How YouTube's "Super Chat" System Is Pushing Video Creators Toward More Extreme Content
During one livestream, someone using the screen name National Socialist spent $100 to display the message “WHITE PRIDE WORLD WIDE!”
Cantwell was there to talk about how he would build a whites-only country within the United States. At one point during the livestream, a user with the screen name “Hitler Did Everything Right” spent $5 using YouTube’s paid commenting system known as “Super Chats” to ask Cantwell a question.
They wanted to know how a hypothetical white ethno-state would deal with undocumented immigrants. Cantwell said anyone crossing the border illegally would have “a fucking woodchipper waiting for them.”
That two-hour live broadcast saw dozens of other Super Chats, with one person spending $500.
“You guys should have me on more often,” Cantwell said at one point. “You're getting paid tonight.”
Prominent far-right and white nationalist figures have for months been helping YouTube channels earn thousands of dollars thanks to frequently racist commenters who pay for the opportunity to make their voices heard. BuzzFeed News tallied the Super Chat amounts from two recent videos featuring white nationalists Richard Spencer and Mike Enoch and found they brought in just over $4,000, of which YouTube itself takes a cut. (The company declined to say how much.)
“Once you go black, you'll never get your society back. FACT,” wrote a commenter who paid $5 for a Super Chat.
Another spent 20 Danish krone to say “THIS LYING BAGEL NEEDS HIS MOUTH STUFFED #GasKikes.”
And someone going by the screen name National Socialist spent $100 for the Super Chat “WHITE PRIDE WORLD WIDE!”
In response to a list of livestreams featuring white nationalists compiled by BuzzFeed News, YouTube said some of the Super Chat comments fit its definition of hate speech, and that it would revisit its policies on Super Chat eligibility and enforcement.
“Hateful content that promotes violence has no place on YouTube. We carefully reviewed the livestreams that were provided by BuzzFeed, and found that the content does not meet our threshold for hate speech. However, we found that the comments shared in Super Chat do,” said a statement from a YouTube spokesperson.
They added that “Super Chat is a relatively new feature — it’s a small but growing source of revenue for some creators, and we are re-examining our policies in light of these edge cases.”
The use of Super Chats to spread and monetize racism and hate speech is the latest content moderation and product headache for YouTube, the internet's biggest video platform. It has also drawn fire for hosting videos that exploit children, spread extremism, feature bestiality, and spread conspiracy theories.
YouTube introduced Super Chats in early 2017 as a way for video creators to engage with their fans during live broadcasts and earn extra income in the process. But as is the case with just about every new engagement and monetization feature, Super Chats have been co-opted and used in ways YouTube didn’t design or prepare for.
A researcher who had been following these livestreams told BuzzFeed News that Super Chats are underwriting the growth of extremist content on YouTube by generating monetary rewards for those most willing to push the envelope — all while bringing fringe white nationalist views to a large new audience.
“When you stitch together broadcast and instant monetization, you get a behavior pattern that moves more and more toward extremes,” said Joan Donovan, a researcher with Data & Society, a think tank studying the social effects of new technologies.
Donovan said YouTube’s moderation tools, which are well-suited for detecting things like nudity, are insufficient for monitoring hours-long livestreams and their accompanying live chats.
The power of Super Chats is most visible in the growth of a series of live debates dubbed “internet bloodsports.” Many of the most contentious debates have been hosted by Warski, a self-described comedian, or pro-Trump internet troll Tim Gionet, better known as Baked Alaska.
Warski initially agreed to speak to BuzzFeed News but then broke off contact. He did, however, talk on a livestream about whether he should do the interview and mused about broadcasting it without the reporter’s knowledge. Gionet, who years ago was briefly employed by BuzzFeed, did not reply to an interview request.
While theoretically open to all viewpoints, the participants in these livestreams overwhelmingly come from the political right and the far right, including some of the most prominent white nationalists in the US. The resulting conversations inevitably focus on topics such as race science, white identity, and the so-called “Jewish question” — and generate thousands of dollars for the channels hosting them.
