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Murder, Mayhem and the Evolution of Website LiveLeak

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An image from an undated video posted in June is believed to show the Islamic State's Omar al-Shishani. Al-Shishani has emerged as the face of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, appearing frequently in its online videos. AP

One of the world’s most important media organizations doesn’t have an office. It doesn’t have interns, and none of its employees draw a living wage for their contributions. They’ve never once met in person and they never will. Its founders aren’t journalists by trade and by all accounts have no business running a news site. And yet their brainchild, LiveLeak.com, has grown over the past eight years into one of the most far-reaching media companies in the world, and one of the 500 most visited sites on the Internet. Despite its lack of advertising and its disinterest in both media-centric New York and the tech hub of Silicon Valley, LiveLeak boasts around 23 million unique views a month, a huge majority of which come from the U.S.

And while it began as a site that would show anything (much of it branded “mature content”), LiveLeak recently drew the line at hosting the execution videos of the Islamic State, the group more commonly known as ISIS. Today LiveLeak’s moderators prune videos that demonstrate “glorification of graphic violence.” They’ve come a long way from their grisly origins.

Just 12 years ago, if you’d visited the front page of the site, then located at Ogrish.com, you would have been confronted with graphic content and such subject headers as “Genital Mutilation.” When Ogrish launched in the early aughts, it was one of several “shock sites” (such as Rotten, Stileproject, et al.) that hosted images of mutilated corpses, car accidents, burn victims, genetic malformations and other grotesqueries. Supported by often-violent porn ads, the site grew a dedicated fanbase. Ogrish differentiated itself by hosting gruesome video footage. Newly enabled by greater network bandwidth, Ogrish’s webmaster, known as “Evil Knevil,” was able to treat site visitors to video content of unknown origin that generated gasps and whispers in dorm rooms across the globe.

In addition to hosting snuff content meant to thrill visitors in search of real-life horror, Ogrish developed a reputation for hosting gruesome footage of war and terrorism. While you might see a headline like “Man’s Genitals Attacked by Flesh-Eating Bug,” you may also come across a video of 9/11 World Trade Center jumpers or an execution carried out by Mexican drug cartels. Uploads were teased with sensational, sloppily composed captions:

“Well Sicko’s the first clip I want to share with you is a smuggled footage out of Irak of a public execution. It’s amazing how coldbloodily the Sadam-Houssein look-a-like finishes the job by shooting the victims point blank.” ~Evil Knevil

Over time Ogrish developed a following among soldiers who had access to raw battlefield footage. Gradually, as the site’s authors and audience grew up, the interest in random shock gave way to a deeper fascination with the horrors of war. With that interest came conversation, and a new community of leakers and armchair war correspondents was born.

In 2006, the people running the site decided Ogrish desperately needed a rebrand. One of them, co-founder Hayden Hewitt, is based in Manchester, England. He writes a curmudgeonly personal blog that deals with his involvement in LiveLeak and the state of the media, much of which operates in the “Wake Up, Sheeple!” mode of the Web forum skeptic. It’s an attitude he’s held since childhood—he struggled with exasperated teachers and dropped out of high school at 15. His disaffection grew during the first Gulf War, a time he characterizes as being marked by media murk. From there he found the Internet, which changed everything.

09_26_LiveLeak_01 This file image posted on a militant website on June 14, 2014 appears to show militants from the Islamic State of Iraq with captured Iraqi soldiers wearing plain clothes after taking over a base in Tikrit, Iraq. AP

“Getting my first PC in the late 1990s and stumbling online with my 33.3k modem was one of the most mind-blowing experiences I can recall,” he says. “All that information, all those people, all so available. I still get all nostalgic when I hear the sound of a crappy old modem hooking up to the Net.”

He joined Ogrish originally for the site’s forums. According to Hewitt, many of the Ogrish’s power users had moved beyond the gore and were more interested in sharing content dealing with geopolitical intrigue. Hewitt remembers one of the Ogrish guys saying to him when he joined up in 2003, “We want to be the CNN of gore sites.” While he laughs now at this description, he was intrigued by the idea of applying the site’s unflinching fascination with dark, mysterious happenings while shifting its focus toward meaningful current events that could be called “news.”

"I got the idea, even if it wasn’t particularly well put across,” he says.

