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No More Lip Service: Twitch, Game Platforms Still Ignore Hate and Harassment

Cyber Harassment
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Nearly every streamer has to deal with the occasional troll, but as a Black woman in gaming, I have faced horrifying levels of racist and sexist harassment from belligerent strangers on the other side of the computer screen. Unfortunately, I’m far from alone, as the moderators at major platform, such as Twitch, turn a blind eye and fail to enforce their own, seemingly well-intentioned, anti-hate speech policies, leaving women, BIPOC and LBTQIA users vulnerable.

Warning: Some graphic descriptions of harassment to follow.

In two decades of online gaming, I have been stalked offline, threatened with rape and murder and even saw users steal my kids' pictures from Facebook so they could mock them in online groups. The feeling of helplessness and violation is something you never forget. But with gaming giants, such as Twitch and Microsoft, embracing the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months, you might think that these companies would be more conscientious about stopping bigotry on their platforms. 

However, based on my experiences and those of other streamers of color I speak to, it’s clear that the reality doesn’t live up to the rhetoric.

A few weeks ago, Twitch featured my daughter and I on its front page for a scheduled stream of Minecraft Dungeons. Imagine the excitement of hearing you’re getting a feature in front of thousands of viewers! The second feeling that washed over me was absolute and total dread because I knew I could be completely torn to shreds by abusive harassment during the moment I’m supposed to shine my brightest. 

Ultimately, we had to ban 54 people hurling racist and sexist remarks into my chat on that day alone. Twitch followed up the same way it always does. I received a pre-written auto email registering the report, followed by silence.

(Image credit: Twitch)

The problem isn’t limited to Twitch or to streaming. I have the same problem when I game on Xbox Live. 

I’ve suffered aggressive and demeaning comments from men in response to me being a woman. One user even threatened to murder me and rape my corpse. This gave me nightmares and caused me to stop playing games for a few months.

These are not isolated incidents, and I am not alone. So many of my peers experience these things daily, and we find ourselves wondering why these companies don't protect us.  

Finding safe spaces on the internet is hard enough for the average user. But finding safe spaces to create game streaming content as a person of color feels virtually impossible. Whether you are just starting out as a gamer or an experienced content creator the harassment you inevitably face online turns many away for good. 

Plenty of Policies, Not Enough Enforcement

Xbox Live, Twitch and YouTube all have harassment policies in place. These policies seem great in theory, but users will tell you that we don't often see enforcement. We need swift and severe punishments for users who choose to violate these policies to make gaming safer for everyone. 

I have been actively playing games online for 20 years and I will tell you this: No platform other than Nintendo has made me feel safe playing on it, because this kid-friendly company has strict and swift enforcement. The home of Mario and Zelda may be the only company that is doing it right, and other corporations should follow suit.

Twitch's Vague Anti-Harassment Language

Twitch’s written policy says that harassment is prohibited, but it’s too vague and even allows for “context.” The company’s policy states:

“Harassment is any content or activity that attempts to intimidate, degrade, abuse, or bully others, or creates a hostile environment for others, and is prohibited. Harassment is prohibited. Twitch will consider a number of factors to determine the intent, context, and impact of any reported harassment”. 

The document then goes on to detail some of the ways in which Twitch is supposed to determine if harassment has occurred and how to deal with it. 

The part others and I find lacking is where Twitch states, “Violating our policy against harassment will result in your account being suspended. Depending on the severity of the offense, harassers may be indefinitely suspended on the first violation.” 

As a Twitch broadcaster, I have heard and witnessed the harassment of my peers while live streaming. My ban button is worn out from the countless number of trolls who have slunk into my chat time and time again. So I report, rinse and repeat. Each time I receive an automated bot response thanking me for my report and absolutely ZERO follow up. 

