The war between Israel and Hamas has raised vital questions about social media companies’ ability to deal with the “unparalleled” amount of mis- and disinformation and violent content being amplified on their platforms. X, Threads, Telegram, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok have all come in for media scrutiny.
Twitch has not received the same level of scrutiny, despite the war dominating the platform’s content with its top streamers recently raising nearly $1 million dollars for Palestinians and posting reaction videos to Israeli airstrikes on Gaza. There is currently little reporting or research about the quality or veracity of the content that is circulating on Twitch. As a former senior official who helped write Twitch’s policies, I believe this is a mistake and nobody should underestimate Twitch. The platform has both vast potential to be an incubator of misinformation and an easily abusable scope for broadcasting graphic content that could have horrific consequences both now and into the 2024 elections.
To many, Twitch may be something of an unknown. However, the Amazon-owned platform has become its own thriving corner of the internet, cultivating a user base that is culturally influential, young, politically engaged, and easily mobilized. Three years after its inception as a video gaming platform in 2011, Twitch became more popular than both CNN and MSNBC during the platform’s peak viewing hours. The pandemic brought a surge in growth such that the platform now boasts 35 million average daily visitors (Q3 2020-Q2 2021) – more than double the 15.53 million subscribed to the country’s biggest pay-TV provider, Comcast.
Alongside falling cable viewership, the influence of text-based social media platforms like X and Facebook are also said to be waning. In their place, video-broadcasting based platforms, like Twitch, have formed a new production center for the public square. The cultural producers and audiences of these platforms skew toward Gen Z, who grew up as digital natives. Their existence on the platform is so ubiquitous that they’ve even been dubbed “Generation Twitch.”
This generation is coming of political age. As many as 9 million more could cast their vote in 2024 than did in 2020. This has galvanized political influencers like Hasan Piker, who became the number one streamer on the platform in 2020 after broadcasting over 80 hours of election coverage. Politicians have also taken note of the political renaissance happening on Twitch with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez creating broadcasts that nearly broke the platform’s streaming records, while Democrats joined Twitch stars for a four-hour live streamed debate in September.
This summer we got a taste of the speed and scale at which Twitch personalities can mobilize their followers offline. In August, the platform’s most popular streamer, Kai Cenat, was charged with multiple counts of inciting a riot after thousands of fans answered his call to gather at Manhattan’s Union Square for a giveaway of video game consoles and gift cards.
While much research and reporting about disinformation and misinformation in the video-broadcasting format has focused on TikTok, the most in-depth reporting about misinformation on Twitch is dated and has come mostly from gaming publications. Too much coverage in traditional media has focused on regurgitating company talking points and reporting controversial bans. Despite a reporter and researcher having sounded the alarm about Twitch’s potential to be weaponized for gruesome livestreams as part of Hamas’ social media strategy, there has been no comprehensive data about the current state of misinformation or violence on the platform. This has left us with a major blind spot about what is happening on one of the most influential communications services of our day.
We can no longer afford to ignore Twitch. Imagine what could be done with Twitch’s youthful, political, and cultural mobilizing power if it were purposely manipulated by bad faith actors during a high stakes war or, indeed, during a divisive general election campaign. These, after all, are among the key ingredients needed to sow the kind of discord that can produce political violence, as I witnessed at Twitter in the lead-up to January 6th. And you can bet that if I’m thinking about it, so too are the foreign and domestic adversaries actively seeking to destroy American democracy.
These adversaries are going up against Twitch’s misinformation policy, which is one of the youngest in the social media industry. Released just last year, it is limited in scope and grew out of naivety from company leadership about the ways information on Twitch could be abused. The policy’s first major test came from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its performance gives cause for concern. While prominent propaganda accounts like Russia Today were quickly banned, advocates said Twitch still became a conduit for pro-Russian propaganda while streamers took to broadcasting live like international war correspondents, both combatting and spreading misinformation without much moderation from the platform. We have no reason to believe this swell of misinformation is not currently occurring again during the most recent war in Gaza.
Three months after the release of its misinformation policy, Twitch’s content moderation systems were tested again when a shooter in Buffalo, NY used the platform to live-stream his anti-Black hate crime from a camera attached to his helmet. While Twitch’s systems quickly ended the stream, the episode still shows that the platform has found a home for acts of gruesome violence by extremists. In response, Twitch could have used these failures as an impetus to address gaps in its policies or invest in the teams responsible for writing and enforcing these policies. Instead, like much of the social media industry, it laid off many of these workers, leaving the platform even more vulnerable.
In my view, the American 2016 elections were expertly manipulated using Facebook. In 2020, Twitter provided the outsized megaphone to sow chaos and incitement into the election. And I believe that a weaponized Twitch without the proper policies and enforcement could cultivate the political violence I predict is coming in 2024. I think that wise reporters and researchers should pay more attention to what is happening on Twitch now. Failure to do so could be costly to our democracy.