Twitch reckons with sexual assault as it begins permanently suspending streamers – The Verge

Gaming

When streamer Samantha Wong told Twitch that she had been sexually harassed by another streamer, the report went all the way to the top. A Twitch VP who has since left the company, Justin Wong, says he escalated her allegations to Twitch’s CEO, the head of Twitch HR, and a VP who managed Twitch’s relationship with the accused streamer. “All assured me it would be handled,” he wrote on Twitter.

But a year later, the accused streamer was still being featured by Twitch. According to Samantha Wong, who streams under the name Sampai, the person she’d reported for harassment was not only still allowed to attend Twitch events, but he was even given the opportunity to host segments on Twitch’s official channel. “You, as a company, minimized and dismissed my sexual harassment,” she wrote on Twitter.

Wong is one of dozens of people who have come forward with stories of harassment, abuse, and assault in the gaming industry over the past few days. The stories span the industry, but one group is heavily represented: Twitch streamers. These streamers, mostly women, say others in the Twitch streaming community, mostly men, engage in abusive behavior. A Medium post cataloging the recent accounts lists more than 60 people accused of misconduct, in many cases with accusations from multiple people.

Their accounts have led to a growing demand for Twitch to do a better job moderating, protecting, and setting the tone for its community. The company has said it will investigate and potentially punish the accused users, and as of Wednesday night, it had begun issuing permanent bans. But streamers are doubtful that Twitch is ready to take them seriously.

Harassment and abuse issues have followed Twitch for years. In 2017, Kotaku said it was “incredibly easy” to find examples of harassment on the platform just by browsing around. A Fusion documentary looked at the sexist harassment a woman who is a top Hearthstone player faced on Twitch in 2016. Bloomberg called harassment “something female streamers have to deal with routinely” in a 2015 feature. In 2012, Giant Bomb reported on sexual harassment at a Capcom tournament that was hosted on Twitch. Twitch tightened its policies around harassment in 2018, but it’s not evident to many streamers that it’s had a real impact on enforcement.

The men accused of harassment and misconduct range from streamers with thousands of followers to those with hundreds of thousands of followers or more. Some of the stories involve incidents that happened on Twitch, such as men who were allegedly streaming while messaging underage fans for sexual photos. Others didn’t happen on Twitch directly but involve people in its community. Several people said they met an abuser through Twitch or that misconduct occurred at a Twitch event or an afterparty at a Twitch convention.

Many of the accused are also verified Twitch Partners. Streamers who are successful enough on their own and put in enough hours streaming on Twitch become eligible for Partner status, which grants a number of perks, from a purple checkmark showing a streamer is verified to promotional opportunities at events like TwitchCon. Twitch says that it manually reviews applications, and not every applicant is approved, even if a user meets all the criteria that determine eligibility.

That checkmark of approval is a particular source of frustration among streamers criticizing Twitch’s inaction. They say the company is giving these men a powerful position from which they can prey on fans or other streamers and that Twitch is failing to ban verified streamers despite credible reports of harassment or assault.

“There need to be harsher consequences for people who do these kinds of predatory things on the platform,” Nati Casanova, who goes by ZombiUnicorn on Twitch, told The Verge. “Like straight up, for some of these allegations people should be banned off the platform.” Casanova was one of two women who accused Tom Cassell, a Twitch partner with around 3 million followers who streams under the name Syndicate, of rape this week. The streamer doesn’t appear to have gone live since, but his account remains active on Twitch, where he is among the most followed people on the platform. Cassell issued a statement saying the allegations were false, calling them “character assassination.”

Other disturbing accounts involve predatory behavior from adult streamers toward children, in some cases using Twitch’s own platform tools. Twitch allows viewers to sign up for an account once they’re 13 years old, and the company’s Whisper feature allows users to privately message each other across the site. That makes it possible for adults to send messages to children privately — and some of the accusations stem from this mix.

Ci Richardson, who started using Twitch when they were 14, wrote that an adult streamer used the feature to send them sexual messages when they were 15. “How are you gonna protect all of those teenagers?” Richardson told The Verge. Twitch isn’t the only platform with this problem — in fact, no platform has done a good job of protecting underage users, Richardson said. They said they’ve heard from “a lot” of people who were underage when they were contacted by adults.