One particularly successful debate took place in January on Warski Live. It featured Richard Spencer and two conservative-leaning YouTubers arguing the merits of white ethno-nationalism. It became the No. 1 trending video on the entire site, and it has been viewed almost half a million times.
It was also lucrative. The Spencer debate brought in more than $2,200 in Super Chats for Warski’s channel, according to a review by BuzzFeed News.
Another debate featuring Mike Enoch — the host of the neo-Nazi podcast The Daily Shoah — focused on whether Jews are undermining America through control of the media and government. It generated more than $1,800 in Super Chats, including the comment “SOMETIMES I HATE JEWS SO MUCH THAT I CANNOT SLEEP.”
In addition to Spencer, Enoch, and Cantwell, many other prominent white nationalists have been featured on bloodsports livestreams over the past several months. They include Jared Taylor, the founder of the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance; Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer; Colin Robertson, a Scottish white nationalist YouTuber better known as Millennial Woes, who has spoken at white nationalist events; and Greg Johnson, editor of the white nationalist website Counter-Currents. Many of the debates on Warski Live also included Jean-Francois Gariépy, a Quebec-based white nationalist, as Warski’s co-moderator.
While some livestreams are debates, others can be lengthy interviews or simply gab sessions with several streamers hopping in and out of the hours-long conversation as they like. Several YouTube channels post multiple livestreams per week, with Super Chats pouring in from viewers who want to interject their own opinions, reward streamers, or simply have a bigoted remark read aloud by the hosts. A common donation is $14.88, a reference to a white nationalist slogan.
The bloodsports discussions are spread even further by other YouTube channels devoted to clipping the most dramatic moments, as well as by dedicated websites and Twitter accounts. The various personalities and shows also have large, engaged communities trading gossip and memes on Discord, a messaging platform popular with the far right.
While other streaming services, like Twitch, also have paid commenting systems, YouTube’s unparallelled size and reach risk creating a feedback loop of more extreme content generating more revenue, which in turn fuels more outrageous videos. This was predicted by some people almost immediately after Super Chats were introduced, with one Verge writer comparing it to the business model of “camgirl” porn performers.
“When you pay to have another person perform your twisted little fantasies, the end result is usually a loss of dignity on all sides,” Vlad Savov wrote in March of 2017.
The ecosystem that has sprung up around these livestreams merges the performative interpersonal drama of professional wrestling with the sensibilities of talk radio and the racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay vocabulary of 4chan. And its value is not lost on white nationalists.
A writer for Counter-Currents recently celebrated the bloodsports debates for “pushing the Overton Window” — the range of political views seen as acceptable in public discourse — further to the right.
“White Nationalists have successfully colonized a small corner of YouTube and have encountered normies. We find ourselves battling stubborn [civic nationalists] and slippery libertarians as we push inland towards lush parts of the internet outside our echo chamber,” wrote the author.
“All of a sudden, liberals and libertarians are talking about race realism and ethnostates.”
Some YouTubers have even applied the bloodsports formula to real-life interactions. In March, Warski and Gionet joined another livestreamer known as Asian Andy for “IRL bloodsports.” The three livestreamed their journey around Los Angeles equipped with speakers that blasted out text-to-speech comments from viewers who donated $5 or more. It took mere minutes for the first n-word to be broadcast.
YouTube told BuzzFeed News its community guidelines against hate speech, harassment, and other prohibited content apply to chats as well as videos, and that viewers can flag inappropriate comments. Channel owners have the ability to bring in extra chat moderators, ban specific words and phrases, or turn chats off entirely. The company also pointed to a February announcement that it is taking a harder line on content that brings “harm to the broader YouTube community.”
Donovan, the researcher with Data & Society, said the regularity of hateful comments can have the long-term effect of normalizing those views. She said that what may start as a “very lulzy, jokey, trolly way to get laughs” can “stop being funny and start becoming part of your own value system” through repetition.
“We are finally starting to understand that it’s not always about the seriousness of the ideology, or the seriousness with which people take these ideas,” she said. “The more people get exposed to these ideas … and have very little pushback on these ideas, they start to believe through the community that they’ve formed that these are acceptable and appropriate ideas to have.” ●