Conspiracy theorist said death threats were “jokes”—but jury didn’t buy it

April 29, 2021 by No Comments

Enlarge / Brendan Hunt frequently posted videos about conspiracy theories to sites including YouTube and BitChute.

Over the past 20 years, Brendan Hunt increasingly bought into conspiracy theories. But unlike many others like him, he wasn’t just falling down the rabbit hole—he was the one digging it. In posts made to YouTube and other platforms, Hunt voiced support for a number of conspiracy theories. His journey began in the wake of 9/11 and reached its nadir two days after the attack on the US Capitol, when he posted a video titled “Kill Your Senators.”

Hunt was arrested shortly after posting the video, which was just the latest in a series of pointed threats against public officials that previously included a call for the “public execution” of Democratic leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Yesterday, a jury found him guilty on one count of threatening to assault or murder US officials. Hunt and his defense claimed his threats were just jokes made in poor taste, but the jury didn’t buy it. He had dug himself in too deep.

Hunt has contributed to the furor around far-right conspiracy theories, including those about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the Boston Marathon bombing, and, most recently, the “Stop the Steal” movement. The latter was a conspiracy theory that gained steam on Facebook in the wake of the 2020 presidential election.

Though Facebook quashed the original “Stop the Steal” group that started on election night, splinter groups popped up in its wake and spread disinformation that spilled over into other social media platforms. Eventually, those groups helped coordinate the January 6 attack on the Capitol building that left five dead and hundreds wounded.

For 37-year-old Hunt, the Capitol insurrection wasn’t enough. On January 8, he posted a video to BitChute, saying, “We need to go back to the US Capitol when all of the Senators and a lot of the Representatives are back there, and this time we have to show up with our guns. And we need to slaughter these motherfuckers.” On January 19, he was arrested. His conviction yesterday means he could face up to 10 years in prison.

His defense hinged on the claim that the videos were made in jest, that he didn’t really mean that people should murder public officials. Hunt also said he was drunk and high at the time he posted the videos. “I didn’t think anything was wrong at the time,” he said. “I thought it was sort of amusing in a way.”

“I’m sort of just a YouTube guy who makes controversial content and clickbait videos,” he said. “The idea that I would somehow borrow somebody’s gun, waltz into Biden’s inauguration ceremony like some Looney Tunes character, and somehow line up all senators and execute a firing squad on them I think is a pretty ridiculous idea.” Hunt added that he needed to “readjust what I think is humorous.”

Alt-YouTube

BitChute, the site Hunt posted to in recent years, has become a destination for conspiracy theorists and extremists who have been kicked off YouTube and other platforms. It was founded in 2017 by Ray Vahey, who said the initial idea came “from seeing the increased levels of censorship by the large social media platforms in the last couple of years. Bannings, demonetization, and tweaking algorithms to send certain content into obscurity and, wanting to do something about it.” 

The site previously let users host videos through WebTorrent, a peer-to-peer streaming client, though that option appears to have been deprecated. Unlike other platforms like YouTube, creators are not paid by ads that run before or during videos. Rather, users can ask viewers to support them directly through PayPal, SubscribeStar, cryptocurrency, or some other means. BitChute itself has been banned by PayPal, Stripe, and other payment processors, but it supports itself through small ad tiles, donations, and memberships processed through SubscribeStar.

A trip to the BitChute homepage reveals just how dependent the site is on conspiracy theorists, racists, and far-right trolls. One researcher said he found more hate speech on BitChute than on Gab, the far-right social network.

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