On Monday the BBC reported that Facebook had removed three Britain First adverts, and the page responsible for disseminating them. Britain First is a fascist political party that Facebook had already banned from its platform last year, saying at the time that its representatives “repeatedly posted content designed to incite animosity and hatred against minority groups.” A rather surprising aspect of this story, however, is the styling of the group that had been promoting Britain First: it's called "Political Gamers TV", and little about it adds up.
Describing itself as "a brand new network dedicated to gamers worldwide with a freedom of political speech", on the surface Political Gamers TV looks like just another nasty little splinter group. But even the most cursory examination shows PGTV isn't really like that, so much as a shell designed to promote associations between 'alt right' political content and Britain First.
Before being banned by Facebook, Britain First made hay from social media's capacity to spread inflammatory posts, images and videos. The group's productions aim for a meme-like quality, and the vaguely clever aspect of its tactics is alternating between simplistic nationalism (the 'Share to support our troops' kind of post) and its far-right and racist core. The self-reinforcing nature of social media platforms in general has put some of its posts in front of a wide audience: not least when the US President Donald Trump retweeted one of its (misleading) videos to his 40 million followers. Even Trump had to admit that was a mistake.
Following the 2016 murder of the MP Jo Cox, some MPs called for Britain First to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation. According to witnesses, the murderer shouted "Britain first" twice during the attack. Britain First deny this is connected to them.
I give this context to make clear that Britain First isn't a harmless collection of racist fruitcakes. It's an organisation that sees the internet as its most important recruiting tool, targets disaffected white people, mostly young men, and is linked to countless acts of harassment and violence.
Britain First also has nothing at all to do with video games. Which is why Political Gamers TV caught my eye, because this looks like a shoddily-disguised attempt to try and tap-in to various alt-right networks, and use this position to push Britain First's propaganda. PGTV told the BBC "it has no direct links with Britain First and just reports its activities."
Most tellingly, everything PGTV bar the Steam account is devoid of gaming activity. The Steam account shows the individual behind it is a big fan of Counter-Strike: GO and has just under 4,000 hours on Garry's Mod. This is clearly a personal account, adapted for the purpose, and he plays a lot of games. The outward-facing PGTV Twitter and YouTube accounts, on the other hand, are just lists of far-right political videos and memes. Here's the YouTube uploads and, despite views ranging between 115 and 145,000, there's not a gaming-focused one among them.
Lovely: now YouTube will be recommending 'watch Jordan Peterson OWN this feminist' videos to me for the rest of the year.
Then things get even weirder. PGTV's Steam page describes themselves as both a Russia Today UK journalist and a contributor to Britain First.
The RT link is also seen in the account's most recent post, which apparently advertises an upcoming show on RT and uses the Gamergate hashtag. Reverse image-search this 'advert' however, and the only two times it appears on the whole internet are on PGTV's Facebook and Steam page. Or to put it another way, it's a fake.
The primary and perhaps only individual behind the Political Gamers TV brand is Stevie Cowee. I asked whether he really worked for Russia Today and whether this show existed.
"I can make no comment on any plans with Russia Today at this moment, but we are very fond of Russia, Putin & the media in Russia."
I'm surprised he resisted the temptation to add 'kek' on the end. Clearly the RT connection is spurious.
I was able to view various information Cowie's made public over recent years about PGTV. There are further bizarre aspects to this, including what appears to be a Breitbart article penned by Milo Yiannopoulos, accompanied by a post about talking to his agent. Except... this article, dated January 2017, doesn't seem to have been published. A closer look at the text, meanwhile, immediately throws up the kind of obvious errors that you wouldn't expect even from Breitbart. This too seems a clear fake.
The point is not to draw a conspiracy theory around PGTV; the point is that it is designed to look more connected than it is. The Breitbart mock-up is an attempt to associate with Yiannopoulos, the Gamergate ad an attempt to hook into that world, and the Russia Today stuff both appeals to a subset of right-wingers and sows confusion. I did ask Russia Today's press office about the claims of a link, but two days later it has yet to reply.
All of these links are fake. What matters is the one that's real.
