British neo-Nazi used codewords to evade hate speech filters on YouTube

James Owens concealed hate speech about Jewish people on his YouTube channel, using terms such as "people who look white but aren't" and referring to Hitler as "our uncle." 

  Silhouettes of laptop and mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of the YouTube logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)
Silhouettes of laptop and mobile device users are seen next to a screen projection of the YouTube logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)

A UK-based neo-Nazi has had over 700 hours of content removed from YouTube recently, after it was revealed by the Times that he was using code words to refer to Jewish and Black people, in order to get around the video sharing platform's hate speech filters. 

James Owens, a 37-year-old sports journalist, operated a YouTube channel under the fake name "the Ayatollah," using the platform to regularly spread carefully concealed hate speech about Jewish people, using terms such as "people who look white but aren't" and referring to Hitler as "our uncle." 

His carefully chosen codewords, along with his use of a fake name, a fake profile picture and a fake accent, helped him to evade detection from YouTube's artificial intelligence filters designed to prevent hate speech. However, due to several missteps on his part, he was successfully identified and tracked down, The Times reported. 

How was Owens identified?

According to The Times, Owens's real appearance first become known after he introduced himself as "the Ayatollah" to an infiltrator at a neo-Nazi event. His second error was to describe on his YouTube channel how he had been wearing a Hawaiian shirt at a far-right gathering, which just so happened to have been captured on film by a group of anti-fascist campaigners.

A Nazi's salute at a neo-Nazi rally in Kansas City, Missouri. (Dave Kaup/Reuters) (credit: DAVE KAUP / REUTERS)A Nazi's salute at a neo-Nazi rally in Kansas City, Missouri. (Dave Kaup/Reuters) (credit: DAVE KAUP / REUTERS)

"The only people who benefit from [Owens's] show are antisemites and fascists, people who hate Jews and people who love Hitler."

Dave Rich, Policy Head, Community Security Trust

After receiving a tip regarding the Ayatollah's real identity from the Red Flare, an anti-far right collective that monitors and exposes extremists in the UK, The Times used digital recognition technology to match the voice from the Ayatollah YouTube channel to recordings of Owens's actual voice taken from a football podcast he used to record.

Owens, who has said in the past that Britain would be better off if it had not won World War Two, had amassed up to 414,00 views on over 700 hours of video content on YouTube. He notably uses his sizeable following to recruit activists for the far-right Patriotic Alternative group, whose members included Kris Kearns, who is facing up to 15 years in prison on terrorism charges for allegedly encouraging violence against non-white people. 

Of all Owens's videos, only one was ever removed for hate speech by the media giant after Owens claimed that UK shadow foreign secretary David Lammy was a "funded Jewish agent," whose time at Harvard University was paid for by Jewish Lawyers.

Lammy, who is the first Black British Harvard Law graduate, has been an outspoken opponent of antisemitism in the UK Labour Party in the past and is a member of Labour Friends of Israel. 

Owens on the Jews

Besides his racist and antisemitic remarks directed at Lammy, Owen has made plenty of content specifically directed at Jewish people, all of it carefully concealed under codewords.

Referring only to "a group of people who tell you what happened to them but don’t tell you why," he suggested that Jews deserve to be persecuted, blamed Jews for imposing mass immigration on Britain, and denounced Ukraine's Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, saying that he was "doing it [the war with Russia] for his people. We know who his people are. They ain’t Slavs.”

Speaking to The Times, Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust charity commented on Owens, saying that "the only people who benefit from this show are antisemites and fascists, people who hate Jews and people who love Hitler."

In a post on Facebook regarding the identification of the neo-Nazi, Red Flare said that Owens "stands out for his irate, violent rhetoric, rabid antisemitism, frequent use of racial slurs, and his veneration of Adolf Hitler."

"Owens has been an important link connecting British and American neo-Nazi content creators," they added.

According to the Red Flare, Owens was a former host of far-right podcast The Absolute State of Britain which has previously described itself as "Britain's most racist podcast." He departed the podcast in September 2020, allegedly having been forcibly removed by his co-hosts for "being in a relationship with a mixed-race woman." His decision to set up his own, independent YouTube channel came shortly after his removal from the podcast.

In one podcast episode hosted by Owens prior to his departure, he suggested that “We're still fighting Hitler's war, it's just a guerrilla war now."

"Owens has been an important link connecting British and American neo-Nazi content creators."

Red Flare

Following the publication of Owens's identity, The Times stated that they reached out to YouTube, providing links to his videos as proof that his channel violated YouTubes rules. YouTube then took action, deleting his videos and terminating his channel.

A history of hate speech

When speaking to The Times about Owens, Rich posed a question, asking if "just on a philosophical level, is that [racist hate speech] what YouTube exists for? Is that what the people who run it go to work every day to facilitate?"

While this may not be what YouTube originally set out to facilitate, the phenomenon of using social media as a platform to spread hate speech has become increasingly widespread in recent years.

In July of this year, a report entitled "History Under Attack: Holocaust Denial and Distortion on Social Media" identified a worrying trend of prominent social media platforms becoming a source of hate speech and antisemitism, specifically in regards to antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

And, in 2021 alone, over 3.5 million antisemitic posts were uploaded across online platforms, with only 25% of reported antisemitic posts removed. On Twitter, #Hitlerwasright was allowed to trend, and on Telegram, roughly 50% of all Holocaust-related content engages in denying or distorting Holocaust history. 

Speaking to The Times, Owen praised YouTube for the ease with which he could spread his content.

"I use YouTube to communicate with, entertain, and hopefully lift the spirits of other non-compliant white people, by which I mean white people who reject the psychological abuse, dispossession and humiliation of the present, anti-white order," he said. "I am trying to provide myself and the audience with a bit of relief in a very hostile, alienating world."

A spokesperson for the streaming platform commented on the situation, saying that "hate speech is not allowed on YouTube and our hate speech policy outlines clear guidelines prohibiting content that promotes violence or hatred against individuals or groups based on certain attributes."