Far right website sees upsurge in ‘hateful content’ and Covid-19 disinformation aimed at Scots

A video-sharing platform which has been reported to regulators for hosting hateful, violent and anti-semitic content is enjoying an upsurge in activity aimed at Scottish audiences, with a spate of posts pushing conspiracy theories and disinformation about the nation’s Covid-19 vaccination programme.

BitChute, which has been described as the YouTube of the far right, is also home to a growing number of videos which target prominent black and minority ethnic politicians in Scotland with extremist and racist rhetoric.

In the past month alone, more than 60 videos focused on Scottish affairs have been uploaded to the site, prompting one MP to call for an investigation by Ofcom. However, BitChute said it was a “politically neutral company” which “welcomes people from all backgrounds”.

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One video cites a London-based “alternative news” site’s claims that more than 900 Scots are dying every month due to Covid-19 vaccines. Another perpetuates viral conspiracy theories by asserting that the nation’s response to the pandemic is a “depopulation scam”, and accuses First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of working for billionaire US philanthropists.

Elsewhere, the narrator of one video claims future “mass fatalities” from Covid-19 could be incinerated at Scottish facilities owned by Amazon because of a shortage of burial plots. He goes on to draw parallels with Auschwitz, and urges people to refuse vaccines.

A series of videos also target Humza Yousaf, the health secretary, with a slew of racist comments left by users of the site. The narrator of one video asserts that Mr Yousaf, who was born and raised in Glasgow, is an “anti-white racist,” and is “obviously not ethnically or racially Scottish”.

After Scotland on Sunday contacted BitChute, the video was made unavailable in the UK, with the URL carrying a warning that it “contains incitement to hatred”.

Other easily accessible videos target other BAME politicians, including Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar. One expletive-strewn post rails against Abdul Bostani, an Afghan national who came to Scotland as a refugee 20 years ago, and who stood for election to Glasgow City Council earlier this year.

One video on BitChute claims "mass fatalities" will be cremated at vast incinerators owned by Amazon.

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Its narrator says the SNP is attempting to make “you and the foreigner one and the same,” and argues that no foreign national, or anyone from “ethnic minority descent,” should be able to vote. The video was later taken down for UK users.

Such racially-motivated content is evident elsewhere across BitChute. In recent weeks, a series of videos uploaded by the far right group, Britain First, showing its activists attempting to drum up support in Scotland, has been viewed more than 4,200 times.

Mr Yousaf told Scotland on Sunday: “I am sadly all too familiar with being a target of the far-right, be that here in Scotland or elsewhere. Over the years I have had threats made against me, my wife and even threats of violence made against my children, all because of the colour of my skin or religious affiliation.

Health secretary Humza Yousaf is among those BAME politicians targeted by BitChute users. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

“Scotland is not immune to this hatred and the content on BitChute aimed at Scottish audiences is deeply concerning. The recent tragic events in Plymouth serve as a timely reminder that online radicalisation can have devastating consequences. Ofcom must fully use their powers to penalise companies like BitChute who are peddling such harmful content.”

Like other extremist groups banned from mainstream social media platforms, Britain First has found refuge in BitChute as a place to amplify its rhetoric. Its channel has 1,870 subscribers; Tommy Robinson, the founder of the English Defence League, has more than 27,600 subscribers.

Concerns have been growing about the graphic content on BitChute for several months, with Jewish groups flagging up scores of videos related to Holocaust denial and glorification.

In January, the Community Security Trust, a Jewish charity, reported the site to Ofcom after its research highlighted “virulently racist, antisemitic, and extremist content”.

A 2020 analysis of BitChute’s content and usage by Hope Not Hate, the anti-racism advocacy group, warned the site was “knowingly playing host to terrorist propaganda” and incitements to violence, with its research identifying 114 videos in support of proscribed terrorist organisations.

Joe Mulhall, head of research at Hope Not Hate, said: “BitChute has continuously failed to tackle extremist material on its platform, which has turned it into a hotbed of hateful and violent content.

“Unlike many other tech platforms used by extremists, BitChute is based in the UK and the fact that there is extremist content being created, and viewed by, Scottish people is extremely worrying and should be of concern to the Scottish Government and law enforcement.

“The lack of action from BitChute has turned the platform into the video sharing website of choice for far right extremists – continuing to enable this content on the platform will only create more opportunities for hateful extremists to air their vile views.”

BitChute and other video sharing platforms have been subject to regulation by Ofcom since last November. The framework is designed to compel the sites to stop young users from seeing harmful material which “might impair their physical, mental or moral development”, and to protect the wider public from material “likely to incite violence or hatred”. In practice, however, the regulations are limited, with disinformation excluded from their scope.

An Ofcom spokesman said: “We have been talking to BitChute to ensure it takes stronger steps to protect users from harmful content. Unlike in broadcasting, our powers around video-sharing sites don’t relate to specific pieces of content.

“But where companies are not doing enough to protect their users, we will not hesitate to use our powers to hold them to account - including significant penalties. We also urge users to report potentially harmful content to the service itself."

It is understood the steps taken by BitChute following its engagement with Ofcom include the imposition of channel-wide moderation measures on those video creators who routinely exploit classification rules, and a new moderation system to automatically flag terrorist content.

But Stewart McDonald, the SNP MP who earlier this summer published a report highlighting the growing scourge of disinformation activity in Scottish public life, said more needed to be done.

“Disinformation can be dangerously crippling to society, and it’s vital that it is taken seriously,” he explained. “This particular website, which must be investigated by Ofcom, drives home the need for a full, independent audit of the information ecosystem in Scotland, so that we have an idea of the disinformation landscape and, crucially, what are the issues that people are being targeted with.

“If we fail to do this, and fail to build up the information resilience that countries such as Sweden and Latvia have done, then we can’t be surprised if the radicalisation that disinformation contributes to gets ugly."

In February, Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, the Metropolitan Police’s head of counter terrorism policing, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that existing legislation cannot force firms like BitChute to remove material “unless there is a clearly defined crime”, and that it was their choice as to “how far they moderate themselves where the content is extreme but not illegal”.

He added: “I do support the need for a debate on the threshold between illegal material, and lawful but extremist material capable of causing harm. There is an argument that the threshold is too high.”

While BitChute has found a captive audience among far right groups in the US, the site is a British creation. It was founded in 2017 by Raymond Vahey, a British national who is based in Thailand.

Records filed with Companies House show that the platform’s parent company, Bit Chute Limited, is registered at a serviced office address in Andover, Hampshire. Mr Vahey, 44, is listed as one of two directors of the firm, alongside Richard Jones, 47.

According to Press Gazette, BitChute’s traffic from UK web users grew 55 per cent in the 12 months to July, with the site attracting 3.9 million visits a month. Globally, it receives more than 40 million monthly visits.

In a statement, BitChute said it was a “politically neutral company that welcomes people from all backgrounds and treats everyone equally”.

It added: “We work proactively to ensure our terms and ability to enforce them comply with regulatory requirements while upholding fundamental human rights. This year, we have expanded our moderation team and development efforts to support our growth and new regulatory requirements.

“It's essential for consumers that new competition can grow in a market that Google has monopolised, and this should happen in regulated regions such as the UK. Rather than pushing people to unregulated and unaccountable platforms.

“Hope Not Hate has the wrong opinion about us, and their approach is counterproductive to reducing hate and violence in modern society. We believe it would be more helpful if they came and talked to us as we have invited them many times.”

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