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YouTube's Super Chat hijacked for hate speech

Super Chat lets viewers pay to have their comments featured alongside livestreams.

YouTube social networking website seen displayed on a smartphone
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It may've been designed to let people playfully pelt YouTube celebs with water balloons, but it looks like YouTube's live Super Chat feature is now being used to spread hate speech.

A report this week from The Wall Street Journal reveals that in the wake of the mass shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life Synagogue, some YouTube users tapped Super Chat and paid to have anti-Semitic comments scroll alongside a livestream by far-right YouTube celebrity Ethan Ralph.

"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," one of the comments reportedly read.

The use of Super Chat for such comments marks another example of how racist remarks and other inflammatory content finds its way online despite efforts at policing it. Facebook, Twitter, Google's YouTube, and others are all struggling to keep their platforms free of hate speech, misinformation and divisive material.

The Super Chat issue has apparently existed for a while. The Journal points to a BuzzFeed News article from May that says prominent far-right and white nationalist figures had been taking advantage of the feature for months.

YouTube unveiled Super Chat at Google's I/O developer conference in May 2017, touting it as a way for viewers to pay YouTube performers an amount of money. Typical Super Chats highlight the viewer's message and keep it pinned up high in the regular chat feed.

At the I/O demo of the then-new feature, a YouTube product manager sent a $500 Super Chat during a livestream by The Slo Mo Guys, YouTube stars who have millions of subscribers. The Super Chat triggered a horn to go off, which signaled a crowd of people to start nailing them with water balloons.

It seems Super Chat's uses aren't necessarily so lighthearted.

YouTube told the Journal late Friday that it had permanently banned Ralph's channel, "Ralph Retort," from its service for violating the platform's policies and terms of service. YouTube gets a cut of any money sent to celebs via Super Chat, and it also told the Journal that any proceeds from Super Chats that violate its hate-speech policy get donated to charity.

"Hate speech and content that promotes violence is prohibited on YouTube, and over the last two years we have invested in hiring more human reviewers and building smart detection technology to help catch and remove hateful comments, chats, and videos more quickly," a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement emailed to CNET. "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."

The video site faces a tough, whack-a-mole situation. The Journal said that when a channel gets suspended for a violation, its creator can jump around, showing up as a guest on someone else's channel. And like other platforms, YouTube has to try to strike a sometimes tricky balance between prohibiting harmful content and allowing for wide-ranging expression.

Ralph didn't respond to a request for comment.

First published Nov. 3, 4:25 p.m. PT
Update, Nov. 6 at 10:58 a.m.: Adds comment from YouTube.

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