After Robert Bowers stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, far-right personality Ethan Ralph launched a live stream on YouTube to discuss the shooting that claimed 11 lives. Soon, some viewers began paying to have their comments featured on the live chat scrolling alongside the streaming video, through a feature YouTube launched last year called Super Chat.
During the live stream, which YouTube said Mr. Ralph has since deleted, one user paid two British pounds to write, “How u get a Jewish girls number? Roll up her sleeve.” Another viewer paid $5 and wrote: “If you want to know if the Synagogue shooting was a false flag then check out the lucky Larry life insurance policies on those dead Jews.”
YouTube said late on Friday that it had permanently removed Mr. Ralph’s channel, “Ralph Retort,” from its platform for policy violations and for going against its terms of service.
Mr. Ralph, whose channel had 22,500 subscribers, is one of several far-right YouTube celebrities who have used the Super Chat function to make money. Topics among such users can be wide-ranging, from events like the tragedy in Pittsburgh and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to critiques of the media and internal debates among members of the far-right online communities.
Most Super Chats generate a few hundred dollars in revenue, according to an analysis conducted for The Wall Street Journal, with YouTube typically collecting 30%, people familiar with the matter said.
A spokeswoman for YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, said the company donates to charity the proceeds from any Super Chats that violate its hate-speech policy.
“Hate speech and content that promotes violence is prohibited on YouTube,” the spokeswoman said. “We have also been working over the last several months to refine our policies on who has access to monetization features, and while this work is ongoing, we are dedicated to continuing to improve in the fight against hate online.”
Like other popular social-media platforms, YouTube has struggled to draw the line between cracking down on hate speech and allowing freedom of expression. The company relies on a sprawling ecosystem of “creators” to supply a steady flow of content to the world’s most popular video site, where they get access to special benefits and resources on the platform.
Super Chat was launched last year to further encourage those creators to produce more content and attract more viewers. Paid comments receive special treatment: The video host often reads the comment out loud on air, and it gets pinned to the top of the fast-moving chat thread. The more someone pays, the longer the comment stays featured at the top of the chat box.
While the Super Chat function is available to YouTube’s vast cast of video celebrities, and was made primarily to appeal to gamers, it hasn’t gained the same traction or scale among those groups as it has with the far-right crowd, according to an analysis by Storyful, a social-media intelligence firm that is owned by News Corp, the Journal’s parent company.
Racist comments are not uncommon. Just as troubling, according to researchers, are the comments that stay within YouTube’s guidelines to avoid getting taken down through the use of coded language in place of hot-button topics and slurs. For instance, some commenters use the term “basketball Americans” rather than a slur against African-Americans and “population replacement” when referring to conspiracies about white genocide. Some users spell certain words with numbers to avoid detection by YouTube software.
Many payments, for example, are made in the amount of $14.88—the number 1488 is often used as shorthand among white supremacists to signify their ideology, and related merchandise is often sold for $14.88.
“What they’re doing is transmitting these ideas in other ways,” said one researcher. The researcher has been targeted in the past by white supremacists and other members of the far-right fringes.
After a BuzzFeed article in May detailed the popularity of Super Chats among white nationalists and other far-right personalities, YouTube said it had started using machine-learning technology that can detect hateful comments and put them on hold for further review. The company doesn’t disclose how much it makes from Super Chats overall.
When YouTube temporarily suspends a channel for a violation, that creator often appears as a guest on a like-minded person’s channel until the ban is lifted. The problem for YouTube, said this researcher, is that “YouTube is going to be continuously trying to apply a technological fix to what is a social problem.”
Mr. Ralph didn’t respond to a request for comment. On Thursday evening, after the Journal approached YouTube with questions for this article, Mr. Ralph opened a new live stream by reading what he said was a Super Chat submitted earlier in the day, in which the viewer wrote “Abort Hebrew babies.” The stream continued for more than 20 minutes before it was shut down for violating YouTube’s policy on hate speech, according to a notice posted on his
account. Mr. Ralph then shifted to another channel and continued for several minutes before that also was shut down.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital this week arranged to return donations raised in September during a live stream by Mr. Ralph dubbed a “Super Chat for Good,” even as the comments section became populated by anti-Semitic comments and the hosts talked about a Holocaust meme. The money totaled about $26,000. Many on Twitter complained Friday about having their donations returned to them. They also attacked the Journal and members of its staff, blaming the news organization for the return of the money.
When contacted earlier in the week, St. Jude said it was aware of the chats and was making arrangements to reverse any donations. On Friday, a spokesperson said: “We had no intention of receiving or accepting any of the funds associated with the live stream.”
Following the Journal’s questions, YouTube also took down a live stream by far-right personality Jean-François Gariépy that was broadcast after the Pittsburgh shooting and included a number of anti-Semitic and racist comments in the paid Super Chats.
Mr. Gariépy said his channel doesn’t allow hate speech and that he tries to delete Super Chats that “are either hateful or that constitute calls for violence.” He said his channel has banned thousands of viewers from his channel for repeatedly violating that policy.
Mr. Gariépy, who calls himself a white nationalist, said he doesn’t see a problem with people referencing 14/88 or Hitler, saying such comments “are aimed at encouraging people to gain a better historical understanding of Germany during the first half of the century.” He added that it would be easy for YouTube to prohibit donations made in that amount “if they differ from my interpretation.”
Mr. Gariépy’s live stream in the wake of Pittsburgh generated $244 in revenue, according to the Storyful analysis.
Write to Yoree Koh at [email protected]
Corrections & Amplifications
YouTube said Ethan Ralph deleted a video he posted about a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that YouTube deleted the video. (Nov. 2, 2018)
Source : WSJ