New breed of video sites thrive on misinformation and hate
Chiang Mai resident behind notorious conspiracy theory site
published : 22 Aug 2022 at 18:43
A day after a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York last May, the video-sharing website BitChute was amplifying a far-right conspiracy theory that the massacre was a so-called false flag operation, meant to discredit gun-loving Americans.
Three of the top 15 videos on the site that day blamed US federal agents instead of the true culprit: a white-supremacist teenager who had vowed to “kill as many blacks as possible” before shooting 13 people, killing 10. Other popular videos uploaded by BitChute users falsely claimed Covid-19 vaccines caused cancers that “literally eat you” and spread the debunked claim that Microsoft founder Bill Gates caused a global baby-formula shortage.
BitChute has boomed as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook tighten rules to combat misinformation and hate speech. An upstart BitChute rival, Odysee, has also taken off. Both promote themselves as free-speech havens, and they’re at the forefront of a fast-growing alternative media system that delivers once-fringe ideas to millions of people worldwide.
Searching the two sites on major news topics plunges viewers into a labyrinth of outlandish conspiracy theories, racist abuse and graphic violence. As their viewership has surged since 2019, they have cultivated a devoted audience of mostly younger men, according to data from digital intelligence firm Similarweb.
Online misinformation, though usually legal, triggers real-world harm. US election workers have faced a wave of death threats and harassment inspired by former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged, which also fuelled the deadly Jan 6, 2021 US Capitol riot. Reuters interviews with a dozen people accused of terrorising election workers revealed that some had acted on bogus information they found on BitChute and almost all had consumed content on sites popular among the far-right.
BitChute and Odysee both host hundreds of videos inspired by the QAnon conspiracy theory, whose supporters have been arrested for threatening politicians, abducting children and blocking a bridge near Arizona’s Hoover Dam with an armoured truck full of guns and ammunition.
“Platforms such as BitChute and Odysee have had a seismic impact on the disinformation landscape,” said Joe Ondrak of Logically, a British firm that works with governments and other organizations to reduce the harm of misinformation. The sites, he said, had become the “first port of call” for conspiracists to publish videos.
BitChute and Odysee say they comply with the law by, for example, removing terrorism-related material, and that they have rules banning racist content or incitement of violence. At the same time, the companies defended the rights of extremists to express themselves on their sites and downplayed the importance of their content.
“Bitchute’s North Star is free speech, which is the cornerstone of a free and democratic society,” BitChute said in a statement to Reuters. Odysee said that right-wing and conspiracy content didn’t define the platform, which it said is focusing on generating science- and technology-related videos.
Despite the platforms’ rules, their users routinely publish overtly racist videos and post comments that call for violence, a Reuters review of the sites found. BitChute and Odysee didn’t respond to questions about content that appeared to violate the sites’ guidelines.
All social media platforms publish standards saying they don’t accept extreme or hateful content, said Callum Hood of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate in London. “The real test is: Do they live up to those standards? With BitChute and Odysee, the answer is an emphatic no.”
Some academics who have researched BitChute and Odysee say their relaxed content-moderation practices result in sites that are dominated by incendiary content that most online publishers routinely reject. Benjamin Horne, a social scientist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and two colleagues reviewed more than 440,000 BitChute videos and found that 12% of channels received more than 85% of the engagement. “Almost all of those channels contain far-right conspiracies or extreme hate speech,” their report concluded.
Reuters searches of the sites show that their most popular videos are often full of abusive content and misinformation that grossly distort news events.
The top BitChute and Odysee videos in searches for “Buffalo shooting” assert that the massacre never happened. Three of the top 10 on Odysee claimed that Black survivors and witnesses were actors. “It’s payday in the ghetto,” said one commentator. Another video defended the racist theory that motivated the shooter: that whites are being “replaced” by non-whites through migration and population growth. The only purely factual video among BitChute’s top 10 results attracted a slew of racist comments, with one viewer describing the shooter as a “patriot” and his victims as “dumb n-----s.”
