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How YouTube’s ‘Super Chat’ Connects Fans to Creators—While Also Monetising Harmful Content

YouTube’s Super Chat feature lets fans pay to get comments pinned. A report explores how this can also end up promoting online hate speech.

Super Chat allows creators to monetise the comments posted during their live streams.

A May 2022 report by Ciarán O’Connor of the UK-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) explores how YouTube and creators on the platform earn revenue from Super Chat and the non-implementation of its content moderation guidelines. 

Cash for Comments studies how the platform’s ‘Super Chat’ feature is used by creators to monetise live streams—and by users to post harmful content that often appears to violate YouTube’s Community Guidelines. 

The report surveyed 17,152 comments across 3 prominent channels covering politics, based in the United States—of these, 907, or 5%, contained keywords pertaining to harmful speech. All of these comments were publicly visible when ISD studied them between October 2020 to January 2022—indicating that YouTube never took them down despite their inflammatory content. 

The report adds that non-advertising features like ‘Super Chats are an increasingly important source of revenue for both creators and YouTube.’

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Why it matters: The report, largely exploratory in nature, offers only one recommendation: that YouTube and Google mandate the use of moderators during live streams, to ensure that harmful content cannot be monetised in the future. While the report focuses on the United States (and the West), it can serve as a template for similar research on YouTube in India. As MediaNama has previously reported, few studies exist on the platform’s influence and impact on Indian society, and almost none on how Super Chat comments may be used by extremist groups.

What Is Super Chat?

Replacing the unsuccessful Fan Funding tool, YouTube launched Super Chat in 2017—as a way for ‘fans and creators to connect with one another during live streams.’ More importantly for creators, it helps them monetise their live streams. 

  • To enable the Super Chat feature on a channel, the user must be over 18 years old, have monetisation enabled for their channel, and be located in a jurisdiction supporting the feature. 
  • Anyone watching the live stream can pay for a Super Chat comment: which is essentially a comment by them that remains pinned to the top of the live stream message box for up to five hours. 
  • According to YouTube, this allows super fans to connect with their creators in a more meaningful way. For creators, however, steady usage of the feature provides an additional income flow—they receive 70% of the income from the feature. The ISD report asserts that the remainder is retained by Google. 
  • While advertising remains YouTube’s main revenue source, non-advertising revenue from features like Super Chat are gaining traction. In February this year, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet noted that ‘more Creators [sic] than ever are earning money from our non-ads products like Super Chat and Channel Memberships.’
  • YouTube also recommends that creators use moderators during live streams. It also has an optional feature that reviews potentially offensive comments, flagging them for review by a moderator. Creators can also list ‘blocked words’—comments containing these will be blocked during live streams. Super Chat comments that are moderated and found to violate Community Guidelines will be removed—a portion of the revenue will be donated to charity. 
  • Both creators and users posting Super Chat comments must abide by YouTube’s Terms of Service, Community GuidelinesMonetisation Policies, and Commerce Product Addendum. Failing to do so may lead to the termination of Super Chat privileges.

Why Do People Pay To Have Their Comment Pinned?

Super Chat is a product of Web 2.0’s fast-paced attention economy—where both creators and users find themselves overwhelmed by a large volume of content and interactions directed at them. 

  • What this means: if you’re a fan of a popular creator, the chances of your comments on their content (or direct messages wishing them happy birthday) being read are frustratingly close to nil. 
  • Through its pinned comments, Super Chat partially bridges this gap—it allows fans’ views to become prominently visible to creators during live streams, even if only for a few minutes. Or, in other words, they gain the creator’s attention.
  • Given the conversational nature of live streams, it is likely that creators may read these comments and engage with the user’s statement—deepening the fan-creator bond. Seeing this engagement, other fans may be inspired to pay for Super Chat comments themselves, in the hope that their favourite creator interacts with them too. 
  • Another way of looking at it: people pay for Super Chat comments for the chance of being seen and heard by a creator and a wide audience. 
  • This feature can be heartening for a fan whose banal question or compliment for a creator is recognised. But, as the report shows, Super Chat comments also end up prominently displaying conspiracy theories, violent speech, and other harmful content for minutes on end—this is speech that users are willing to pay as much as $200 to say, as long as it’s seen and heard by a favoured creator and audience.

How Did the Report Study Super Chat?

The ISD report claims that Super Chat features have been promoted by extremists using the platform to boost revenues and recruitment into their folds. 

