On Wednesday, Twitch rolled out a new Hateful Conduct & Harassment Policy to take effect on Jan. 22. Acknowledging that members of the LGBTQ+ community and users who are Black, Indigenous, and from other marginalized groups are disproportionately harassed on the platform, Twitch has clarified its existing practices and expanded new categories of prohibited behaviors. This happened in the wake of high profile incidents of toxicity on Twitch, such as when prominent streamers xQc (who has had no shortage of controversial moments) had to tell his followers to stop brigading other streams or when FerociouslySteph faced repeated harassment following her inclusion on Twitch’s Safety Advisory Council.
This expansion of its policies brings the platform more in line with larger social media platforms, with some Twitch-specific details. Though Twitch previously banned “personal attacks, promotion of physical harm, and malicious brigading” in its previous policies, it now explicitly bans “claiming that the victim of a well-documented violent tragedy is a crisis actor, or is lying,” the encouragement of distributed denial of service attacks, hacks, doxxing, SWATing, and inciting raids on off-Twitch social media profiles.
Twitch has also expanded its protected identities to include caste, color, and immigration status, and separated sexual harassment into its own category, expanding prohibited behavior to include objectifying, lewd comments about sexuality and appearance, and sending unwanted and unsolicited links. These changes are especially notable, considering the swatch of allegations by Twitch staff about workplace culture that include sexual assault, racism, and abusive behavior.
While not directly addressing any specific instances of harassment, either externally or internally, Twitch did invite its users to a series of public town hall-like sessions to further explain the changes for content creators and answer public questions about the new policies writ large. Since the pandemic, Twitch’s userbase and market share has soared, with its hours watched increasing by 50 percent just between March and April. It has long been the largest online streaming platform, but is increasingly attracting more than just gamers to stream. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously played Among Us, drawing almost 400,000 viewers at one time, one of the most-watched Twitch streams ever.
In the wake of COVID-19’s spread, Twitch has received flak for failing to adequately police the spread of conspiracy theories involving the virus. Twitch was also a primary hub of livestreams from demonstrations at the height of the racial justice protests this summer, but it garnered criticism from the left—for instance, for featuring a lot of white streamers in a video raising money for Black Lives Matter while raising money for BLM. Twitch has also unfortunately attracted extremists who use the platform to espouse the QAnon conspiracy theory and stream images of violence.
During the 2020 Republican Convention, the GOP’s Twitch stream of the speeches was unmoderated, and thus featured a whole host of slurs, racism, and vulgar use of emotes. That came a few months after President Trump’s channel had been temporarily suspended after it rebroadcast his past comments on Mexican immigrants.
Most notably, Twitch’s new policies ban malicious uses of emotes (Twitch-specific emoticons used in stream chats), including explicitly racist and controversial emotes, such as the Confederate battle flag. While often seemingly innocuous, emotes can be used and strung in clearly harassing ways, such as spamming a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken while a Black streamer is on the screen. The new ban also forbids emotes of the Confederate battle flag. The prominence of emotes in Twitch streams has led to previous problems, with Twitch haphazardly banning users for approved emotes and banning entire categories as well.
Twitch has also had some inconsistency in its enforcement of policies regarding sexual content and nudity in streams. Earlier this year, it clarified its policies, saying that sexual content is banned when it is the core focus of gameplay. The new blockbuster game Cyberpunk 2077 features a great deal of both nudity and sexual content, which the developers consider core to its thematic elements. In the past, streamers could have received strikes against their channel for streaming gameplay that contained scenes of sexual content or nudity. But because of the carve out in its policy related to user-generated content in games, Twitch has not acted against those streaming Cyberpunk.
And like other platforms, Twitch has faced challenges when it comes to government users blocking others, which courts have ruled can violate the First Amendment.
The branches of the U.S. military have been streaming video games and competitive e-gaming for several years now—the Army started its e-sports program in 2018 after missing recruiting targets. Earlier this summer, the Twitter accounts for the Army’s Discord server (a gaming chat platform) and its Twitch channel exchanged a series of tweets that were at face value, completely normal, but provoked a large negative response regarding the Army’s public perception in the replies. In response to the tweets, people on the internet took it upon themselves to see how quickly they could get banned from the Army’s Discord server and its Twitch channel by posting anti-military messages, memes, and chatting about war crimes. Claiming that the behavior was harassment, the U.S. Army and Navy banned users from its Twitch channel. The Army announced it would suspend its activity on Twitch (the Navy decided to remain on the platform) until spring 2021 but later reversed its decision and resumed its streams. Challenged by the ACLU and the Knight First Amendment Institute, the Army also announced it would reinstate banned users.
As Twitch matures and grows, it will have to increasingly adopt content moderation policies akin to its larger cousins, Facebook and Twitter, especially as the streams on Twitch diversify from gaming to politics and culture. And as Twitch polices content more and more dutifully, it will also run up against the same problems with speech other platforms have run into, albeit with more emotes instead of text.
Update, Dec. 15, 2020: This piece was updated to clarify how Cyberpunk 2077 is affected by Twitch’s policies on nudity and sexual content.