Searching for “Covid” on BitChute one recent day produced a short film called Plandemic as the top result. Plandemic was banned by YouTube and Facebook for its potentially harmful misinformation, including the claim that wearing a facemask “literally activates your own virus” and makes you sick. At least seven of the top 10 “Covid” search results on Odysee also contained falsehoods – for example, that vaccines contain dangerous nanoparticles or have side-effects that are “like a nuclear bomb”.
It’s a similar story with a widely reported atrocity of the Russia-Ukraine war. Nine out of the top 10 search results on BitChute for “Bucha massacre” theorised that the killing by Russian soldiers of Ukrainian citizens was a hoax intended to escalate US involvement in the war, or that it was the work of Ukrainian soldiers, British agents or “Nazis”.
Identical YouTube searches on these topics produced almost all factual reports from established news organisations. This is consistent with YouTube’s policy of prioritising information from what it calls “authoritative sources” on sensitive topics or events.
BitChute and Odysee are hardly the only sites spreading misinformation. Social media giants such as Facebook and YouTube have also struggled to contain such content, but they have responded with more aggressive moderation policies and practices.
A more direct competitor to BitChute and Odysee is Rumble, a larger video-sharing site that attracts right-wing users. Rumble also touts itself as a free-speech champion and attracts thousands of videos promoting conspiracy theories. But Rumble has mainstream ambitions and better financial backing, and the company moderates its content enough to make it palatable to app stores run by Apple and Google – a key growth driver for any digital business.
Founded in 2013 by Chris Pavlovski, a Canadian entrepreneur, Rumble started as a clearing house for viral videos about children and animals. By 2020, Pavlovski was capitalising on anti-Big Tech sentiment to attract prominent right-wing commentators, and the following year won financial backing from billionaire Peter Thiel, a Republican kingmaker. Thiel didn’t reply to a request for comment.
Today, Rumble offers a mix of pets and politics, with one foot in the febrile, pro-Trump world where the 2020 election was stolen and climate change doesn’t exist. Rumble said in a statement that the platform offered a “wide variety” of information, including a channel featuring Reuters content. A Reuters spokesperson said Rumble is a customer that pays to publish Reuters content.
Rumble said its audience is growing rapidly because it trusts adults “to make up their own minds after hearing all sides”. But the platform does limit some extreme speech. Search for the N-word on Rumble, for instance, and you get a message: “No videos found.”
The same search on BitChute and Odysee returns hundreds of racist videos. BitChute co-founder and Chief Executive Ray Vahey and Odysee co-founder Jeremy Kauffman are self-styled libertarians who see their creations as safe zones for free speech – no matter how false or repellent.
The onslaught of vile content attracted by that philosophy caused one of BitChute’s three founders to quit and got the platform banned from mainstream app stores. Odysee has managed to stay in the Apple app store, but only by blocking searches for Covid-19 in its app.
Apple said in a statement that it only permits Covid-19 information in apps from governments and other “recognised entities.” The company did not answer questions about whether the extremists and white supremacists on Odysee are permitted under Apple guidelines, which ban offensive references to racial, religious and other groups.
Both BitChute and Odysee have struggled to find workable financial models in an increasingly crowded market, even as both quickly amassed huge audiences, attracting hundreds of millions of site visits annually.
CEO of LBRY Jeremy Kauffman attends an interview with Reuters at the company's offices in Manchester, New Hampshire, US, May 18, 2022. (Reuters photo)
Odysee’s story starts with a frisbee-playing American eccentric who sought to finance the site by inventing a new cryptocurrency. BitChute has roots in northern Thailand, where a reclusive British expat decided that something had to be done about internet censorship.
Vahey, 45, is a software designer who lives in the sleepy suburbs of Chiang Mai. Before starting BitChute, Vahey created animated nursery rhymes for a YouTube channel called RockstarLittle. The songs, among them “Incy Wincy Spider” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” also appear on BitChute under its “Education” category, where they’re mixed with videos about chemtrails – the conspiracy theory that governments are secretly spraying toxins from aircraft – and security-camera footage of a hooded man shooting a Brazilian shop assistant in the head.
