What happens when controversial YouTubers try to harness their online support for political office?

When Googling Carl Benjamin on the day of the 2019 European Elections the top hits included the phrases “milkshake melee”, “police investigation” and “rape joke”.

The 39-year-old from Swindon made headlines this month after a “rape joke” he made about Labour MP Jess Phillips, for telling BBC journalist, Victoria Derbyshire, the mainstream media were “radicalising people” by lying about him, and after being repeatedly “milkshaked” in public.

Today he will find out if he has been elected as the Ukip MEP for South West England, which would give him a legitimate platform at the heart of European democracy.

There is more to Carl Benjamin than milkshakes and ardent Brexiteerism. This is a man whose political notoriety was forged in the depths of a global far-right YouTube community, a world many of us know little or nothing about. Today we will find out whether his social media power can translate into political power.

But – win or lose – what does his political candidacy tell us? Who are these far-right YouTubers and what impact do they really have in the mainstream?

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More commonly known by his online name, that of the first great Mesopotamian emperor Sargon of Akkad, Mr Benjamin has nearly one million YouTube subscribers.

In a four minute video posted to his channel in April he stated: “I am not a politician, I am an office worker and semi-amateur game developer turned successful political commentator.”

He added that he does not actually want to become an MEP, but is running because he wants to see Britain out of the European Union.

The video, filmed against a backdrop of aubergine curtains and an awkwardly placed dumbbell, seems a world away from Mr Benjamin’s previous content.

The Herald: Carl Benjamin announced his candidacy for MEP via his YouTube channel, Sargon of Akkad. (YouTube)Carl Benjamin announced his candidacy for MEP via his YouTube channel, Sargon of Akkad. (YouTube)

I first came across his political commentary in the spring of 2017 while studying at UC Berkeley, in California.

Milo Yiannapolous, the far-right British polemicist, had just been kicked off campus after students and anti-fascist protesters surrounded the building where he was due to speak and set fire to a floodlight with a molotov cocktail. And the “alt-right”, an umbrella term used to describe the majority of the far-right at the time, were angry.

The definition of alt-right, short for alternative right, has been contested by academics and the movement’s diverse nature makes it almost impossible to summarise.

But it can broadly be classed as a set of far-right ideologies, such as white nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-feminism and centrally, the right to free speech.

Like any ideology, the movement has various levels of intensity from extreme far-right neo-nazis, to those who pick and choose which aspects of the movement to uptake in order to remain socially acceptable.

The alt-light is a term often used to describe the movements YouTube personalities, who tend to avoid voicing extreme views, but have been known to espouse many of the movement’s beliefs to their hundreds of thousands of followers.

Mr Benjamin has previously been grouped in this category, but Mike Wendling, BBC journalist and author of Alt-Right: From 4chan to the White House, explained the term “intellectual dark web” may more accurately describe him and the other YouTubers who descended on Berkeley that year.

“He’s cultivated a fan base, he’s cultivated quite a passionate fan base, but he’s not alt-right,” Mr Wendling said.

“He’s explicitly said that he doesn’t believe in the alt-right.

“On the other hand he’s obviously very offensive. He claims to be for free speech but it’s more specific than that, it’s not really about free speech it’s about the freedom to offend people.”

The Herald: Benjamin on the campaign trail in South West EnglandBenjamin on the campaign trail in South West England

Mr Benjamin and many other YouTubers from this so-called “intellectual dark web” rallied on Berkeley in the name of “free speech”, when a number of other far-right speakers were banned from campus following the Milo shutdown.

They documented the unfolding ideological clashes between controversial far-right figures and anti-fascist (Antifa) counter protesters, but events quickly escalated to violence.

During one protest, I witnessed a car drive through a crossroads full of people and carry on, full speed, out of the other side with a man clinging onto the bonnet.

The incident happened just months before 28-year-old Heather Heyer was killed at another far-right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, by James Alex Fields Jr., who also drove his car intentionally into a crowd.

These YouTubers depicted the Berkeley protests like war zone.

For example, well-known alt-light YouTuber, Canadian-born Lauren Southern, frequently used militaristic language in her content.

She titled one video “The Battle for Berkeley” and declared in another, “We took back ‘commifornia’ because of one terrible battle decision by the communists!”

When Mr Yiannapolous planned a “free speech week” on the campus in September that year, Mr Benjamin flew over to join his fellow "dark web intellectuals".

The Herald: Mr Benjamin on stage with another YouTuber, Count Dankula (left), who recently came under fire posted a satiric video of a dog he'd taught to raise its paw in the manner of a Nazi salute. Mr Benjamin on stage with another YouTuber, Count Dankula (left), who recently came under fire posted a satiric video of a dog he'd taught to raise its paw in the manner of a Nazi salute.

