YouTube was forced to disable comments on a livestream of a House Judiciary hearing on hate crimes and white nationalism on social media Tuesday morning after it was flooded with racist and anti-Semitic comments.
The comments were an illustration of one of the issues at hand: Silicon Valley’s ongoing struggle to stop the spread of hate across its platforms. Lawmakers are exploring possible legislative options on the issue.
“Due to the presence of hateful comments, we disabled comments on the livestream of today’s House Judiciary Committee hearing,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement. “Hate speech has no place on YouTube,” they added.
Even here, the divide between Democrats and Republicans on the prevalence of racist material online could be seen. Rep. Jerry Nadler, a Democrat who chairs the committee, read during the hearing from a Washington Post story that referenced the hateful comments. Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert quickly responded, “could that be another hate hoax? Just keep an open mind.”
The hearing included representatives from Facebook and Google, who were appearing on a panel with six other witnesses, including civil rights activists, the father of two victims of an Islamophobic attack, invited by Democrats, and a prominent right-wing activist, Candace Owens of the conservative group Turning Point USA, invited by Republicans.
The hearing was held in an effort to inform lawmakers about possible legislative steps that could be taken to tackle online hate. But the event was highly partisan, with the Democratic and Republican members of the committee spending a good deal of time going after the opposing party’s witnesses and in some instances defending their own. Even the witnesses themselves challenged each others’ positions at times.
For the most part the representatives from Facebook and Google didn’t say anything their companies hadn’t said publicly before, with both maintaining they were committed to tackling challenges on their platforms. The hearing was instead dominated by partisan sniping, including exchanges over past comments made by Owens.
Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat, played audio of Owens appearing to defend Adolf Hitler. Owens had previously distanced herself from the comments and criticized Hitler.
Lieu did not give Owens the opportunity to respond at the hearing, but Republican Rep. Greg Steube later did. Owens claimed that Lieu had purposely only played a short segment of the tape and said that in doing so, Lieu had been “unbelievably dishonest.”
The hearing came just a few weeks after a terror attack in New Zealand that was streamed live on Facebook. Fifty people at two mosques were killed in the attack.
Social media networks have been criticized for the role their platforms can play in spreading extremist ideologies and radicalizing people, and for the lack of action they’ve taken on the problem of white supremacists and nationalists on their sites. Among those under fire are Facebook and Google, which owns the video sharing site YouTube, which has been blasted for hosting such content and for algorithms that can create a “rabbit hole” that takes users into more extreme videos.
Another witness, Anti-Defamation League senior vice president of policy Eileen Hershenov, talked about the dangers of smaller platforms, which white supremacists have also been known to use.
“These platforms are like round-the-clock digital white supremacist rallies, creating online communities that amplify their vitriolic fantasies,” Hershenov said.
Two weeks after the New Zealand massacre, Facebook announced that it would ban all “praise, support and representation of white nationalism and separatism” on Facebook and Instagram. Previously, the company had banned white supremacy, but had viewed white nationalism differently. The company said it had decided to ban white nationalism after months of consultation with civil rights groups.
Neither Google-owned YouTube nor Twitter have enacted similar blanket bans of white nationalism but both companies say they have policies to fight hate and the incitement of violence on their platforms.