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The shady side of Twitch

Over the last decade, Twitch has reshaped the landscape of competitive and social gaming. The platform introduced a new way for gamers to experience their favorite games and created some of the first real video game celebrities, such as Ninja, Pokimane, and Tfue.

For as dominant as the service is today, it began from humble beginnings. In 2007, Justin Tan launched a live casting site called Justin.tv that mixed reality TV and live streaming. While viewers weren't immediately sold on the reality portion, the idea of live streaming video captured a lot of attention.

In 2011, Justin.tv created a video gaming-specific channel called Twitch, which quickly became its most popular element. By 2014, the entire company rebranded as Twitch. As of 2020, the service has over 15 million viewers daily.

But Twitch hasn't been free of controversy. After all, give enough people a platform to do pretty much whatever they want to live and some problems are sure to arise. While Twitch has done a lot to curtail negative aspects of the community, there have still been a few missteps. Here is the shady side of Twitch.

No support system for new streamers

At its core, Twitch depends on user-generated content to supply the massive demand its millions of viewers expect. While plenty of viewers enjoy just tuning in to see some of the platform's biggest stars play, there is a lot of niche content created by smaller streamers for a dedicated audience. Besides, one of the platform's appeals is its low barriers to entry. Anyone, in theory, can start streaming and building their audience.

In reality, however, new streamers have a difficult time getting momentum going on the platform. Streamers have spent years streaming to no one, and few official tools can help raise a new streamer's visibility in any significant way. The Twitch community has attempted to build its own methods of helping one another promote their streams, such as "follow4follow" groups, and even streams dedicated to users essentially begging for followers.

These barriers have helped raise the profile of some of Twitch's biggest competitors, such as YouTube Gaming and Facebook Gaming. While these sites have a smaller user base than Twitch, that often means that new streamers have a better chance of standing out from the crowd and building an audience.

The US Army Used Twitch as a recruiting platform

Twitch has reached a point where it is not only changing the landscape of the gaming community but also has begun to cross over into mainstream culture. When a medium becomes a good way to reach a new audience it attracts attention from sources its creators may not expect. This became controversial when recruiters from the US Army, Navy, and Air Force began using the platform to reach children as young as 13, the minimum age requirement for a Twitch account.

The US military using video games isn't new. The America's Army series launched in 2002 as a free game to recruit people for the Army. However, the military's approach to Twitch was subversive. In one instance, it asked asked viewers to register for information on joining the military in order to win an unspecified prize.

The military paused this practice after free speech advocates criticized the military's ability to ban viewers who made comments that cast the Army in a negative light. Having government representatives perform these bans was a violation of free speech and the First Amendment, lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation stated.

Twitch chat is notoriously terrible

Essential to the Twitch experience is its chat function. On the side of almost every stream is a continually updating messaging portal that allows viewers to address both the streamer they are watching and their fellow viewers. The chat often consists mainly of memes and other inside jokes that are specific to the stream, and this makes it a major force in building a real streaming community.

Like so many things on the internet, however, the consequence-free nature of anonymous usernames means the chat can often become toxic, to say the least. Viewers are relentless if a professional player makes a mistake and just as cruel when watching casual streamers play. Things can even descend into both racial and sexual harassment at times, depending on who is being targeted.

Both Twitch and the gaming community at large have been accused of doing too little to combat this problem. While Twitch does have clear anti-harassment policies, enforcement of them against the vast number of malicious Twitch Chat users has been ineffective. The hostile environment has even caught the attention of mainstream media sources, casting a negative light on the community and esports as a whole.

Twitch fails to respond seriously to harassment

The nature of Twitch's user-generated content and dynamic community building has pushed the question of who is responsible for policing negative behavior on Twitch streams. Many users and streamers feel Twitch itself should be working harder to eliminate harassers as the governing body of the service. However, given the influence that streamers and event organizers have over their communities, Twitch has sometimes tried to place more of that responsibility in the hands of whoever is running the stream.

Trying to eliminate every negative voice while running an entertaining stream is a difficult job. One streamer, Zombaekillz, had a scheduled stream of Minecraft Dungeons she planned to run with her daughter featured on Twitch's front page, an exciting opportunity for anyone on the platform. However, during the stream, she had to ban 54 users for sexist and racist comments.

