Deplatforming and the rise of the alt-tech video hosting platform BitChute in 2020.

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On: September 27, 2020
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Content moderation and censorship on YouTube is becoming increasingly important. Especially during this year, with global events like the pandemic, civil unrest and unease, and increasing political polarization, the need for coherent digital content regulations are necessary. Recently, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, in collaboration with Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, agreed on a standardized set of definitions for hate speech and harmful content (WFAnet.org, n.p.). To enforce these guidelines, platforms rely on their power to deplatform whoever violates community guidelines (Donovan et al. 2018; Rogers 2020). The act of deplatforming, demonetization, and moderation of content creators who spread harmful information, however, often results in them finding new ways to pop up elsewhere (Rogers 2020; Trujillo et al. 2020; Donovan et al. 2018), similarly to a whack a mole game. A slew of extremist creators whose content regards misinformation on topics such as Agenda21, QAnon, or the plandemic, found themselves fighting not only against ‘them’, but also against the community guidelines of YouTube. As a result, these creators subsequently moved to video hosting service BitChute.

Does alt-tech equal alt-right?

Like YouTube, BitChute is a video hosting platform where users can watch, post, and comment on videos, which can be monetized. Unlike YouTube, the platform is BitTorrent-powered and uses peer-to-peer technology to avoid expensive bandwidth costs (Maxwell, 2017). Where BitChute makes the difference and where it poses as an alternative to its ancestral giant, is in the field of content moderation and censorship. BitChute is less restrictive towards the content of its uploaders. Ray Vahey, the founder of the platform, said the following in an interview with Torrentfreak:

Like YouTube, BitChute is a video hosting platform where users can watch, post, and comment on videos, which can be monetized. Unlike YouTube, the platform is BitTorrent-powered and uses peer-to-peer technology to avoid expensive bandwidth costs (Maxwell, 2017). Where BitChute makes the difference and where it poses as an alternative to its ancestral giant, is in the field of content moderation and censorship. BitChute is less restrictive towards the content of its uploaders. Ray Vahey, the founder of the platform, said the following in an interview with Torrentfreak:

“The idea comes from seeing the increased levels of censorship by the large social media platforms in the last couple of years. Bannings, demonetization, and tweaking algorithms to send certain content into obscurity and, wanting to do something about it. I knew building a clone wasn’t the answer, many have tried and failed. And it would inevitably grow into an organization with the same problems anyway.”

Providing an alternative platform where possibly controversial voices can find a place lays at the very core of BitChute, according to Vahey. The platform can be seen as alt-tech, which is a label for various platforms that fringe around mainstream digital platforms (Squire, 2019). In academic research, alt-tech’s socio-cultural implications are often associated with alt-right activism (Rogers 2020; Trujillo et al. 2020; Tuters 2018; Freelon et al. 2020). Alternatively, Tuters calls these fringes the ‘deep vernacular web’ (41). hstoday.us confirms that this is the case in their recent article on BitChute, calling it ‘a hotbed of hate’. Look no further than the homepage, on which popular videos are visual.

BitChute’s relevancy in 2020

The alt-tech platform, however, is not new. Upon its inception in 2017, hopes were optimistic, with Stanford University graduates calling it exactly the kind of people-powered website that WebTorrent technology was designed to enable (Maxwell, 2017). Additionally, Vahey’s own comments show its optimism to provide a safe haven for content that gets ‘send into obscurity’ through algorithms and deplatforming. While these two specifically regard the deployment of the platform’s technological aspects, the cultural implications weren’t under scrutiny at the time. In 2020, BitChute’s digital and cultural relevance soared, making it an emergent alt-tech platform that competes for a niche (with offline socio-cultural consequences) YouTube is actively trying to regulate and censor. Rogers’ recent research on an alternative social media network infrastructure (which could be seen as the sum of various alt-tech), show BitChute as a central node within that network (219).

Alternative social media network, Rogers 2020

The consequences of deplatforming

There seems to be a direct relationship between deplatforming on mainstream platforms and the rise of alt-tech platforms. Rogers argues that creators who are deplatformed mostly share far-right ideological beliefs (214). Both Rogers and Donovan et al. question the effectiveness of deplatforming and its result of community (and content) migration towards alt-tech platforms (215-6; 50). Bail et al. argue that this exacerbates political polarization, hinting at the continuation of echo chambers and a backfire effect where “who are exposed to messages that conflict with their own attitudes are prone to counterargue them using motivated reasoning, which accentuates perceived differences between groups and increases their commitment to preexisting beliefs (9217).”

