Following the storming of the US capitol building in January, Twitter cracked down on accounts that were using the site to promote false narratives about the US election, in particular accounts associated with the Qanon conspiracy theory. The mass removal of accounts included a number of New Zealanders. Many of those far-right influencers remain active on other platforms – in particular, on YouTube.
It was just over a month before the terrorist attack targeting Muslims at Al Noor Masjid and the Linwood Islamic Centre that Lee Williams, a UK born former prison guard residing just outside of Christchurch, uploaded his first YouTube video to a channel he had named Cross the Rubicon.
Praising an article on the now-defunct WhaleOil blog, which he referred to as "probably the only conservative news outlet in New Zealand', Williams said that the New Zealand High Commission had sent a representative to meet with the South African Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), who he describes as "the party of terrorists". He claims that the EFF advocate the murder of white farmers. "There's going to be some kind of civil war leading to a genocide by the blacks against the whites," he insists, echoing a myth that is fueling far-right violence.
In a subsequent video, he makes the claim that Europe is being overrun by Muslim immigrants who are deliberately trying to have more children than white people. "These [Muslim] wives are just knocking out babies with baby factories you know and vastly outnumber the birthrate of native populations. This is in every country in Western Europe'."
There’s an argument to be made that these videos and the people behind them are best ignored, so as not to spread their reach further. But as recent events have shown, ignoring the far-right doesn’t starve it of oxygen causing it to die. Rather, ignoring the extreme fringe of our body politic is more like ignoring a cancerous growth hoping it will go away, when instead it just grows and grows until it becomes deadly, and can’t be ignored any longer.
In the description of that video Williams implores viewers to act: "Stand up, get out, say it as it is and be proud of doing your bit to save your country from islamisation." That video is likely the one that led to him being visited by police after the Christchurch terror attacks. Although it could have also been the one (now removed) where he spoke at a rally in Cathedral Square claiming "Europe and its people are being replaced" while the notorious white supremacist Phil Arps waved a New Zealand flag in the background.
Photo: Lee Williams speaks at a rally in Christchurch with Phil Arps beside him
Rather than being deterred by police attention, Williams took to YouTube with a new video, titled Two fully armed police visits in 5 days. They asked me if I was a Trump supporter. This is NZ now! He claimed the police were acting in the service of "globalist" politicians who are "destroying nations by mass migration of alien cultures that will not integrate - and they will, at some stage, dominate."
Williams framed the police visit as an attack on his free speech, telling his audience "police are gonna come knocking when you express unorthodox views of this government and the way they run the country."
The video went viral – or at least viral among the people inclined to engage with this sort of content – and now has had more than 78,000 views, with Williams netting thousands of new subscribers. Praise flooded in from around the globe: "You are 100% CORRECT. It's ok to be white. And stand up for your country['s] values and culture. You just sound like a patriot to me. We must never ever give in," wrote a user calling themselves OUTRAGED Aussie. "I can't believe they censored the 72 page manifesto and the video because they were afraid the Whites would wake up and riot!!!" wrote a user going by the name THE WHITE DEVIL, referring to the censored manifesto and livestream of the Christchurch shooting.
Some commenters identified themselves as New Zealanders: "Your (sic) dead bro, she [the Prime Minister] is going to distroy (sic) this beautiful country. First they take your land, then your freedom and then your ability to protect and speak. Welcome to the Islamic state of New Zealand,'' wrote someone with the handle Deca 303. "I can hardly believe it, is this what our country has come to in just a few months.?????" commented Karen Strong.
While no more of his many uploads have gained as many views as that one, Williams has continued to produce content for a dedicated core of followers, which number in the hundreds. He uploads two or three videos every week, usually touching on the same set of conspiracist beliefs, which are outlined most explicitly in an August 2019 video titled What Cross the Rubicon channel's values are.
“We believe the United Nations is a corrupt organization bent on the destruction of all Western nations...We believe the Marxists and Political Islam are in an unholy alliance to flood Western nations with mostly people from Islamic countries to create a voting bloc to keep the Marxists in power forever...We believe the mainstream media of all Western nations now are just propaganda machines on behalf of globalists who control most Western governments”
Just when you think his tirade can’t become any more detached from reality, he continues, implicitly drawing feminism and the LGBT community into his sprawling narrative.
“We believe that the Western caucasian man is being deliberately emasculated to believe he is guilty for all the ills in the world and we believe that this thought process and its implementation is driven by the world wide Marxist movement in our governments, in our media, in our academia, TV and our movie industry."
His followers eat this stuff up. "You're just a New Zealand Patriot that's tired of the leftist wingnut agenda. Stand strong and rock solid my friend. You're doing a fantastic job!" commented a user going by the name Mountain Man, "We are totally behind you, stand strong," read a comment left under the name Red Barron. "I'm with you! I'm on board. I've donated. My only regret is I'm at the other end of the country." wrote a woman named Helana Jordan.
"The best NZ days are Over!!!" commented Stephen Williams. "We are in serious trouble with no way out! I won’t (sic) to cry... as a true blue kiwi I see war on the horizon." Lee then invites him to "come to our rally in Christchurch when it's organized."
These discussions are not happening on encrypted messaging apps or the dubious online image boards that have become known for hosting terrorist manifestos and bomb threats, but on one of the most popular social media platforms on the internet.