Zombaekillz is far from alone. Female streamers have reported that their most significant obstacle to success on Twitch is harassment. While Twitch said it had doubled the staff dedicated to dealing with harassment, the issue remains.

Twitch bans streamers who showed a political debate

In the United States' charged political environment, any action taken towards political speech on either side is likely to draw attention. That's what happened to Twitch when it banned multiple political streamers for rebroadcasting and commenting on a Democratic debate in 2020.

About an hour into a high profile debate between the Democratic nominees for president, Twitch began banning streamers showing the debate. This including podcast hosts Chapo Trapo House, speedrunner Trihex and political analyst David Pakman. The streams shut down when Twitch received a DMCA copyright notice from Praxis Political Legal, apparently representing CBS. Shortly after that notice arrived, however, the website for Praxis Political Legal disappeared. The organization, it soon became clear, was fake. CBS had served no copyright claims against Twitch or the streamers, who were quickly reinstated.

This wasn't the first time that Twitch had responded to users streaming a debate. In 2019, at an earlier Democratic debate leading up to the 2020 election, Time Warner handed over a very real DMCA notice to Twitch. Twitch halted the casts of several prominent political streamers, and each received a suspension.

Violence caught on streams

Horrifying real-world violence has found its way onto Twitch live streams before to universal denouncement by Twitch, the viewing public, and the gaming community.

A minor Fortnite streamer who went by MrDeadMoth, real name Luke Munday, was heard being physically and verbally abusive to his wife and family off-camera while streaming. Munday was charged with assault in Australia and banned from the Twitch. Munday briefly returned to Twitch about a month after the incident, only to receive another ban after an outcry from gamers worldwide.

A prominent Call of Duty streamer and member of the SoaR Gaming brand Carl Riemer fired a loaded gun by accident while streaming. A shocked Riemer destroyed his expensive monitor and frightened his pets out of the room before realizing what had happened. He was promptly banned from Twitch and removed from the SoaR roster.

Violent criminals have also tried to use the platform to glorify their unspeakable actions. A shooting at a synagogue in Germany, for example, was streamed live on Twitch.

One-sided contracts with streamers

Twitch's most prominent stars deserve a lot of credit for the platform's explosion and its crossover success with mainstream viewers. The strategists behind Twitch known this, as do their biggest competitors, YouTube Gaming and Facebook Gaming. To keep these streamers on their service, each will try to sign streamers to lucrative exclusivity deals. But some of the deals Twitch has made with streamers, especially during the platform's earlier years, have been deemed unfair by courts.

Take the case of banned Counter-Strike: Global Offensive streamer James Varga, who went by the name PhantomL0rd. Banned for streaming CS:GO gambling sites, Varga pushed back by suing Twitch for lost income. When he did so, however, he found that a contract he signed kept him from pursuing more than $50,000. A judge later ruled the contract was both unfair and unconscionable. 

While bad contracts from the companies that control these platforms are one thing, it has also opened up another unfortunate situation. Shady management companies have been taking advantage of streamers in order to cash in on their marketability.

Streamers and the DMCA

One of the most significant issues both Twitch and streamers face is dealing with copyrighted material. Since 2014, Twitch has worked with Audible Magic to identify archives of Twitch streams and mute them if they contain unlicensed music. The decision was unpopular from the get-go, and its sudden implementation was followed by an apology from Twitch CEO Emmett Shear during a Reddit AMA. He went on to say that giving the community no notice was a mistake and to promise that live streams would never be subject to audio recognition.

While these reassurances may have temporarily calmed the community, problems with DMCA takedowns persist to this day. In June 2020, another round of DMCA takedowns started after Twitch was served with mass takedown requests for clips with music released between 2017 and 2019. The situation hit a new low in October when Twitch began deleting clips without giving streamers any warning or recourse to challenge the DMCA notifications that supposedly targeted them. Partnered streamers received emails about the deletions, along with vague warnings that they needed to delete content that violated the DMCA to avoid further repercussions.

