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Controversial YouTuber convicted of hate speech over video kickstarts global debate

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How far is too far?

Count Dankula YouTube
The pug that Markus “Count Dankula” Meechan taught to respond to anti-Semitic communications.
CountDankula/YouTube

Markus Meechan, better known to his YouTube audience as “Count Dankula,” is at the center of an important conversation about freedom of expression after he was found guilty of hate speech that he claims was just a joke.

Meechan is a 30-year-old Scottish YouTuber who came into prominence after a video called “M8 yer dugs a Nazi” went viral. Meechan can be heard in the video trying to get his girlfriend’s pug to give the Nazi salute while saying “Sieg Heil” and getting the dog excited while saying things like “gas the Jews” in the background. The video quickly gained attention and, in late April 2016, Meechan was charged with suspicion of a hate crime. Meechan later apologized for the video, saying he was “so sorry to the Jewish community for any offense I have caused them. This was never my intention and I apologize.”​

The next two years would play host to a bigger story than Meechan’s video, as freedom of expression debates commandeered the discussion, eventually drawing in celebrities and comedians like Ricky Gervais. Conversations about Europe’s restrictions on hate speech, which are much more restrictive than those in North America, are once again being debated and, naturally, questions about YouTube’s role as a platform and its values as a company are being raised.

The ruling comes at an interesting and important time for YouTube, a company that is being criticized on the one hand for not taking a stronger stance on certain political and conspiratorial videos, and attacked on the other hand for trying to limit some of its users’ freedom of speech. Meechan’s video is still active right now, although there’s a content warning that viewers must agree to before they can watch it, and hundreds of mirrored versions litter the site with just a quick search. People are calling for Meechan to be banned from the platform, while other notable, and controversial, creators like Alex Jones and Lauren Southern see him as a free speech martyr.

While Meechan’s case is inherently interesting in and of itself, the bigger question is whether the ruling will affect the way YouTube operates and moderates content in Europe, and what that means for the rest of its creators around the world.

“Grossly offensive”

Though Meechan pleaded that the video was made in jest and as a way to annoy his girlfriend at the time, Sheriff Derek O’Carroll found him guilty of a charge under the Communications Act of 2003, calling his video entirely anti-Semitic in nature. O’Carroll said he drew the “reasonable conclusion that the video is grossly offensive,” adding “the description of the video as humorous is no magic wand,” according to the BBC.

The video is anti-Semitic in nature, whether Meechan and his lawyer say otherwise. The shouting of terms like “gas the Jews” is inherently anti-Semitic, and people are criticizing YouTube for allowing a video like this to remain on the platform — especially at a time when YouTube is trying to figure out how to battle hate content, even if it falls outside the normal purview of what it considers hate content.

Kent Walker, Google’s general counselor, wrote about Google and YouTube’s efforts to clamp down on hate speech that falls outside its policies last year. That includes content like Meechan’s so-called satirical video, which includes anti-Semitic words being cheerfully spoken. Kent wrote:

We will be taking a tougher stance on videos that do not clearly violate our policies — for example, videos that contain inflammatory religious or supremacist content. In future these will appear behind an interstitial warning and they will not be monetized, recommended or eligible for comments or user endorsements. That means these videos will have less engagement and be harder to find. We think this strikes the right balance between free expression and access to information without promoting extremely offensive viewpoints.

Part of that is true; Meechan’s video is hidden behind an interstitial warning and it doesn’t appear to be monetized when played. It was, however, extraordinarily easy to find. Meechan’s original video appeared as the third search result, just below two other mirrored versions. Meechan’s original video has also inspired copycat versions, the most recent of which was uploaded just a couple of days ago.

All of these videos contain anti-Semitic and, according to UK courts, illegal hate content. It’s the type of videos that YouTube should technically be removing, according to its own policies. YouTube’s hate content policy states:

There is a fine line between what is and what is not considered to be hate speech. For instance, it is generally okay to criticize a nation-state, but if the primary purpose of the content is to incite hatred against a group of people solely based on their ethnicity, or if the content promotes violence based on any of these core attributes, like religion, it violates our policy.

“If the content promotes violence based on any of these core attributes, like religion” is an important part of that statement, especially as it relates to Meechan’s case. O’Carroll never says that Meechan’s video incites violence, but is so grossly offensive to the Jewish community that he should have known it would cause mass offense.