The Whisper feature does not support sending images and can be turned off entirely, a Twitch spokesperson wrote in an email to The Verge. (You are, however, able to send links.) The company says it reviews “all reported video content for nudity” and collaborates with the Technology Coalition and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to combat child exploitation online. “Twitch’s public by default design makes it a difficult place for this kind of behavior to thrive,” the spokesperson said.

Twitch issued a statement on Sunday night, saying it takes “accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct extremely seriously” and that the company is looking into the allegations against streamers using its platform. Monday evening, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear published a larger note saying that streamers may be banned, have partnerships revoked, or miss out on promotional opportunities as a result of the investigations. “The status quo needs to change,” Shear wrote. “This reckoning and industry-wide actions are overdue, and this is another issue that we, and the industry, need to address to create lasting and positive change.”

But streamers don’t trust that Twitch is about to change. Shear has been CEO for nearly nine years — since before Twitch was Twitch. (He was a co-founder of the site’s predecessor, Justin.tv.) “Statements are cool, but when you’ve got a past history of doing the exact opposite, well I’m not gonna believe what you’re saying until I see action,” Katie Robinson, who streams as PikaChulita, told The Verge.

These issues aren’t unique to Twitch. YouTube has also been slow to ban people for troubling behavior that reaches beyond the platform. In 2019, it initially declined to ban the account of someone who pleaded guilty to coercing underage fans to send him sexually explicit videos, determining it should be left up because it wasn’t closely linked to his crime. YouTube reversed course days later and removed the channel.

For Twitch, moderation can, at times, be tricky. When incidents occur on Twitch’s platform, there’s a degree to which Twitch is already too late: videos and chats all go up live, which means there’s no reviewing footage for harm before it’s online. And like other online platforms, incidents involving Twitch users don’t always occur directly on-platform and in public view, requiring the company to take allegations seriously, develop policies around handling them, and devote resources to responding to them. The result could mean banning a popular, moneymaking partner in response.

Twitch said it would begin taking action against accused streamers on Wednesday night. The accounts of several streamers facing misconduct allegations disappeared from the site, though Twitch did not specifically state whether they had been banned or if their accounts had been deactivated by the users. In a blog post, Twitch said it was reviewing the stories “as quickly as possible” and had prioritized “the most severe cases.” Punishments could include permanent suspensions, the company said. A Twitch spokesperson declined to comment on specific enforcement actions, but said, “I can confirm that, as stated in our blog post, we have begun issuing permanent suspensions.”

It’s a small start, but elsewhere, there has been fallout. One accusation from a Twitch streamer led to Omeed Dariani, the CEO of the Online Performers Group, a talent management organization, stepping down and the company losing a number of streamers as clients, The New York Times reported. Facebook Gaming suspended a streamer with close to 940,000 followers, Thinnd, while it investigates allegations of abuse. And some top Twitch streamers have issued statements of support. Imane “Pokimane” Anys, one of the most followed streamers on Twitch, told her Twitter followers, “just know there’s so many more people that are still too afraid to speak up.”

To get Twitch to take notice of the complaints, some streamers organized a blackout, promising not to stream all day Wednesday. Delacroix606, who helped organize the blackout alongside streamers SirKatelyn and TuecerPrime, told The Verge that more than 1,000 streamers committed to stay offline, with some encouraging their followers not to watch old videos, either.

Delacroix606 hoped that some dip in viewership or revenue, however small, might make Twitch start to pay attention and answer its users’ demands to take harassment more seriously. “We are the backbone and heart and soul of Twitch,” said Delacroix606, who asked to be identified by his Twitch pseudonym. “We want changes. You have to listen to the people who make your company what it is.”

The blackout didn’t appear to have had an immense impact. On Wednesday morning, hundreds of thousands of people were still streaming top games like Fortnite and League of Legends. But some bigger names said they would stay offline in support. Actor Joseph Morgan told his Twitter followers that he was canceling a stream on Wednesday; the popular streamer HasanAbi said he would stay offline; and Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda said he wouldn’t stream and asked fans to “support those who deserve to be heard.”

Casanova said Twitch’s issues with sexual harassment and assault are part of a larger problem within the gaming industry. “It’s a community problem, a platform problem, and a publisher problem all across the board,” Casanova said. Publishers are afraid to ban players for harassment in games, she said, and platforms then fail to take harassment reports seriously enough. “I think that contributes to the overall community of people being able to constantly come out saying, ‘I’ve had something happen to me.’ There’s so many of them because this is allowed.”

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