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European far-right trolls are using a net of fake YouTube accounts to manipulate the website’s algorithm into boosting far-right content and suppressing the visibility of oppositional content according to chat logs published by a Twitter account called Alt Right Leaks.
The chat logs are from the private channel on Discord, a voice and text messenger app dedicated to gaming but that has become an unintended den and space for “alt-right” and far-right groups, the loose collection of conservatives that harbor white supremacists. In leaked conversations, European alt-right group Reconquista Germanica strategized on how to game YouTube in a way that will promote their videos.
In one meeting, those in the group discuss a future “raid” on an opponent’s video which will require each member to operate dozens of different sock accounts. With a verified account each person can make multiple usernames using just a phone number, and without providing any identifiable information.
The alleged leaders then describe how they plan to utilize the “dislike” function on YouTube to damage the popularity of the target video in a way that will reduce its visibility and promotion on the platform.
“We will observe the like/dislike ratio, and after an hour check how much it changed,” one user explains to the others. “When you go to a YouTube video and see it has 50 percent or more dislikes and a lot of critical comments, then people won’t even watch the video.”
In manufacturing the army of fake accounts, the trolls talk about giving the fake personas “Syrian” and “Turkish” names to swarm on videos.
The team behind Alt Right Leaks—an anti-far-right activist group that has been publishing chat logs and information from inside Reconquista Germanica’s operations—had embedded in the chat channel and were documenting the trolling schemes.
It is explained how important it is to influence the analytics and like/dislike ratios through sock accounts to manipulate the viewers as well as creators on youtube. pic.twitter.com/mIAyuYFGWZ— Alt Right Leaks (@AltRightLeak) February 5, 2018
“We had several people in the server,” Alt Right Leaks said in an interview with the Daily Beast.
“I see many people on social media who are afraid to speak out against hateful ideologies, because they fear the shitstorm that would follow,” the anonymous activist continued. “Some YouTubers depend on the income from their channels, so they cannot afford to become unpopular due to trolls and hate comments.”
The activist group managed also to identify several of the so-called “generals” and “officers” who were leading the sock account campaigns.
“What we’ve seen is the alt-right is incredibly adept at navigating and otherwise exploiting loopholes in social media platforms to create these sock puppets and using them to amplify their colleagues,” Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center said to the Daily Beast.
As recently as this week YouTube, which has previously received criticism for its inaction, moved to tackle abusive accounts that violate the platform’s terms and conditions. Right-wing conspiracy website InfoWars was warned on Tuesday that it was one strike away from being banned for a video on the Parkland shooting. Then, on Wednesday, the channel belonging to neo-Nazi organization Atomwaffen Division was banned.
Lenz, however, says more could be done to tackle sock networks that are gaming the algorithm.
“It all depends on the discretionary reality of someone looking at that content and making a discretionary decision about whether it violates Terms of Service,” he said of YouTube’s response. “Across the board, there’s been an inconsistent application of that.”
David Gilmour is a reporter who specializes in national politics, internet culture, and technology.