On the 7th of April, YouTube removed an interview uploaded by the channel London Real. In the video, veteran conspiracy theorist David Icke claimed coronavirus doesn't exist. Instead, he asserted that 5G radiation is responsible for the hypoxic symptoms of Covid-19, a novel illness that experts continue to make efforts to understand.
Two days later, the UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom launched an investigation after parts of the same interview were shown on the TV channel London Live. Brian Rose, London Real's founder and frontman, seized upon the opportunity, rallying his "London Real Army" into a show of resistance against Silicon Valley behemoths and what he sees as unjust censorship.
Later that month, a crowdfunding campaign was launched with a target of $100,000 (£80,484), to finance a "Digital Freedom Platform" (DFP) that would host videos YouTube might censor. Incidentally, that service is already provided by the likes of BitChute and BitTube, sites which bill themselves as free-speech alternatives to YouTube and allow far-right and conspiracy theory content.
Days later, Rose's campaign was stepped up, with the target raised to $500,000 (£401,445). The first $100,000 would finance the livestream of a new interview with Icke on the DFP. A further $200,000 (£160,630) would cover an undetermined number of additional interviews, and another $200,000 ("Phase 3") would pay for the development of an unspecified new "blockchain technology platform", according to the donation page.
As the crowdfunding campaign gathered momentum, some began to question the validity of the DFP and why it needed to be funded at all, since London Real already has a website where its interviews are uploaded. A number of commenters called on Rose to disclose exactly how the money will be used – though initially these were in the extreme minority. In an affront to free speech, some of the loudest voices were blocked or muted. I asked Rose via email why he denied the free speech of these commenters, but he did not address the question in his response.
In a further apparent hypocrisy, the DFP reserves the right to remove any content that it "determines is offensive, unlawful, threatening, defamatory, obscene, or otherwise objectionable", according to its terms and conditions – a determination that is at its sole discretion. This is analogous to the right reserved by YouTube in its own terms of service, exercised in the removal of the Icke interview that started this whole saga.
Still, such was the success of the crowdfunding campaign that two new phases were swiftly added, raising the target first to $750,000 (£604,030) and then $1 million (£806,173). This additional money has been earmarked for the launch of an app to accompany the DFP, as well as a legal fund to pay for a lawsuit against YouTube in "the EU Court" for breaching London Real's freedom of expression, according to the donation page.
Doubts over the crowdfunder aren't the only criticisms being levelled at London Real. Rose's TED Talk – and London Real's 1.84 million YouTube subscribers – have helped him secure an audience of paying customers for a series of "Business Accelerator" programmes. But many past customers have been highly critical of the course content and format.
On his London Real channel, Brian Rose has interviewed guests ranging from social media marketing motormouth Gary Vaynerchuk to "Iceman" Wim Hof, the Dutch endurance master featured in a 2015 VICE documentary.
In the channel's early days, interviews rarely racked up more than 10,000 views, with predictably esoteric staples of the alternative media – such as ayahuasca, cryptocurrencies, martial arts and self-mastery – being common territory for conversation. Post-pandemic, however, the channel has homed-in on coronavirus misinformation to sate the appetite of a growing following of conspiracy enthusiasts. Since the banned Icke interview, London Real has hosted talks with the likes of Dr Andrew Kaufman and anti-vaxxer Dr Rashid Buttar, both of whom refute the official coronavirus narrative.
Like David Icke, Buttar – a proponent of the controversial "chelation therapy" – has been spreading the idea that 5G, not a novel virus, is playing a role in people's oxygen levels falling to lethal lows. There is absolutely no evidence of this. A catalogue of countries have not yet rolled out 5G infrastructure and are still suffering coronavirus outbreaks, while at the time of writing South Korea – which has one of the most advanced 5G rollouts globally – has registered just 264 coronavirus deaths in a population of more than 51 million. Buttar has also called on people to go outside and claimed that, far from being inundated with coronavirus sufferers, hospitals are "idle".
Kaufman, a psychiatrist by training, claims that coronavirus testing is detecting the presence of exosomes, vesicles that play a critical role in transporting genetic code between cells. This, he says, is resulting in inflated false positives, making it appear as if there is a widespread virus that does not exist, despite warnings that tests are also commonly giving false negatives. He also questions whether viruses cause disease, and therefore whether illnesses can even be contagious.
Neither interviewee was challenged by Rose over the credibility of their claims, either out of ignorance or by choice. Could it be a case of: why let the truth get in the way of a good story, or – more importantly – a million-dollar fundraiser?