  • They have been used to support the live streams of far-Right white nationalists in Europe. In 2017, the ‘Internet Bloodsports’ trend saw Alt-Right commentators in the United States debate topics like feminism, race, and immigration. Super Chat comments by users supported some of the more extreme views during these live streams. 
  • However, large-scale studies of the impacts of this content are difficult to conduct—largely because of the limited access to data through YouTube’s Application Programming Interface (API). As MediaNama has previously reported, YouTube’s API also stymies studies tracing the virality of harmful speech on the platform. 
  • As a result, researchers have to study Super Chat comments manually—which is both laborious and time-consuming. 
  • To counter this, the ISD report selected three representative channels using the Super Chat feature, from across the political spectrum: TimCast IRL, RSBN, and The Young Turks. The Super Chat comments on a defined number of publicly saved live streams were studied. Videos for each channel were selected across a period of two to three months, largely within the time range of October 2020 to January 2022. They were selected based on topical events: such as the 2020 Presidential Elections, the 2021 uprising in Washington D.C., and the COVID-19 pandemic. 
  • The team created a defined sample of 17,152 comments—of which 907, or 5%, contained keywords pertaining to harmful speech.

Harmful Super Chat Comments Earned TimCast IRL $8,153.5 and YouTube $3,494.87

Tim Pool runs TimCast IRL—a channel covering a variety of political and popular issues. Pool live streams up to five times a week. Pool describes himself as socially liberal, however, he supports the American right’s stance on a range of issues. He supported former United States President Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential Elections and has over 1.31 million subscribers.

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  • ISD’s analysis of 100 videos over a one-year period revealed that 13,839 Super Chat comments were published—adding up to $2,19,416.22 in total revenue. Pool pocketed $1,53,591.35 while the remaining $65,824.86 went to YouTube.
  • Of these, ISD identified 720 comments containing harmful content, around 5% of the total sample—they cumulatively added up to $11,647.87 in revenue. Pool retained $8,153.5 while YouTube earned $3,494.87.
  • 188 Super Chat comments pertained to electoral fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election. YouTube’s Community Guidelines prohibit content advancing electoral misinformation. 
  • During the riots that rocked Washington D.C. in January 2021, Super Chat comments were unavailable on Pool’s channel for ‘unspecified’ reasons. However, both prior to and post the riots, the ISD team identified four comments directly calling for a violent insurrection—also in violation of Community Guidelines.
  • 30 Super Chat comments detailed misinformation on the COVID-19 vaccine—which directly violates YouTube’s rules prohibiting content on COVID-19 contradicting local health authorities or the World Health Organization. 
  • The study also revealed racist comments towards African Americans in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd—which appear to violate YouTube’s guidelines on hate speech. 

RSBN Earns $1,156.93 from Harmful Super Chat Comments While YouTube Takes Home $495.82

The Right Side Broadcasting Network, popularly known as RSBN, is a politically conservative channel based in the United States. While covering a range of political and legal events, it also covers Donald Trump events and has over 1.56 million subscribers. The channel was suspended in March 2021 for broadcasting a speech by Mr. Trump on the 2020 elections—which YouTube claimed violated its guidelines on electoral misinformation.

  • ISD’s analysis of the channel’s top-ten most-watched videos between October 2020 to January 2021 revealed that 1,434 Super Chat comments were posted. They earned RSBN $16,782.98 and YouTube $7,192.71.
  • Of these, ISD found 145 comments to contain harmful content. They earned RSBN $1,156.93 and YouTube $495.82. This accounts for 23% of the total amount earned by the channel through Super Chat.
  • Around 23 Super Chat comments directly claimed fraud in the 2020 Presidential Elections, and in the mail-in ballots collection. Conspiracy theories propagated by QAnon were also prominent—the outlet is rooted in a history pro-Trump rhetoric. 
  • During the violent uprising in Washington D.C. in January 2021, alongside electoral fraud, many Super Chat comments containing threats and promoting violent uprising were visible.

Harmful Super Chat Comments Earned The Young Turks $202.32 and YouTube $86.71

The Young Turks, hosted by Cenk Uygur, is a ‘progressive’, left-leaning channel based in the United States. Its broadcasts typically centre around current political issues and are also available on Amazon Direct Prime and Hulu. The channel currently has over 5.18 million subscribers. Despite having the largest subscriber base on the platform out of the three channels mentioned here—its revenues from potentially harmful Super Chat comments are significantly lower.

  • 1,879 Super Chat comments were noted across 100 videos posted between October 2020 and January 2022. These earned The Young Turks $9,995.70 and YouTube $4,283.87.
  • Of these, 42 comments, or 2% of the total sample, contained harmful content. They earned The Young Turks $202.32 and YouTube $86.71.
  • When it comes to the 2020 Presidential Elections, Super Chats containing theories on electoral fraud were relatively low. 
  • However, the January 6th uprising saw many hostile, threatening comments emerge on both the Republican Party and the protestors at large. This period also saw demeaning comments about Donald Trump. 
  • Comments on the channel also saw repeated calls to arm progressive groups in order to achieve political aims. One even called for the creation of leftist militias.

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