The violence of the Spring protests had mostly subsided by September, but, like the other YouTubers before him, Mr Benjamin filmed his curbside political arguments with the counter-protesters.

In a one-and-a-half hour “Free Speech Documentary” on his channel, you can see these arguments in full, as well as the platform he gives to the notoriously violent Proudboys, an organisation which claims to be just a “pro-Trump drinking club”.

Speaking to one of their members Mr Benjamin said: “Do you want to tell me about the Proudboys, because I have a funny feeling you guys get a lot of bad press and you don’t get to tell your story.”

This week, leaked chats from the group obtained by The Huffington Post, revealed they were discussing injuring and even killing their “enemies”.

One message read: “All I want to do is smash commies too. Actually I’m lying, I’m way past just hitting them. When the time comes I will stop at nothing to fully eradicate them all!”

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In 2017 many U.S. commentators labelled the Berkeley protests as simply alt-right vs Antifa, but various ideologies existed on both sides and to call either a homogenous group would be a mistake.

Nevertheless, through extensive analysis of the videos posted by Mr Benjamin and other “intellectual dark web” YouTubers who attended the protests, it appeared they operated within an unofficial, online network.

By interviewing one another, sharing each other’s content and allowing the far-right voices to dominate over any other, YouTubers such as Mr Benjamin, Ms Southern, and even ex-VICE journalist Tim Pool, established what could be described as a pack mentality during the Berkeley protests.

Mr Benjamin did not interview Antifa protesters with any veil of journalistic professionalism, choosing instead to mock them in his videos. While when he interviewed far-right figures he gave them uninterrupted airtime to deliver their message.

He also frequently used the content of the other far-right YouTubers who were attending the protests, which helped to push a joint narrative that the Antifa were the violent “communist” aggressors, while the “pro-free speech” protestors were justified in their retaliation.

Despite their assertions they were not part of any group, the YouTubers’ coverage clearly favoured the far-right protesters, in a classic display of“in-group, out-group” mentality.

They labelled the Antifa protesters as one indistinguishable violent faction, while the opposing side were seen as diverse and acting in self-defence.

Although Mr Benjamin and the other YouTubers videos garnered hundreds of thousands of views, did they actually have any offline effect?

The Herald: Mr Benjamin was 'milkshaked' while on the campaign trail this month (PA Images)Mr Benjamin was 'milkshaked' while on the campaign trail this month (PA Images)

That September, Mr Yiannopoulos delivered a speech to a small crowd from the Sproul Steps on the UC Berkeley's campus.

Dressed in a stars and stripes hoodie Mr Yiannopoulos shook hands with supporters and made a few dashed words before he was whisked away by bodyguards.

The “intellectual dark web” hailed it as a “victory for free speech”, and yet the furore and mass crowds that swelled during that year seemed to ebb away as quickly as they rose.

Now Mr Benjamin has stepped out from behind his computer yet again, this time onto the political stage in Britain. But will his huge online fanbase, which donates thousands to him monthly via crowdfunding platforms, manifest into support at the polls?

Mr Wendling doesn’t think so.

“If you have a message that gets so many people riled up then surely you can convert that into a political message if you do it the right way,” he said.

“But maybe that is the problem, maybe it’s simply a fact that the actual campaign is not as compelling as your YouTube videos.

“The significance is that they are people with large YouTube followings, who come from fairly provocative, offensive, or extreme right positions and they have not been able to translate that into a political movement.”

The majority of the media attention that has surrounded Mr Benjamin during his election bid has centred on the tweet he sent in 2016, in which he said he “wouldn’t even rape” Labour MP Jess Phillips.

The Herald: The tweet Mr Benjamin sent in 2016. The tweet Mr Benjamin sent in 2016.

Mr Wendling added he has not conveyed “any sort of philosophy” during his campaign, “all he’s known for is a rape joke,” he said.

But the ability of online power to translate into electoral success is still yet to be proven on both sides of the political spectrum.

Following the success of the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. one of the movement’s leaders, DeRay Mckesson, ran for mayor of Baltimore in 2016.

Despite rallying thousands of protestors for racial equality and having a strong online base with over 330,000 followers on Twitter, Mr Mckesson received just over 3,000 votes finishing in sixth place.

“There’s always been a disconnect between developing a large social media presence and turning that into a mainstream electoral success,” Mr Wendling said.

“The jury is definitely still out on the actual influence of social media.”

While out on the campaign trail Mr Benjamin has been doused in milkshakes, banned from election hustings and a police investigation has been launched following that 2016 tweet.

Despite naming his channel after a conqueror who is remembered as the first ruler of an ancient empire, it appears his political history may be recalled as one which was swiftly extinguished by £1.50 milkshakes.