Rose's crowdfunding target was ultimately beaten. Of more than $1.1 million raised, $300,000 has been earmarked for interviews, and half of this sum has already been spent. The most costly of these interviews was an apparent livestream with David Icke, dubbed "Rose/Icke III". I asked why a single interview would cost $100,000, and Rose said that $62,500 alone was needed to cover the streaming costs of "Rose/Icke III", with the balance footing "additional hardware and software costs [taking] our total expenditure to significantly in excess of the $100,000 allocated".
Dacast, the platform on which the video is hosted, did not respond to a request for comment.
More contentious than the use of proceeds associated with the DFP, however, is the "Digital Platform Freedom Fund". The donation page indicates that this $250,000 will be used to bring a case against YouTube in "the EU Court". Unfortunately for Rose – and those who have donated – this is likely impossible.
"An individual can't sue a private company before either the Court of Justice of the EU or the European Court of Human Rights, which is not actually an EU institution. [Neither] deal with purely private disputes," says Marko Milanovic, Professor of Public International Law at the University of Nottingham School of Law. "The only way to sue YouTube is in a private action in [a specific] country for, say, breach of contract. But that won't apply here for various reasons, or would not succeed anyway."
Milanovic adds that a case in the UK courts would hold no water, as YouTube, a privately-owned company, is simply enforcing its terms and conditions and has assumed no contractual obligation to publish anyone's videos or publicise anyone's views. It can take down content it deems objectionable, just as the DFP can.
In response, Rose said he sought legal advice and believes there is a case to be made that private tech companies are essentially public utilities and should therefore be subject to the same rules as governments with regards to protecting free speech, citing Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Rose, an American, is a free-speech absolutist. But free speech, like any civil liberty, is balanced with the harm it has the potential to cause. Even in the US, home to the hallowed First Amendment, restrictions exist. In 1919, this was put to the test when the United States Supreme Court held that "falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic" is not protected.
Article 10 also has clear provisions on this, stating that restrictions on the freedom of expression are prescribed by law by necessity, in the interests of national security, public safety and, crucially, for the protection of health. In other words, even if YouTube were considered an extension of the state, which is a stretch, it would have the legal right to ban anything it deemed a threat to the public's safety.
Wilfully spreading misinformation during a pandemic has the potential to cause harm; anti-lockdown protesters in the US and the UK have been buoyed by online conspiracies, gathering in close proximity and increasing the risk of transmission. But the harm test is a principle that Rose and his followers seemingly either do not grasp or, worse, choose to ignore.
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, has expressly warned of the potential for governments to exploit blanket bans on misinformation as a means of suppressing fact-based journalism, which at a time like this has never been more vital. A case in point: the suppression of free speech in China played a critical role in the spread of coronavirus, as medical professionals were silenced in the early stages of the outbreak. But, says Mijatović, proportionate measures are necessary to combat false and potentially harmful coronavirus information that may lead to panic, social unrest and even damage to people's physical health.
One might ask why London Real launched the crowdfunder in the first place; after all, the channel has been successful enough to expand into mentorships through its business courses, advertised as offering help and advice to budding entrepreneurs looking to develop and commercialise their ideas.
However, despite making the transition from City derivatives broker to self-qualified wantrepreneur guru, Rose's business does not appear to have the means to bankroll his dubious free speech ambitions – or to be financially self-sufficient.
The most recent accounts filed for Longstem Limited, the only active company registered in Rose's name, show a business carrying significant debts. In the financial year ending December, 2018, the firm had gross debts of more than £374,000 (net £245,000), having made a loss of just over £126,500, according to documents filed with Companies House in November of 2019. In the year prior it lost £174,000. The last time Longstem turned a profit was in its first year, 2016, when it made £15,914.
London Real's business academy charges $3,000 (£2,448) for its courses, up to a reported $10,000 (£8,162) for "inner circle" access. But the programme has left a number of customers dissatisfied and seeking full refunds. Complaints include false promises and misleading advertising, the exploitation of people who could not afford to take the course and the failure to honour the promised 60-day money back guarantee, with many being forced to seek redress from their banks.
A total of 20 complaints against Rose and his course have been published on Scamguard, a website where consumers can "share their experiences regarding the suspicious or deceitful activities of organisations and individuals". Every commenter reports monetary damages of up to – and, in a few cases, above – $3,000. Eighteen of these complaints are marked as unresolved.
"The course content is a joke and nothing even remotely close to business training or education," reads one comment. Another says: "Not only did I [lose] my money but I lost my reputation as a business person [in my] local community of entrepreneurs."
