Tech giants grilled at U.S. congressional panel on white nationalism

A congressional hearing on online hate turned into a vivid demonstration of the problem Tuesday when a YouTube live stream of the proceedings was bombarded with racist and anti-Semitic comments.

YouTube disables chat window shortly into House hearing due to hateful comments

California Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu, left, questioned the presence of controversial conservative commentator Candace Owens at Tuesday's hearing. Lieu is shown in 2017 with fellow Democrats Jamie Raskin, centre, and Pramila Jayapal, who were also part of the panel on white nationalism. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A congressional hearing on online hate turned into a vivid demonstration of the problem Tuesday when a YouTube live stream of the proceedings was bombarded with racist and anti-Semitic comments.

YouTube disabled the live chat section of the streaming video about 30 minutes into the hearing because of what it called "hateful comments."

The incident came as executives at Google and Facebook appeared before the House judiciary committee to answer questions about the companies' role in the spread of hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism in the U.S.

They were joined by leaders of human rights organizations including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Equal Justice Society.

Neil Potts, Facebook director of public policy, and Alexandria Walden, counsel for free expression and human rights at Google, condemned the spread of hate crimes and defended company policies that prohibit material that incites violence or hate.

"There is no place for terrorism or hate on Facebook," Potts testified. "We remove any content that incites violence."

The hearing was prompted by the mosque shootings last month in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 people dead. The gunman live streamed the attacks on Facebook and published a long post online that espoused white supremacist views.

But controversy over white nationalism and hate speech has dogged online platforms such as Facebook and Google's YouTube for years.

Facebook explains Goldy decision

Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island grilled the Facebook and Google executives about their companies' responsibility for the spread of white supremacist views, pushing them to acknowledge they have played a role, even if it was unintentional. Potts and Walden conceded the companies have a duty to try to curb hate.

But the challenges became clear as Cicilline pushed Potts to answer why Facebook did not immediately remove Canadian Faith Goldy last week, after announcing a ban on white nationalism on the social network.

Goldy, who has asked her viewers to help "stop the white race from vanishing," was not removed until Monday.

"What specific proactive steps is Facebook taking to identify other leaders like Faith Goldy and preemptively remove them from the platform?" Cicilline asked.

Facebook Inc. Public Policy Director Neil Potts testifies during the House hearing on Tuesday. Potts said the social media company responded to user complaints about Faith Goldy's content. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Potts reiterated that the company works to identify people with links to hate and violence and banishes them from Facebook, but admitted in this case the company responded to user complaints about Goldy's content.

In 2017, following the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va., tech giants began banishing extremist groups and individuals espousing white supremacist views and support for violence. In March, Facebook extended its ban to white nationalists.

Despite the ban, accounts such as one with the name Aryan Pride were still visible as of late Monday. The account read: "IF YOUR NOT WHITE friend ur own kind cause Im not ur friend."

Contentious Owens invite

The mosque shooter in his manifesto referenced U.S. conservative commentator Candace Owens, who called the attacks a tragedy and rejected any kinship to him.

At Tuesday's hearing, California Democrat Ted Lieu reacted with disappointment that Owens was invited to appear before the panel, playing back through his phone a recording of questionable comments she made recently about Adolf Hitler. Owens hit back at Lieu, accusing him of playing a narrow section without context.

Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, entered into the record several emails she said her office received objecting to Owens's presence.

Owens, who is black, is the director of communications for conservative group Turning Point USA. A frequent public speaker, she has been an active supporter of President Donald Trump and has been trying to push African Americans to leave the Democratic Party.

Controversial commentator Candace Owens was invited to the hearing, to the disappointment of some Democrats. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Owens complained to lawmakers about a "double standard" that she said allows criticism of black conservatives, Christians and Jews.

"We need to condemn all types of hate speech," she said.

On Wednesday, a Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing on allegations that companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are biased against conservatives, an allegation levelled by political figures from Trump on down.

The companies have denied any such bias.

Also invited to appear was Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha. Two of his daughters, and his son-in-law, were gunned down in 2015 in Chapel Hill, N.C. The accused, a white neighbour, faces the possibility of the death penalty if convicted.

"I must be one of a few physicians, if not the only one, who read his own children's murder autopsy reports and details," said Abu-Salha.

"They are seared into my memory."

With files from CBC News