the Orlando nightclub. in 2016.
“That day I felt like I came full circle and come back to where I started,” he said.
Today, Robertson watches Byline TV, a branch of the Byline Times. And he heads a new organization, Future of Freedom, which aims to de-radicalize right-wing extremists. It continues to count views on YouTube. In a recent text message, Robertson claimed that a video criticizing Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist he had worked with in the past, was viewed more than 250,000 times in one day.