Aside from this relationship between YouTube’s restricting rules on free speech, BitChute’s emergence as an alt-tech video hosting platform also has other implications for (the infrastructure of) platforms. YouTube as arguably democratized knowledge production by providing any Internet user with a platform to share ideas (Marchal and Au 1). This also has implications for authority. Marchal and Au explain that there is a paradox in social media mediated authority: the most authoritative information is neither the most appealing to social media users nor is it the most regarded by the dictates of algorithmic curation (3). Alt-tech video hosting services such as BitChute exemplify once more how knowledge production and authority is changing. In this instance, knowledge production and authority are changed due to rules upheld by staple platforms such as YouTube.

Further academic rabbit holes

Further research on the effectiveness of deplatforming and the consequence of the flock of internet celebrities towards alt-tech (Rogers 226-7). Bail et al. take it one step further and suggest future studies to learn about the emergent echo chambers in the current polarized political climate (9220). It would be interesting to look at a platform whose culture is dominated by right-wing ideologies. Alternatively, there is little research on left-wing disinformation (Freelon et al. 5), which surely is available on BitChute as well, although not that apparent.

Conclusion

While BitChute as an alt-tech platform is not new, it has gained digital relevance in 2020 due to the war YouTube is currently waging against creators who share content containing hate speech or misinformation. Since alt-right activists utilize the format and concept of conspiracy theory to drive home their points (Freelon et al. 2), BitChute is dominated by either vlogging or documentary-style content where mainstream narratives are being rejected and with calls for (harmful) action, often based on misinformation. It seems the platform will stay bordered next to YouTube, but surely provides the deplatformed with a new digital environment and change the (alternative) social media network as well. Lastly, the consequences on the deplatformed also allude to bigger issues regarding free speech, as well as knowledge production and distribution outside of mainstream social media networks. 

Bibliography 

Bail, Christopher A., et al. ‘Exposure to Opposing Views on Social Media Can Increase Political Polarization’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 115, no. 37, Sept. 2018, pp. 9216–21. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1073/pnas.1804840115.

BitChute: A Hotbed of Hate – Homeland Security Today. https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/counterterrorism/bitchute-a-hotbed-of-hate/. Accessed 26 Sept. 2020.

BitChute — Community Guidelines. https://support.bitchute.com/policy/guidelines. Accessed 26 Sept. 2020.

Donovan, Joan, et al. ‘Parallel Ports. Sociotechnical Change from the Alt-Right to Alt-Tech’. Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right, edited by Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston, transcript Verlag, 2018, pp. 49–66. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.14361/9783839446706-004.

Freelon, Deen, et al. ‘False Equivalencies: Online Activism from Left to Right’. Science, vol. 369, no. 6508, Sept. 2020, pp. 1197–201. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1126/science.abb2428.

Marchal, Nahema, and Hubert Au. ‘“Coronavirus EXPLAINED”: YouTube, COVID-19, and the Socio-Technical Mediation of Expertise’. Social Media + Society, vol. 6, no. 3, SAGE Publications Ltd, July 2020, p. 2056305120948158. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/2056305120948158.

Rogers, Richard. ‘Deplatforming: Following Extreme Internet Celebrities to Telegram and Alternative Social Media’. European Journal of Communication, vol. 35, no. 3, SAGE Publications Ltd, June 2020, pp. 213–29. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0267323120922066.

Squire •, Megan. ‘Can Alt-Tech Help the Far Right Build an Alternate Internet?’ Fair Observer, 23 July 2019, https://www.fairobserver.com/business/technology/alt-tech-far-right-online-extremism-hate-speech-technology-news-19919/.

Trujillo, Milo, et al. ‘What Is BitChute? Characterizing the “Free Speech” Alternative to YouTube’. ArXiv:2004.01984 [Cs], May 2020. arXiv.org, http://arxiv.org/abs/2004.01984.

Tuters, Marc. ‘LARPing & Liberal Tears. Irony, Belief and Idiocy in the Deep Vernacular Web’. Post-Digital Cultures of the Far Right, edited by Maik Fielitz and Nick Thurston, transcript Verlag, 2018, pp. 37–48. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.14361/9783839446706-003.

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