Several YouTube channels run by Irish vloggers, which are linking in with the international alt-right community, seem to have been picking up followers.
These also have satellites of websites, blogs and social media accounts. Something of an Irish alt-influencer network (AIN) seems to be developing.
The YouTube channels are particularly worrying for those who would want to counter the right-wing and far-right ideologies, and misinformation, that this network peddles.
For practical reasons, it is challenging to counter rambling, vague video monologues. After all, how do you fact-check every unfounded claim in a two-hour video? And how do you get that fact-check to the audience that has viewed the video?
An Irish AIN?
Rebecca Lewis, a researcher with New York-based research institute Data & Society describes an AIN as “an assortment of scholars, media pundits, and internet celebrities who use YouTube to promote a range of political positions, from mainstream versions of libertarianism and conservatism, all the way to overt white nationalism”.
Some YouTube channels in the Irish AIN have around 3,000 subscribers, other international vloggers that focus on Ireland have ten times that. Some of the videos by Ireland-based vloggers have more than 10,000 views, while international vlogs about Ireland can get hundreds of thousands.
The format adopted by the AIN is often similar. The topics of some videos are not overtly controversial, focusing on tech, history, heritage, and current affairs. But behind the veneer of “concern” for Ireland lies at best, coded conservative ideologies – and, at worst, outright racism.
Lewis’s report suggests that such content is often “framed as lighthearted, entertaining, rebellious, and fun. But that this obscures the impact that issues have on vulnerable and underrepresented populations – the LGBTQ community, women, immigrants, and people of color.”
The Irish vloggers in the AIN appear in each other’s videos, promoting each other. They also cultivate links with figures from the global alt-right.
Some of their videos are long – an hour or two, sometimes more. They often present an almost indecipherable blend of unreferenced “facts” and dubious claims or predictions for Ireland.
For fact-checkers, they pose a real challenge. Christine Bohan, acting editor of The Journal, which is a member of the International Fact-Checking Network, says that one concern is that fact-checking one of the videos could bring their questionable statements to a wider audience, amplifying them.
Another problem, she says, is that many of the things they say are not actually checkable.
To fact-check a statement, it has to be a claim of fact, as opposed to a statement of opinion, rhetoric, or a prediction about the future. The vlogs carry a sea of claims and predictions that are often little more than “I reckon” dressed up as something more legitimate.
Bohan says that sometimes one point in a vlog can be picked-up and shared among the wider network, and these can be addressed to some extent. For example The Journal fact-checked a tweet that was going viral, which had taken a snippet from one of the alt-influencers’ videos and was encouraging others to watch.
It’s hard to see how effective fact-checks can be when it comes to these vlogs, though. Resources are limited, as is readers’ time. To address the deluge of problematic claims that appear in these lengthy videos would result in fact-checks of biblical proportions.
In one video there were about ten “factual” claims made in the first two minutes alone. Fact-checks tend to be delivered one claim at a time.
Furthermore, to be effective, a fact-check has to be able to reach the exposed audiences and engage them. Finding fans of the AIN and getting them to read a whole slew of fact-check articles in response to each vlog is unlikely.
So a lot of questionable content remains available, unfiltered, unchecked, and untrue.
Much of this is not overtly political campaigning, although the topics themselves often have implications for political campaigns or public policy. AINs often spout against migration and vaccinations, and believe in fringe conspiracies.
Lewis’s report describes the American AIN as functioning “as political influencers who adopt the techniques of brand influencers to build audiences and ‘sell’ them on far-right ideology”.
Like its international counterparts, the members of the Irish AIN tend build a façade of credibility by deriding mainstream media, academia, and scientific research. For example, they might argue for fighting “a global government” while undermining the science showing the influence humans are having on climate change.
Many have chat features alongside the vlog so the community that follow them can discuss side-topics, and share more questionable information. There are examples of these spaces being used to share links to websites that identify “anti-White traitors” in Ireland, listing their social-media profiles, encouraging others to go troll them.
They use similar tactics as the American AIN: group video testimonials where they feature each other. Or engaging in strategic controversies, such as taking public stances on critical issues like changes in laws liberalising gender recognition or public-health initiatives such as vaccinations.
Building a Base
Craig Dwyer, founder of ForaChange which helps campaigners, activists and nonprofits design and implement effective digital strategies, says that these vloggers have more in common with famous YouTubers rather than political or election campaigners.
“They have bases, they have the same people come back time and again. It is for mobilising the base and keep them informed. It more is more about building a community of people who are of that mindset anyway,” Dwyer says.
“But they can equip people with language and arguments that can then be used to attack in conversations. It is feeding an ideological warfare. The core support base that consume the videos will pick up different pieces of information and communicating those to their own network,” he says.
Lewis’s report suggest that an AIN can be part of a wider process of radicalisation or “red pilling” – a reference to the film The Matrix– where they aim to “wake people up to the truth” by dismantling their world views and aligning them with right-wing ideology.
The Role of YouTube’s Algorithm
One of the critical questions highlighted by Dwyer is the extent to which YouTube’s algorithm directs users, whose interests might be more benign, towards the AIN.
Could users whose browsing history highlights an interest in Ireland being guided towards channels promoting toxic content about the “preservation of the Irish race”?
“That was one of the big issues that emerged in the US recently where YouTube was leading people who were not looking for this type of content down the pathway,” says Dwyer.
Lewis’s report argues the danger is that YouTube incentivise influence through monetisation, and it “is so effective for circulating political ideas because it is often ignored or underestimated in discourse on the rise of disinformation and far-right movements”.
Over the past few months YouTube has said it moved to tighten monetisation policies and improve enforcement against hate speech.
The company community standards say that “some borderline videos, such as those containing inflammatory religious or supremacist content without a direct call to violence or a primary purpose of inciting hatred, may not cross these lines for removal”.
YouTube can take measures such as removing features such as thumbs ups or comments, and denying monetisation.
A spokesperson for YouTube in Ireland said the company wouldn’t make an official comment.
Some of the content in these videos is bad, and the comments and chats, worse. Yet, they may fall on the fringe but still within the boundaries of what YouTube deems acceptable.
As long they are a feature on the platform, they will remain a grim feature of Irish society.