Vahey declined to be interviewed for this story but has detailed his vision in recorded talks with BitChute users posted to the site. In one recent talk, he recalled a “golden age” when the internet had fewer restrictions. “It seems like the more censorship has grown, the more society has been ripped apart,” he said.
Bit Chute Ltd was incorporated in Britain in 2017 by Vahey and two other Brits. Rich Jones, a software developer by training, is the company’s chief operations officer. He is 53, lives in England and, on his LinkedIn page, describes Vahey as “a former classmate and long-time friend”. Jones also declined to comment.
Andy Munarriz, a 53-year-old telecoms expert, is BitChute’s third co-founder. “Around this time YouTube, Facebook and others were removing contributors, and Ray felt free speech was under attack,” Munarriz told Reuters. Vahey started BitChute in his spare time, running it from his Chiang Mai home.
Vahey was shocked when his platform “took off like a rocket,” he recalled in an interview published on BitChute in December. “It was overwhelming. The next day, I had to scale up. And the next day, I had to scale up again.”
Horne, the BitChute researcher, said the platform owes its early success to the prominent US conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. His Infowars show joined BitChute in late 2017 and gained popularity as YouTube and other platforms evicted Jones the following year.
Among other falsehoods, Jones championed the theory that the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre was a hoax. Twenty children and six staff members were fatally shot; Jones claimed their families were actors and the shooting was a false-flag operation concocted by a government that wanted to seize citizens’ guns. Today, videos from a variety of content creators on BitChute and Odysee make strikingly similar claims about the Buffalo shooting.
A Texas jury recently ordered Jones to pay $50 million in damages to the parents of one child killed in the shooting. A spokesperson for Infowars and a lawyer for Jones did not respond to requests for comment.
Horne’s team collected and analysed more than three million videos from 61,000 BitChute channels posted between June 2019 and December 2021, finding that almost all of the platform’s most popular videos were full of misinformation and hate speech. Horne said the researchers found a “recruitment video” for Atomwaffen Division, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “terroristic neo-Nazi organization”. Federal and state authorities have charged Atomwaffen members with crimes including murder.
Horne said he reported the video to the Federal Bureau of Investigation but didn’t hear back. The FBI declined to comment. The video is no longer available on BitChute, which didn’t respond to questions about what happened to it.
Experts say Atomwaffen Division disbanded in 2020. A former leader of the group, John Denton, pleaded guilty in 2020 for his part in a racially motivated campaign of harassment and was sentenced to 41 months in prison. Neither Denton nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment.
The comment sections beneath some of the BitChute videos that Horne’s team reviewed contained “high amounts of hate speech, most of it anti-Semitic,” Horne said. Reuters also found dozens of videos featuring white men fighting Black men, with comments extolling the violence: “N----- stompin fuck yeah.” One video consisted of graphic footage of a man being burned to death. “They are the scum of the world,” commented one viewer, referring to Black people. “Kill ‘em all.”
In the December interview, Vahey said he often sees opinions he disagrees with on BitChute, but “that’s part of accepting what free speech is.” For Munarriz, one of the company’s co-founders, it was too much. He quit in January 2019, alarmed at BitChute’s direction.
“No matter what community guidelines you put in place, or how hard you police, objectionable content would still make its way onto the platform under the guise of ‘free speech’,” Munarriz told Reuters. “Why take on that fight? The intention of BitChute is not to be a destination for objectionable content, but in the real world that’s what happens.”
In theory, BitChute users can filter the content they see by choosing one of three “sensitivity” settings: “Normal,” “NSFW” (“not safe for work”) and “NSFL” (“not safe for life”). In practice, because BitChute’s uploaders choose these settings, even “Normal” videos can include disturbing footage of suicides and killings.
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, before eventually being taken down for depicting what BitChute called “abhorrent violence” on a page explaining the removal.
BitChute didn’t respond to a request for comment on why the video wasn’t taken down sooner.
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 $50,000 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-labour 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 $2 million 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 hitting a high of $160 in 2016, LBC’s value has since fallen to 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.”