Online Conspiracy Theories Are No Laughing Matter

15th July 2020

I remember my first trip to Google’s UK headquarters well. I was with other representatives of Campaign Against Antisemitism – an organisation for which I have volunteered for several years – and we were meeting a representative of the YouTube policy team to talk about hate speech. And during the discussion, something very interesting came up. 

This happened while the Google representative was explaining how context would be taken into account in making the decision to apply sanctions in response to a given piece of content. Depending on the circumstances, she said, the same apparently hateful statement might or might not be in violation of YouTube’s policy on hate speech. ‘For example,’ she told us – and this is the point of my little anecdote – ‘we might say “That’s just a conspiracy theory.”’

Conspiracy theories – or conspiracy fantasies, as I prefer to call them – are one of YouTube’s most characteristic genres of content, and they make for compelling, if not exactly mind-expanding, entertainment. We see this from pop-cultural hits ranging from superhero movies such as Captain America: The Winter Soldier to political dramas such as the only marginally less preposterous Bodyguard. No one can be trusted! Nothing is as it seems! An ever-present force of unlimited evil and almost unlimited power provides the perfect foil for a self-reliant and morally incorruptible hero. 

It’s easy, then, to see why YouTube might have found it appropriate to overlook or excuse the hate speech that so often occurs within conspiracy fantasy videos: firstly, it must be making a lot of money out of those videos; secondly – well, no one takes all that nonsense seriously, do they, surely?

The trouble is that a lot of people do. And to see this, one only has to look at the comments left on the videos themselves. This was what Tanvi Joshi and I did in our article, ‘ “What Others Dare Not Say”: An Antisemitic Conspiracy Fantasy and Its YouTube Audience’, which has just been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism. The Journal has generously made access to this article free. 

We began with one specific video: a harangue against ‘Rothschild Zionism’ from professional conspiracy fantasist, David Icke. It ought to be redundant to observe that the Rothschild family is Jewish (and the subject of antisemitic conspiracy fantasies for over a century), or that Zionism is Jewish nationalism (and the subject of antisemitic conspiracy fantasies for about as long). Although Icke began by claiming that he would not be pointing out ‘Jewish people here and … Jewish people there’, the highpoint of the video consisted of his reeling off Jewish name after Jewish name and appending to each the label of ‘Rothschild Zionist’: ‘David Axelrod, Rothschild Zionist … George Soros, Rothschild Zionist … Henry Kissinger, massive Rothschild Zionist,’ etc. His claim was that a group of evil people, most of whom he appeared to have singled out purely on the basis of their Jewish or Jewish-sounding names, control the world and are plotting to start World War III. The video was, in other words, so transparently antisemitic that its removal for violation of YouTube’s hate speech policies took only three years.

By the time we collected our data, that video had accumulated 803,605 views and 4,275 comments. Analysis of a sample of 1,123 of those comments found that 38% supported Icke or his message, while just 14% were critical. Moreover, 21% expressed antisemitic views of their own. And while critical comments received very few ‘likes’ from other audience members, with the most popular receiving just six, there were antisemitic and supportive comments that received hundreds. Indeed, all comments to receive more than 50 ‘likes’ were either antisemitic, supportive of Icke, or both. At the time of data collection, the top comment on the video, displayed directly below the video itself, described Judaism as ‘a racist, psychopathic supremacist ideology’ and a ‘gushing geyser of wickedness and amorality.’ 

What does this show? It shows that YouTube furnished Icke with an audience that was receptive to his particular brand of hate, and that it allowed him to nurture that audience for years, even while its members advertised their antisemitism – and indeed the antisemitism of Icke’s videos themselves – for all to see. After a storm of negative publicity this spring, Icke’s account was eventually deleted for violation of YouTube’s policy on COVID-19 misinformation. But conspiracism is more than just misinformation: it serves as a justification for extremist violence, or – to quote the title of Norman S. Cohn’s classic 1967 study – a ‘warrant for genocide’. The general tone of comments on Icke’s video was not explicitly violent. But the potential for violence was clearly there – and a small minority of commenters brought it to the surface, for example by stating that ‘Soros, Kissinger, Rothschild should be dragged through the streets and then hung by the neck till dead,’ or enthusing: ‘let’s kill all Zionists and there will be no problems on earth.’

As my co-author and I emphasise in the peer-reviewed article mentioned above, conspiracy fantasies have played a role in the motivation both of SS concentration camp guards and of far-right terrorists, and been used for indoctrination purposes by extremist organisations such as the UK’s National Front. More recently, right-wing extremists have sought to mass shootings as a means of providing their own conspiracy fantasies with an online audience. Most people can see through the absurdities of conspiracist thinking. But the same goes for the arguments used in all forms of radicalisation. Cesar Sayoc shared a David Icke meme at the start of his mail bombing campaign, and his lawyers later painted a picture of a vulnerable individual who became obsessed with conspiracy fantasies. In a world where self-starter terrorists are an ever-present threat, we need to think about the Cesar Sayocs.

I’m not about to suggest that conspiracy fantasies should be banned. But we should not turn a blind eye to hateful extremism just because it happens to be expressed in a manner that we find ridiculous.