You told the BBC you have 'no direct link' to Britain First, but your Steam account says 'Contributor for Britain First' — so which is it?
Steve Cowee: We are not directly involved with the movement, in regards to what is advertised on our Steam, this is simply stating we are covering Britain First events and publish media for them but this does not automatically mean we agree with the movement. We had used Facebook ads for nearly all of our posts which included self created memes & random videos sourced from the internet daily, not just Britain First content. We used ads to reach a larger audience for Political Gamers TV not to benefit any other movement or person.
The story here is where the impetus to publish is coming from: note Cowee's phrasing that "we are covering Britain First events and publish media for them." That is how a front works. It is true that PGTV does not focus exclusively on Britain First content, but what it does focus on all falls under the alt-right umbrella. The interest in promoting Britain First is core to these various accounts, whereas the links to other outlets are an attempt to create right-wing 'cred' without the bother of any of it being real. It's important to note that this doesn't necessarily matter to the channel's goals. In a small way Steve Bannon would be proud of Cowee for the insight that, with the kind of audience this is going for, perception matters much more than facts.
Who paid for the ads?
Steve Cowee: The money for our ads is paid for using our own personal finances. We are daily advised by social media experts from other movements and activists on growing social media pages. These movements and activists currently have pages across the internet with a large following and have also previously run pages with a large following size.
Political Gamers TV is in and of itself small beer, but also a case study in how fringe movements continue to outflank social media platforms, and what looks like an example of far-right astroturfing. Britain First may be banned from Facebook, but its allies and supporters continue to push its message on the platform and, through a myriad of smaller accounts like this, associate the party's fascist ideology both with less extreme rightwing content and completely unrelated topics. In this case the up-front association is with the 'gamer' identity and on occasion the 'gamergate' hashtag, reflecting the far-right's continuing practice of using 'politics in video games' as an inlet to young minds.
It brings home the challenge that educators, parents and all of these huge platform-holders have. While it may be easy to just dismiss an outfit like Britain First as thick-browed racists, it's harder to acknowledge that it is using the tools of the internet age to continue to target its hateful message at specific groups. PGTV is an interesting example because it's unsophisticated, it falls apart when you examine it, and in doing so provides an unusually bald look at the elements used in its construction.
Most obviously, this outlet isn't branded as being about video games because it wants to attract xenophobic pensioners; it wants their grandchildren. The associations its YouTube page tries to create are almost like a check-list: Jordan Peterson, Infowars, Milo, Katie Hopkins, Trump, 'angry SJWs'... and then a tonne of Britain First vids sandwiched in-between.
A depressing aspect of the BBC's original report on the removal of these ads is that, until the BBC had contacted Facebook about the Britain First posts, the initial complaint had not received a response. There's that sense that Facebook doesn't really have an effective way to monitor this stuff, or respond to user feedback, and mostly acts when the press department panics because an outlet like the Beeb got in touch. Facebook and other social media companies will eventually have to grasp the nettle about hosting extremist content but, as has been clear for years now, the ideas and the execution are sorely lacking. Who knows how many Britain First videos are being watched on Facebook as you read this line, but the number's not going to be anywhere near zero.
None of this story is funny, apart from the fact that the Political Gamers TV twitter account was used on 2 Jan 2018 to complain to McDonalds about a 24-hour store being closed at 5:28am. The tweet has now sadly been deleted, but I enjoyed that glimpse of the master race in action.
2019 feels like it'll be a weird year for gaming. Here we are, barely begun, looking at how a young man's objectionable political viewpoints and online fantasy world morphed into a Facebook ban, a BBC report, and a bizarre circus ring of fake rightwing endorsements. PGTV is a low-sophistication example of how unpleasant groups target UK browsers, and you might think it couldn't fool anyone, but young kids especially aren't being taught the critical thinking skills to see through online propaganda like this.
Everyone's a gamer now, though thankfully only a vanishingly small number of us have any time for Britain First. Political Gamers TV is a little reminder no-one and nothing on the internet is what it seems. And a big reminder too: funny how those who scream loudest about politics in games, to a man, are always of such unpalatable leanings themselves.
Featured image: The Flag Insititute