From Cooking Videos to QAnon, N.H.-Based Video Platform Attracts Users Banned Elsewhere
Until she was kicked off Twitter, Savanah Hernandez had amassed more than 120,000 followers.
“I guess you could say I'm more conservative-leaning in my rhetoric, and I mostly focus on politics and daily news,” said Hernandez, a commentator and journalist based in Texas.
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Those followers disappeared last November, though, when the 24-year old was caught in the social media purge following false claims about a stolen election. More recently, Hernandez was also temporarily suspended from YouTube for questioning the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine.
When she was allowed back on the website, Hernandez encouraged her 16,000 subscribers to follow her on a different website, called Odysee, “where I’m not going to get censored.”
Odysee, which is owned by LBRY, a Manchester-based tech company, launched in December. On first glance, it looks like other video hosting websites. But it is taking a decidedly different approach to content moderation: no censorship, no-deplatforming, no matter what users say.
“LBRY is the future of digital content, and how we share it, and how we publish it,” Jeremy Kauffman, LBRY’s founder, told a web host during an interview published in January. (Kauffman declined an interview for this story.)
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The website does have some community guidelines in place, including no threats of violence, no pornography, and no copyright infringment.
But if the website is a giant swimming pool, LBRY is pledging to not filter the water.
“I’m not going to deny that if you want to use LBRY in a ‘Wild West’ kind of way, that that’s possible,” said Kauffman. “But I'd actually say that our intent is not to be edgy or to be putting provocative things in peoples’ faces. Our goal is to give people choices.”
That ethos is in line with Kauffman’s own politics: He’s a libertarian and current board member of the Free State Project, which aims to attract like-minded libertarians to move to New Hampshire, in an effort to exert political influence.
Recently, Kauffman tweeted about walking through an airport while defying mask rules. To some extent, Odysee’s content has that same vibe. It’s most-viewed video of all time, according to a third-party tracking site, is a lecture about the purported dangers of the vaccine.
With more than 10 million videos already uploaded, there is plenty of everything on Odysee, from guitar lessons and video gaming to cooking shows.
But it is also hosting plenty of user-made videos about PizzaGate, Qanon, false allegations claiming a stolen election, and Holocaust denials.
Online extremism experts say Odysee’s hands-off approach poses a risk, specifically from the far right, in spreading bigotry, anti-semitism, and undermining faith in democracy.
“We see a lot of problematic YouTubers who espouse extreme right ideas who use Odysee as a backup channel, in the fear that, at any point, they will be banned from YouTube,” said Eviane Leidig, a researcher based at the University of Oslo.
She recently wrote about the potential for Odysee becoming a platform for the far right.
“I very much support some of these values of libertarianism. It is certainly an aspect of technology that we need to promote beyond the big tech giants. But we also should be hesitant about...the harms that could come as a result,” she said.
Another part of the company’s anti-establishment model is the creation of its own cryptocurrency.
On YouTube, popular video-makers earn U.S. dollars. On Odysee, content creators earn LBRY Credits, which are digital tokens. Users can spend them on the website, as well as other apps, while investors can buy or sell the token on third-party exchange sites.
That’s caught the eye of federal regulators. In March, the SEC filed a lawsuit against LBRY, alleging that the company sold big batches of its tokens to institutional investors and venture capitalists. The agency says LBRY is treating the cryptocurrency as a security - almost like a stock - but failed to register it.
LBRY counters that the government doesn’t understand the complicated technology, and that no one has been harmed by its actions. It also claims the SEC’s actions but the entire world of cryptocurrency at risk.
“That’s going to be the big fight in LBRY. Why are people buying these tokens: consumption, or speculation,” explains John Orcutt, who teaches securities law at the UNH School of Law.
This is just the latest in a string of similar SEC lawsuits. On one side are cutting edge digital companies launching their own currencies. On the other are the laws, including some very old laws, about what counts as a security.
Orcutt believes it’s time for the regulations to catch up with the technology.
“All of this, to me, seems like a very good time for us to be looking at this more holistically, as opposed to on a case by case basis. I think we need a more holistic solution,” said Orcutt.
Some of LBRY’s loudest defenders are the very people earning digital money on its website. Naomi Brockwell is a kind of evangelist for the crypto movement. She frequently posts videos about tech, Bitcoin, and privacy issues to both YouTube and Odysee. She said earning cryptocurrency is one of Odysee’s main draws, and that no one is being harmed.
“This idea that the government is protecting us, I just don’t buy it,” said Brockwell. “But I would go even further. I don’t think the SEC are necessarily being bad people, they are just upholding really bad laws. And we need to revisit these laws.”
The SEC declined to comment on the lawsuit, which could take months, or likely longer, to play out. In the meantime, LBRY will continue courting users with the promise of control over what you make, and what you see.
(Clarification: this piece was updated to reflect that LBRY's digital token can be used in other apps in addition to Odysee.)