By Ivan Dobsky -
I'm not going to defend Lauren Southern -- I've got no time for her at all -- but I do harbour a bit of sympathy for some of her followers. Humour me. Southern 'retired' in June, at the ripe old age of 26, just before an exposé by Milo Yiannopoulos came out (more). There were a lot of people who genuinely believed in her , and thought they had good reason for doing so. What happens to them now? Is there no accountability? There's a bigger problem here.
The payment structure behind YouTube has produced a new breed of 'thought leader'. These people make millions by creating brash, intoxicating narratives and then convincing lots of people to share them. The medium also makes it damned near impossible to hold them to account.
For example, faced with multiple court cases, Alex Jones is arguing that he is just a "performance artist" who plays a character for money (more). He says that no reasonable person would believe what he is saying is factual (more). Meanwhile, however, back online, Jones portrays himself as the victim, "Fighting for Freedom & Liberty on the Frontlines of Truth Journalism". Here's the thing. One set of claims is addressed to a handful of jurors; the other goes global, along with a call for donations. In the process, Jones protects his empire and reinforces his position as one of the Internet's apex predators.
A more important example is that of Lauren Southern. People who supported Southern are now discovering how their money was spent. Her habit was to pay others to write her material, with a clear brief favouring style over substance. Studies were misrepresented and facts were twisted but that didn't matter. It was all about building a brand and recruiting a massive audience. These people were assets.
Meanwhile, members of her media team bragged about ongoing theft and fraud. Was Lauren a conscious player in this rort machine? She says no, kind of, but the rest of the right is pretty unanimous. Milo clearly thinks she was up to her neck in it, and an acquaintance of Southern's (who provided leaked documents for the story) said: "I refuse to believe Lauren didn’t know about everything...". Right wing investigative reporter Laura Loomer concluded: "It’s a shame that her quest for fame and fortune overrode loyalty to those who facilitated the rise in her career", while a former friend of Southern's put it more bluntly: "Trust me, she knew about everything... Her 'retirement' isn’t about making babies. It’s about dodging bullets." Southern herself has admitted some knowledge of what was happening but says she couldn't intervene because the two-person media team were "hard people to approach" (more).
People who donated to Tommy Robinson's campaigns have also been let down. Promoter Caolan Robertson (who also worked with Southern and Jones) says that Robinson's Australian tour plans were a "scam", designed to rip off ticket-holders in the near-certain event that no visa was granted. The plan, he says, was to bankrupt the tour operating company and keep the cash (more). In leaked WhatsApp messages, he suggests Robinson was in on the scam.
Jones, Southern and Robinson are all denying serious wrong-doing. No doubt the courts will work things out. From the evidence I have seen Robinson will probably live to fight another day (ie plausible deniability) but the other two are toast. However, in a way that is beside the point. The sad fact is that YouTube continues to reward sensationalism. Online algorithms deliver vast amounts of money and influence to an elite group of populist shills. This converts into an army of supporters and a war chest of funds to dodge accountability. And even if these characters get knocked down, the algorithm will soon replace them.
Lauren Southern is now set up for life. But where does that leave her supporters? They certainly won't be getting their money back. Worse, it's going to be open season on everything they once believed. And Lauren herself certainly won't be there to help. I think we need to stop and consider this for a moment. Isn't there something we can do to build accountability into the algorithm? If arguments are clearly proven to be false (whether they're put forward by the left or the right) can't their proponents' videos be somehow demoted? After all, that's a simple process we use every day in the real world.
In the meantime, the quiet voice of reason is being lost. YouTube's algorithm is geared to overlook the earnest researcher, the balanced historian, the critical anthropogist and the moderate voice of religion. The largest muslim organisation in the world (with a membership between 30 and 50 million) recently launched a global campaign against Islamic extremism -- this news sank without a ripple. A global group of scientists has announced (again) their consensus finding that biological race does not exist. Again, silence... punctuated only by the occasional cricket and a tumbleweed.
Some argue that the obvious solution is for 'the left' to produce social media stars of its own. It's hard to argue against this, but it's also easy to foresee what the results will be. Deeper polarisation. Heat over light. Form over substance. And, of course, a further increase in extremist attacks.
It seems to me that some good might still come out of the Lauren Southern debacle. Okay, she has come away with a fortune, but should we expect YouTube to pay out forever? In cases that involve deliberate fraud (which was committed by her media team, whether she is proven to be part of this or not), what about cutting off the revenue stream? Do we really need to value truth and deception equally, based simply on shares and likes? And in the case of Alex Jones, where deliberate deception has clearly taken place, can't YouTube's algorith be geared to prefer videos by more honest pundits?
I suspect we will get this right, over time. People will learn to check extravagant claims before repeating them and blowing their personal credibilty. But others will decide to tough it out, defending these ideas long past their expiry date. I think evolution shows us what the inevitable result will be. Our mission now, if we decide to accept it, is to train our algorithms to do the same.