By mid-2020 Williams was beginning to be something of a minor celebrity on the right-wing fringe of New Zealand politics. In July, the New Conservative Party shared one of his videos on their Facebook page, calling it "an intelligent and succinct review, with a profound, poignant conclusion." When he endorsed the party a few weeks later, they shared his endorsement video commenting "we are so humbled and encouraged to see critical thinkers jumping onboard."
In the lead-up to the election Williams held weekly rallies in Cathedral Square. Other speakers included former National Front leader Kyle Chapman, and Carl Bromley – another YouTube personality who is also the pastor of a small baptist congregation – whose social media hosts numerous links to articles on an anti-Muslim conspiracy blog. The lineup also featured Adam Nuttall, the conspiracy theorist who would later hold up a local bus in protest against the requirement to wear masks on public transport, and several New Conservative Party candidates.
Photo: Lee Williams speaks in Cathedral Square while a man in a New Conservative Party t-shirt films
Williams and Bromley took a road trip to Nelson in June 2020 to speak at a rally with Mark Thompson. Thompson is a conspiracy theorist involved in anti-lockdown protests as well as attempts to bring the disparate right-wing populist parties – such as the New Conservatives, Advance New Zealand and Sue Grey’s Outdoors Party – closer together.
Williams got his biggest offline audience when he flew to Auckland to speak at a rally promoted by Advance New Zealand. One of the other speakers was Damien de Ment, another YouTube personality who promotes the Qanon conspiracy theory as well as anti-migration rhetoric and opposition to "globalism" similar to that espoused by Williams. Then-Advance NZ co-leader Jami-Lee Ross told Newsroom the party had not selected the speakers.
Being in Auckland gave Lee the opportunity to meet some of his YouTube subscribers in person, as well as rub shoulders with his YouTube peers. He met with Terry Opines, a man who recently uploaded a highly Islamophobic video just after the second anniversary of the Christchurch shooting entitled "NZ's annual March 15 terrorism propaganda has begun". (YouTube has added a warning to that video, stating it "has been identified by the YouTube community as inappropriate or offensive to some audiences" but has allowed it to remain online.)
He also met with Carol Sakey. Sakey, a retired Auckland woman, had uploaded a video to YouTube alleging an "Islamic takeover" of the West was underway just four days before the Christchurch terror attack. She was behind a petition to parliament calling on New Zealand to reject the UN Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The compact was the subject of a far-right disinformation campaign and the Christchurch shooter had the words "Here’s your migration compact!" written on one of his guns.
At that rally Sakey wore a black cap embroidered with the words "MAGA Make Ardern Go Away". These hats are sold (via TradeMe) by Christchurch-based businessman Mike Allen, who in 2019 made comments on his Facebook page about "destroying mosque after mosque until they take me out".
Photo: Carol Sakey at an anti-lockdown rally in Auckland, from one of Lee Williams’ videos
Lee also sat down for an interview with Sarah Smith. Smith is a prominent member of the anti-lockdown group Mothers Who Stand for Freedom. "I’m here with Lee Williams from Cross the Rubicon, he will be very familiar to most of you," she tells her audience. On Facebook she has described the group of people gathered around Williams in Christchurch as having been "the inspiration for so long".
Picture: Sarah Smith praises Kyle Chapman and the far-right activists in Christchurch
The impact YouTube has had on far-right radicalisation is well-documented, though debated. The Royal Commission report into the Christchurch terrorist attack notes,
“In the past, YouTube has been often associated with far right content and radicalisation. There has been much debate about the way YouTube’s recommendation system works. One theory is that this system drove users to ever more extreme material into what is sometimes said to be a “rabbit-hole”.
But the Royal Commission didn’t completely buy this line of thought, and also suggested another reason.
“An alternative theory is that the way in which YouTube operates facilitates and has monetised the production of videos that attract viewers and the widespread availability of videos supporting far right ideas reflects the demand for such videos. What is clear, however, is that videos supporting far right ideas have been very common on YouTube.”
YouTube claims that "We address extremist content by removing videos that violate our hate speech policy and violent criminal organizations policy.” and that their recommendation systems significantly limit the reach of content “that brushes up against the policy line but does not cross it."
Youtube’s progress has been sluggish at best. Rebel News, a channel the Christchurch shooter had donated to, was only just demonetised (made ineligible for a share of YouTube’s advertising revenue) in March 2021, and remains online. Lee Williams frequently claims that YouTube is not promoting his videos to his subscribers, though he still gets in excess of a thousand views on most of his uploads. Williams knows he is walking a fine line as he skirts around topics that could see him penalised by using phrases like "people of a certain religion" instead of "Muslims". He’s fully aware that his audience, but not YouTube’s algorithms, will know who he is talking about.
In January 2020, YouTube terminated the channels of several prominent white supremacists, including that of Stefan Molyneux, another channel that the Christchurch terrorist had donated to. But New Zealand’s own home-grown crop of far-right influencers seem to be operating under the radar. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has spoken of raising concerns about radicalisation directly with YouTube, following the release of the royal commission report where the Christchurch terrorist singled out content on the platform as a source of inspiration.
Every channel mentioned here could be removed from YouTube without even the need to introduce new community standards – just a commitment to enforcing the ones that already exist. With far-right terrorism growing 250% in just five years, much of it invigorated by a deluge of angry, hate-filled videos, what will it take to finally see YouTube take some responsibility for its role in giving these people and their ideology a platform?
Byron Clark runs a YouTube channel that that focuses primarily on New Zealand's far-right.
This essay was written with the support of his patrons on Patreon.