Making Crime Pay for ‘Tommy Robinson’: How YouTube Rewards Violent Radicalisation
The confessions of Tommy Robinson’s filmmaker, Caolan Robertson, show how Google’s video site drove them to produce ever more extreme content and rewarded the EDL founder with a quarter of a million pounds in the four days after he was sent to jail.
‘Tommy Robinson’ and Caolon Robertson stopped working for the Canadian far-right media organisation Rebel Media in 2018 and set up their own dedicated video service, Tommy Robinson Online, which accumulated nearly 400,000 subscribers on YouTube.
Their most successful video, viewed more than a million times, involved following the trail of an Italian journalist who had allegedly been attacked by migrants in Italy.
The video – Italy: What Really Happened when a Migrant Attacked – depicts Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, being surrounded by an intimidating group of migrants at a railway station in Rome, and hitting one of them in the face.
But, close examination of the original footage shows that, far from being a victim of a threatening group of men, Robinson had pushed a migrant into the path of a passing car, and then struck him a few minutes later.
The ensuing scenes of confrontation in the published video were actually after the assault by Robinson had taken place, when bystanders and the police reacted.
Robertson and his colleague, reviewing the footage in more detail, admit that they distorted the sequence of events. They say they were in a rush to get the film out and edited it to emphasise the threatening nature of the situation. “It was edited in a way to make it look like the migrant was lunging towards him and that he was being attacked,” Caolan Robertson explained to Byline Times. “And then that video exploded and went viral… those sorts of videos were recommended to others because they were being watched.”
Youtube Radicalises and Rewards
However, it’s not just subjective editing that powered increasingly inflammatory videos on social media, but the YouTube system itself.
YouTube is the world’s largest platform for creating, sharing and discovering video content.
One of the innovations that has powered the far-right is the algorithm behind the ‘recommendation’ system which, in 2016, was modified using neural networks to deliver personalised content to more than a billion users using a ‘trending’ feature. This meant that, once the server had delivered a far-right or conspiracy theory video to the ‘candidate’ user, more extreme content was delivered by the server and often ‘auto-played’.
In merely four days after he was first imprisoned for contempt of court in 2018, Byline Times has seen evidence that Robinson amassed over a quarter of a million pounds in small online donations.
The New York Times recently reported how the current President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, built his political campaign on the back of the Google video channel. Joining YouTube in 2009, Bolsonaro’s channel originally espoused far-right conspiracy theories including that the Nazi movement was created by ‘leftists’ and ‘liberals’. By the time he ran for president, Bolsonaro’s YouTube Channel had 2.5 million subscribers and 30 million views a month.
Robinson’s filmmakers had direct experience of this. “80% of our traffic in terms of actual views came from YouTube recommendations,” Robertson said. “So YouTube recommendations are god, they are everything. It’s not about your subscribers or newsletters, it’s all about what YouTube decides to push.”
Not only did such a system reward with popularity and views, but also with money.
When Robertson built a dedicated channel for Robinson with a Donorbox link after every video, Robinson was sent more than £450,000 in less than five months by thousands of small donors who had watched him on YouTube. In merely four days after he was first imprisoned for contempt of court in 2018, Byline Times has seen evidence that he amassed over a quarter of a million pounds in small online donations through the Stripe payment system.
Now repentant about the extreme content which may have prompted right-wing violence and acknowledging that he had also been radicalised by the experience of working with Robinson for more than two years, Robertson concluded: “I take responsibility for this but I also think that YouTube pushed those videos onto him and those people.”
YouTube’s revenue is growing at a phenomenal rate of 30 to 40% a year on the back of its recommendation algorithm. Analysts estimate that it turns over $15 billion a year and is cited by its parent company, Alphabet, as making a “strong contribution” to the record profits of Google and its affiliates.
Robertson believes that YouTube’s reluctance to screen videos for extreme content is due to its business model and that the video giant needs greater scrutiny.
There has been much more scrutiny of video channels that push extreme right-wing content and conspiracy theories in the last year or so, with Alex Jones’ highly profitable Infowars channel being banned from YouTube. Restrictions were also placed by YouTube on Robinson’s videos, which no longer show up in searches. But, Robertson said it’s easy to evade bans on material by sharing with other channels.
“It’s not YouTube thinking ‘let’s make everyone like Tommy’,” he told Byline Times. “It’s about people having a human need to be drawn to extremism – on the left or the right – but obviously the argument is that YouTube has a responsibility not to push Tommy Robinson.”
Byline Times approached YouTube for comment but did not receive a response.