According to the 2003 Communications Act, updated in 2012, “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false” communications will only be prosecuted when they are necessary and proportionate. The revisions also clarified that if “swift and effective action ... to remove the communication” was taken, and if the message wasn’t intended for a wide audience, it was unlikely that criminal action would be taken.

Meechan did none of these things.

“The accused knew that the material was offensive and knew why it was offensive,” O’Carroll said. “Despite that the accused made a video containing anti-Semitic content and he would have known it was grossly offensive to many Jewish people.”

The clarifications also state, however, that if those communications are “unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humor, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it,” than those shouldn’t necessarily be considered criminal offenses.

This is where the heart of the Meechan conversation — and YouTube’s role in the proceedings — lies. It’s also the reason Meechan’s case has attracted attention from notable right-wing personalities like Alex Jones, Lauren Southern and Katie Hopkins, and comedians like Ricky Gervais. Like most of the conversation surrounding YouTube right now, it all comes down to questions over freedom of expression.

“A very dark day”

Ross Brown, Meechan’s lawyer, told a group of reporters after the verdict came down that the “court should seek to acquit Mr. Meechan for no other reason but to show it is 2018 and not 1984.”

Brown’s comments were echoed by Meechan himself, who said he believed it was a “very dark day in regards to freedom of speech and freedom of expression.”

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are two phrases that have dominated conversations about YouTube in wake of an alleged “purge” of right-wing, conspiracy and pro-gun content. When YouTube announced its new policies regarding gun content (severely limiting what could appear on the platform), a few creators called out the platform for censorship and moved their channels over to other websites like BitChute and PornHub. YouTube has also declared that it will try to alleviate its growing conspiracy video problem by adding Wikipedia citations (similar to what YouTube’s parent company, Google, does).

It’s clear that YouTube is taking action against videos that critics keep calling the company out for, but does that fall into the category of being a free speech problem? We spoke about a similar concern earlier this month:

As YouTube struggles to define what type of content it allows on its platform, and what type of creators it doesn’t, it’s exacerbating a growing schism between a user base that, in part, thinks of YouTube as a public space where almost anyone can upload videos and the company itself, eager to reign in advertiser-unfriendly embarrassments, from hate speech to disinformation. It’s easy to agree that hate speech, and those who cater toward hateful ideologies under the guise of political discourse, should not be allowed on the platform, but for others, who claim that they’re being forced off the platform because of content they view as benign, the “purge” is something they’re anxious about.

Those creator’s sentiments — the fact that they’re being punished for not doing anything wrong in their eyes — translates to Meechan’s own feelings. He told Alex Jones that he doesn’t think he did anything wrong in the long run and was being unfairly punished.

“It was clearly satire. It was clearly a joke,” Meechan said. “I wasn’t setting out to cause any offense to any people. If anything I was wanting people to laugh, and just obviously, it was taken the wrong way.”

This also isn’t the first time that a YouTuber has hidden anti-Semitic or derogatory language and imagery behind the guise of comedy. Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg said in February 2017 that he considers himself an amateur comedian, adding that the anti-Semitic imagery that appeared in his video or jokes that he made were done so under the public assumption that he was making a joke.

“I do strongly believe that you can joke about anything, but I also believe there’s a right way and not the best way to joke about things,” he argued. “I love to push boundaries, but I consider myself a ‘rookie comedian.’”

The issue, however, is that it can be extremely difficult to discern what is ironic or satirical and what is genuine, as perfectly summed up in the tweet below.

Meechan’s tone appears to be what O’Carroll found problematic. Although the purpose of Meechan’s video is to turn his girlfriend’s dog into the “least cute thing I could think of” — a Nazi — O’Carroll said there’s a greater responsibility to the words being spoken.

“This court has taken the freedom of expression into consideration,” O’Carroll said, according to the BBC. “But the right to freedom of expression also comes with responsibility.”

Not all comedians feel the same way, though. Ricky Gervais tweeted his own concerns over the treatment of Meechan in a UK court of law, calling it a blemish on freedom of speech in Europe.

“A man has been convicted in a UK court of making a joke that was deemed ‘grossly offensive,’” Gervais said. “If you don’t believe in a person’s right to say things that you might find ‘grossly offensive’ then you don’t believe in Freedom of Speech.”

Meechan plans to appeal the ruling, taking the case to the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, to try and argue his case again.

Update: The story has been updated to include further context for Meechan’s original video.