Hewitt is the only public face of LiveLeak. He’s busy working on a third iteration, which he promises, in the vaguest possible terms, will give more power to users: “I don’t like community management. I hate that phrase. You don’t manage your community. I work with an online community.”

Hewitt spends most of his time “dealing with drama,” a blanket phrase that involves inserting himself in the site’s many debates in order to extinguish conversation that veers into hate speech, threats or general disruption. But as long as the conversation retains the barest shred of civility, Hewitt loves to get involved in a good argument, no matter how extreme the expressed views. “It’s not porn [the Internet] was invented for, it was for arguing,” he says.

And there’s a lot of arguing on LiveLeak between its over 400,000 members. The community has grown to the point where instead of one large group that defines themselves as LiveLeakers, there are many smaller ecosystems made up of every ethnic or interest group imaginable. “Sometimes you’ll step in just to try to impart some correct information and find yourself embroiled in the middle of a large ‘accusationary’ rant about how you’re involved with the NSA, Mossad, the Russians and the IS all at the same time,” he says.

Despite the often chaotic community behavior, the site grew as it was able to host inflammatory content that YouTube wouldn’t. For example, video footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution was the site’s biggest hit, temporarily bumping LiveLeak into the top 200 websites in the world. “We weren’t prepared for anything like that. At one point that was the only video you could watch on the site. It just shut everything down,” Hewitt says.

LiveLeak developed notoriety in 2008 for hosting the Dutch short film Fitna, which criticized the teachings of the Quran. Fitna was taken down after LiveLeak’s operators received threats, but they reinstated the clip shortly after.

Most recently, LiveLeak made waves by refusing to host the horrific beheadings Hewitt calls “IS promo videos.” They weren’t removed out of respect for the families or a similar quaint notion, but because at this point they’re just tedious, adding nothing new to the conversation. LiveLeak is still hosting the video that caused the uproar in the first place, the beheading of American journalist James Foley. “We had to show it because it was within our rules, and sometimes you have to take a stand on what you think is right,” Hewitt says.

Hewitt believes that when people are able to see the gruesome realities of war, they will start to pay more attention to what’s happening in far-flung places. LiveLeak hosts its fair share of innocuous cat videos, and Hewitt admits that not everything hosted on the site is going to expose corruption. But he stands by the aggregate effect of all the thousands of videos uploaded (people can flag objectionable content, which moderators have the option of deleting), and he says this amounts to institutional transparency.

“I remember as recently as when this Syria conflict really ramped up and we were being sold mercilessly through the Western media that the [Free Syrian Army] were purely the good guys, and Assad’s troops were evil, nasty terrible people, and all of a sudden we got this media that showed that actually both sides were really evil, nasty, terrible people to each other. And the most horrific war crimes are being carried out by the people we were supposedly supporting. And I think it’s important that people have access to information like that.”

Hewitt and his team try hard to remain morally neutral and often that simply means getting out of the way and letting the users speak for themselves. At LiveLeak, users own their biases, and if someone posts an inflammatory video, everyone else on the site has the ability to comment or make a response video to voice dissent. Hewitt has no desire to fashion himself into a leakster celebrity in the vein of a Julian Assange or Edward Snowden. “It’s not based [on] a person. It’s not an ego trip,” he says. “There’s not media-whoring going on [here] because the users upload the stuff. We just handle the rest of it. And as long as it’s not being editorialized by us, it’s all good. Once it starts being about us, that’s where things tend to go south. Ask Julian Assange.”

Hewitt says he was a strong supporter of WikiLeaks up until the 2010 release of “Collateral Murder”—a video of two U.S. Apache helicopters killing dozens of civilians in Baghdad in 2007. Assange chose the title for what he called “maximum political impact.”

"I think the best you could hope for is ‘Collateral Manslaughter,’” says Hewitt. “When you have that sort of ability to really sway people’s opinions, you’ve got to be very careful how you use it. As soon as it was framed that way, it was a done deal. It doesn’t take much to tip people into feeding their preconceived notions and getting them to believe what you want [them] to believe.”

As the site grows, it’s unlikely we’ll be hearing more about Hewitt or anyone else at LiveLeak, even as the team cements its status as a crucial gear in the citizen journalism machine. “If you’re out there in front of enough people and they’re going, ‘Hey you’re great,’ you start believing it. And that’s when the wheels fall off the bus.”