The sudden deletions and threatening emails were only the beginning. As Twitch did not provide a method for identifying which videos were causing problems, several high profile streamers like Pokimane and Lirik braced themselves to delete the majority of their VODS — effectively erasing years of content and hard work. While Twitch eventually admitted that it had panicked and botched the whole affair, for many streamers the damage had already been done. The company promised creators better communication and support for detecting DMCA violations in a Nov. 11 blog post. The same day, Twitch encouraged streamers to turn off or mute in-game audio while streaming titles to avoid complications, which went over about as well as you would expect on a platform built around the concept of livestreaming video games.

Twitch ads too intrusive

Free online services depend on advertising revenue to exist and Twitch is no exception. While there is a broad spectrum of what in platform advertising is acceptable and what isn't, Twitch has found itself on the wrong end of conversation all too often.

One of the focal points of Twitch advertisement is a discussion about where the ad revenue actually goes. Only the top level of Twitch streamers, Partners, make money off of ad revenue. For the rest of the community, Affiliates and regular Streamers, any revenue generated by advertisements goes to Twitch.

Amazon customers and other viewers were upset when Twitch Prime subscriptions removed the ability to enjoy ad-free content. Midroll ads were a brief experiment the service tried as well. However, viewers and streamers came together to vote against midroll ads becoming a fixture, as the ads sometimes blocked pivotal moments in streams.

Twitch fights sexual harassment

A reality of Twitch is the pervasive nature of sexual harassment towards female streamers, viewers, and even employees of the company. These negative aspects of the platform are a sad reminder of inappropriate and unfair treatment that women often face in the gaming community.

In 2020, a tidal wave of sexual harassment allegations against prominent streamers on the platform occurred. As a result, Twitch made an official announcement that it had updated policies regarding sexual harassment and began banning streamers who had violated these policies.

Later in the year, Twitch's accounts director of strategic partnerships, Hassan Bokhari, was terminated after being accused of sexual misconduct by a streamer named Vio. Vio described the resolution as "bittersweet," considering the mountain of evidence she had to present to Twitch to get them to act on her information.

Vio isn't the only streamer who was unhappy with the way Twitch has responded to severe instances of sexual harassment. Samantha Wong, who streams as Sampai, presented allegations of misconduct to Twitch's CEO, the head of Twitch HR, and the VP that managed the accused streamer's relationship with Twitch. It took more than a year for the company to respond.

Twitch accused of censorship

A significant challenge of fighting the toxic behavior found in online communities is walking the line between rule enforcement and silencing free expression. While navigating that terrain, Twitch has sometimes been accused of censorship.

One of the areas that this occurs most often is the site's rules regarding nudity, both in-game and for streamers. The platform has strict rules against streaming content that makes nudity a core focus. There are also harshly enforced rules about what streamers are allowed to wear while appearing on Twitch.

Famous DJ Deadmau5 also accused the platform of censorship after a homophobic rant on the platform. While he acknowledged his rant was "toxic," he felt his ban was unfair. However, after a similar rant on Twitter a few months later, he admitted he was seeking professional help.

And Twitch caught some flack after it took down the official Donald Trump channel, citing content which violated rules about hateful speech. This included campaign rallies where Trump made disparaging remarks about ethnicities. Twitch's relationship to Trump adversary Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon (which owns Twitch), prompted supporters to accuse the platform of censoring the president and his supporters.

Inappropriate material promoted on Ninja's old channel

Ninja is one of the best-known streamers on Twitch and one of the few to achieve crossover mainstream success. For example, he appeared as a surprise guest on FOX's The Masked Singer to both the hosts' and the audience's excitement.

When Ninja left Twitch to pursue a contract with Mixer in 2019, Twitch had some tough choices to make about what to do with the community of 14 million subscribers he left behind. Instead of removing Ninja's channel, Twitch decided to leave it up. Subscribers could still see archives of Ninja's streams, while Twitch used it to promote other channels on their platform.

However, all of this went incredibly wrong when Ninja's dormant channel began promoting a stream that featured pornography. Incensed, Ninja published a video on Twitter explaining the situation to his fans and, perhaps more importantly, his fans' parents. After all, Ninja had spent years building a brand of family-friendly content while streaming Fortnite, and many viewers felt betrayed by the inappropriate content.

Twitch CEO Emmet Shear apologized on Twitter, both to Ninja and the community. This might have helped patch things up between Twitch and Ninja, as the strearmer eventually returned to Twitch in September 2020.

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