Feeding hate with video: A former alt-right US YouTuber explains his methods

Mr Caolan Robertson (above) is a filmmaker who worked for Mr Tommy Robinson and helped create the video. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - In 2018, a far-right activist, Mr Tommy Robinson, posted a video to YouTube claiming he had been attacked by an African migrant in Rome.

The thumbnail image and eight-word title promoting the video indicated that Mr Robinson was assaulted by a black man outside a train station. Then, in the video, Mr Robinson punched the man in the jaw, dropping him to the ground.

The video was viewed more than 2.8 million times, and it prompted news stories across the right-wing tabloids in Britain, where Mr Robinson was rapidly gaining notoriety for his anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic views.

For Mr Caolan Robertson - a filmmaker who worked for Mr Robinson and helped create the video - it was an instructional moment. It showed the key ingredients needed to attract attention on YouTube and other social media services.

The video played into anti-immigrant sentiments in Britain and across Europe. It also focused squarely on conflict, cutting rapidly between shouts and shoves before showing Mr Robinson's punch.

It also misrepresented what had actually happened.

"We would choose the most dramatic moment - or fake it and make it look more dramatic," Mr Robertson, 25, said in a recent interview. "We realised that if we wanted a future on YouTube, it had to be driven by confrontation. Every time we did that kind of thing, it would explode well beyond anything else."

Mr Robertson would go on to produce videos for a who's who of right-wing YouTube personalities on both sides of the Atlantic, including Ms Lauren Southern, Mr Stefan Molyneux and Mr Alex Jones.

The videos were tailored for the "echo chamber" that is often created by social media networks such as YouTube. To keep you watching, YouTube serves up videos similar to those you have watched before. But the longer someone watches, the more extreme the videos can become.

"It can create these very radical people who are like gurus," said Mr Guillaume Chaslot, a former YouTube engineer who has been critical of the way the company's algorithms pushed people to extreme content. "In terms of watch time, a guru is wonderful."

Tech companies, regulators and individuals across the globe are struggling to understand and control the enormous power of YouTube and other social media services.

In 2019, YouTube made "important changes to how we recommend videos and prevent the spread of misinformation and hateful content", said spokesman Farshad Shadloo. YouTube barred Mr Molyneaux and Mr Jones. But extreme videos continue to spread.

In time, Mr Robertson said, he realised that the videos he worked on stoked dangerous hatred. And in 2019, at a conference in Britain run by a left-wing newspaper, The Byline Times, Mr Robertson distanced himself from his work with the far-right. His change of heart was met with some scepticism.

"He was presented as a prodigal son," said Dr Louise Raw, an anti-fascist activist who was onstage for Mr Robertson's mea culpa. "But he has not been held to account."

Now Mr Robertson is detailing the ways he and his collaborators searched for confrontations to gain popularity on YouTube.

Efforts to contact Mr Robinson were unsuccessful, and Mr Jones did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Ms Southern said she should not be described as a far-right activist, saying she is merely a conservative. She was not involved in "some horrible far-right grift that tried to deceive people into watching our content", she added. "We were just doing what any other YouTuber does."

In a 20-second segment of the video posted to YouTube, Mr Tommy Robinson describes his visit to a train station in Rome. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM NYTIMES

Raw footage of the episode in Rome, provided by Mr Robertson and reviewed by The New York Times, shows that the YouTube video was edited to give the false impression that Mr Robinson was threatened. The full footage shows he was the aggressor.

When the man noticed he was being filmed from across the street, he approached the camera, and Mr Robinson shoved him into an oncoming car. As the man protested, called Mr Robinson crazy and told him to live his own life, Mr Robinson escalated the argument.

"There's one way this is going to go," he told the man. "You're going to end up knocked down unconscious."

Over the more than two years he helped produce and publish videos for Mr Robinson and others, Mr Robertson learnt how making clever edits and focusing on confrontation could help draw millions of views on YouTube and other services. He also learnt how YouTube's recommendation algorithm often nudged people towards extreme videos.

"It meant that we did more and more extreme videos," Mr Robertson said.

Knowing what garnered the most attention on YouTube, Mr Robertson said, he and Ms Southern would devise public appearances meant to generate conflict.

That December, they attended a women's march in London and, with Ms Southern playing the part of a television reporter, approached each woman with the same four-word question: "Women's rights or Islam?" They often received a confused, measured or polite response, according to Mr Robertson.

They continued to ask the question and sharpened it. Ms Southern, for example, said it would be difficult for Muslim women to answer the question because their husbands would not let them attend the march. That caused anger to build in the crowd.

"It appears in the videos that we are just trying to figure out what is going on, gather information, understand people," Mr Robertson said. "But really, we were trying to find the most incendiary way of making them mad."

The thumbnail image for the YouTube video was indicative of a confrontation: A woman screaming as Ms Southern walked away. As he often did, Mr Robertson sharpened the video's visual contrast - lightening the white colours and darkening the blacks - to subtly make the scene seem more dramatic.

Ms Southern described the situation differently. "We asked the question because we knew it was going to force people to question their own political views and realise the contradiction in being a hard-core feminist but also supporting a religion that, quite frankly, has questionable practices around women."

And, she added, they used video techniques that any media company would use.

The full footage shows Mr Tommy Robinson (left) was the aggressor. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM NYTIMES

The next year, Mr Robertson and Ms Southern travelled as far as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand to create similar videos. Over the lifetime of Ms Southern's YouTube channel, according to channel statistics reviewed by the Times, her videos were viewed more than 63 million times.

More than 71 per cent of people who viewed these videos had not subscribed to her YouTube channel. In 2018, at the height of her popularity, at least 30 per cent of the views occurred after the videos were automatically recommended to the viewer by YouTube's algorithms.

Mr Molyneux shied away from the kind of conflict that Ms Southern embraced. He fashioned himself as an online philosopher. But the material Mr Robertson edited slipped in "far-right ideas that appealed to the ethnonationalists - the extreme right-wing audience", he said.

In 2018, the pair travelled to Poland for a video that painted the country as a place free of hardship and strife. The subtext was that was because Poland is predominantly white. In an e-mail to the Times, Mr Molyneux said: "It was nice being in a country wherein I didn't have to hire protective security."

He added that he felt the same way when he visited Hong Kong.

By early 2019, Mr Robertson said, he grew disillusioned. There was a noticeable drop in traffic on Ms Southern's YouTube channel. Around the same time, YouTube began to remove more videos the company thought encouraged violence and spread misinformation.

After an Australian man killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand - driven in part by anti-immigrant beliefs propagated by YouTube - Mr Robertson realised, he said, that the videos he had made led to the same kind of violence in the Orlando nightclub in 2016.

"I felt like I had gone full circle that day," he said.

Now Mr Robertson oversees Byline TV, a video offshoot of The Byline Times. He also runs a new organisation, Future of Freedom, which seeks to deradicalise right-wing extremists. He is still counting YouTube views.

Mr Robertson recently boasted in a text that in one day a video targeting Mr Jones, the conspiracy theorist he once worked with, had been viewed more than 250,000 times.

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