Many commenters allege that they were encouraged to breach GDPR, the EU's data protection laws. "'Pulled the trigger' for a web marketing programme," reads one. "Completed 100% of the work assigned. To succeed, you must spam, violate European GDPR laws and get your family to buy from you. I tried several times to get money back within 60 days of [the] class and [received] no reply until the 60 days had lapsed, then they told me it was too late."
Trainees also say they were disappointed that Rose only appears for a weekly one-hour group Zoom call, and that the course is largely administered by former students who often cannot answer basic questions, in what seems to look – to at least a few of those who've gone through it – like a pyramidal system that requires little time or input from Rose himself.
A current teacher was contacted to confirm these claims, but did not respond to a request for comment. A London Real brand ambassador – who we have chosen not to name to avoid aspersion by association – was also contacted about these allegations, and neither confirmed nor denied their association with Rose and the brand. However, they said via email: "I've been critical of Brian's interview of Icke, have written to him saying so and will need to take a look at these new developments."
"The majority of my students have incredible things to say about our Academy and I believe it is one of the finest teaching products available in the world," said Rose in response to the allegations. "Of course there will be some students who disagree, and they are welcome to voice their opinions. As far as the 60-day money back guarantee we removed that 18 months ago because of the confusion it was causing."
Sunday the 3rd of May saw the countdown to "Rose/Icke III", the eagerly anticipated main event that London Real's supporters had stumped up $100,000 to be live-streamed on the insuppressible freedom platform. It was billed as the "The biggest livestream of a conversation in human history". Rose filmed a preamble claiming that he feared for his interviewee's safety, that he had not heard from him and that he was taking precautions by filming the interview in a "secret bunker" to avoid government interference.
To warm up the audience, the broadcast was prefaced by one of Icke's earlier London Real interviews. First published two weeks prior, Icke sat opposite Rose, wearing a blue sweater. But in a seeming misstep, the opening minutes of the pre-recorded interview showed a "Live" symbol in the bottom lefthand corner of the video. Moments later, the symbol was removed in apparent recognition that more observant audience members might question how an interview from a fortnight ago could possibly be live.
And then: 5PM. "Rose/Icke Part III". After some technical difficulties, "the biggest livestream of a conversation in history" commenced. Icke – who, in a case of divine timing, had his YouTube channel deleted a day prior, adding to the suspense and drama – was once again given his platform, telling an audience of more than 1.3 million that coronavirus does not exist.
Post-interview, Rose addressed his London Real Army with an elated, wide-eyed summary, emerging from the "secret bunker" to the same Old Street location where all of his interview debriefs are filmed. This deceit, after being spotted and called out by viewers, would later be characterised as a "head fake", to throw London Real's unidentified detractors off the trail.
Since this grand finale, Rose's ambitions have grown. The crowdfunder has added a sixth phase, the goal now being to raise $250,000 (£202,702) a month, with a request for supporters to set up monthly deposits. This is to hire a 20-strong team with media, legal and technology expertise to help the DFP "protect our freedom of speech and our future on this planet", as Rose funds an offensive in an "information war".
London Real's website says that it "provides access to the TRUTH". This, of course, depends on your definition of truth. Rose himself disclaims that he "does not always agree with David Icke's views", or those of the other quacks he has platformed during the coronavirus pandemic. But he has recognised that there is an audience and a market that does.
The reality is that London Real has not only provided access to misinformation, but actively promoted it, exploiting the worst public health crisis in living memory for clout and financial gain by hiding behind the shibboleth of absolute free speech.
But Rose doesn't see it that way: "In the past six weeks we have put our entire business and nine year reputation on the line to defend what we consider to be the most important human right in the world, that to freedom of speech and freedom of press," he said. "In doing so we have been deplatformed, deleted, censored, and slandered. But we fight on regardless because we wholeheartedly believe in this fight and we will continue."
In its inaugural monthly crowdfunding round, $194,643.64 (£159,140) was raised in just two weeks, in spite of a rising chorus of funders demanding answers. Eventually, Rose publicly addressed his doubters, apologising for being a "bad communicator" and justifying the head-faking, the figures raised, the validity of the legal fund and the cost of the Icke livestream. In the video, Rose claims the apparently history-making stream will be featured in the Guinness Book of Records, confirming a claim on the donation page that London Real has been in talks with the organisation about verifying the feat. A spokesperson for Guinness World Records, however, said that it had not been approached about authenticating the stream and, in any case, "the most views for a livestreamed interview is not a category we currently monitor".
London Real will continue its ostensive fight for free speech. In the post-truth, post-coronavirus era – defined by the global dissemination of misinformation, disinformation and other damaging falsehoods – the fight for facts will also continue.