Microsoft's Promise

Microsoft Executive VP of Gaming Phil Spencer  published an essay on the changes he planned on making in May of 2019. It was a powerful statement on how Xbox was going to do its part saying:

We commit to be vigilant, proactive, and swift. Our Xbox Safety team is nicknamed the ‘Defenders of Joy’ because we will defend you in every humanly and technologically possible way, so gaming remains fun. We will identify potentials for abuse and misuse on our platform and will fix problems quickly. We are also intent on expanding the composition of our safety team so wide-ranging perspectives can help us identify future safety problems and solutions. Because hate and harassment have no place in gaming, we recently published a refreshed version of our Xbox Community Standards to communicate how each of us can keep gaming fun and safe for all and detail the consequences when any of us break these standards."

This seems fairly straightforward and, honestly, like a wonderful place to start. Yet, I still cannot play a single game of Call of Duty without being harassed. And yes, I report them every time. Same with my favorite game, Ark: Survival Evolved, insane amounts of hate speech and threats reported and NOTHING done. Spencer made us a commitment, and he needs to uphold that to secure his brand's integrity and support his consumer base. 

Streamers Face Racism, Sexism and Homophobia

Whenever I talk to my Black peers, the conversation is the same. Where is the harassment enforcement? It goes double for my women of color peers and triple for the LGBTQIA folks. As gamers and creators, we NEED these platforms, and they need us too. They should be protecting their broadcasters and users, rather than hiding behind automated emails. 

I reached out to a couple of Black content creators I know have been vocal about the change we need to see. RayApollo, a content creator on Twitch, had this to say: 

There is so much that companies could be doing to protect users from online harassment. If they worked as hard to protect the people that use their services as they do to protect copyrighted music we might not need to be having these conversations. This isn’t to say protecting intellectual properties isn’t important, but people are more important.” 

I couldn't agree more.

The frustrations are palpable in the community, and a lot of us feel helpless to combat these issues. For many streamers, this is the way we support ourselves and how we destress and socialize. 

“Online harassment has been a problem since the invention of the internet,” streamer and podcaster Parris Lilly told me. “Allowing people to be anonymous, empowers them to say  whatever they want, without penalty or accountability for their actions. More recently, we have seen online harassment becoming rampant in the online gaming space on platforms such as Twitch, Xbox Live, Stream, etc. where the moment you are identified to be a person of color, a woman, or LGBTQ, the harassment begins until the person is forced to leave.”

Shaming Twitch on Twitter Brings Results

With newer problems such as hate raids, (where hundreds of users join a streamer live and leave their chats overwhelmed with hateful slurs) and follow botting, (where a user sends bots that create endless accounts to follow the user, which is against Twitch’s terms of service and can result in the victim being banned), many Twitch streamers have taken their complaints to Twitter in the hope of garnering a response. When facing public pressure on social media, Twitch has, in fact, banned users in the past. Honestly, that's the least we cam ask for.

Real Solutions Mean Real Bans

Moving forward, we need some real protections in place that are stern, like IP bans, so users cannot create multiple accounts for harassment. We need a way to prevent users from making hate speech-based usernames and gamertags. Just enforcing those two things would result in a huge step toward making these streaming platforms safer. 

YouTube has its own issues that are very similar in nature, except its enforcement seems the most lax of all. Even its issues with controversial content are widely known in the gaming community. YouTube has a 3-strike rule that is VERY broad and allows quite a bit of wiggle room. 

YouTube’s policy states, “If your content violates this policy, we’ll remove the content and send you an email to let you know. If this is your first time violating our Community Guidelines, you’ll get a warning with no penalty to your channel. If it’s not, we’ll issue a strike against your channel. If you get 3 strikes, your channel will be terminated”. Not exactly a firm stance as they claim to have in their guidelines found here.

Better Tools, Cooperation Are Key

The thing is, as gamers, we know how toxic some of these communities can be, and we don’t expect these platforms to catch them all. But what we do expect is that, when we provide credible evidence of harassment, that they ban the offenders based on their own guidelines.

Lilly, who has more than 18 years of experience in the gaming industry, has been leading the discussion about online harassment on both social media and the Gamertag Radio podcast. He believes that better tools must go along with tougher enforcement.

“Everything starts with accountability, and until people are held accountable for their actions the harassment will continue,” he said.  

“The owners of these platforms must implement the tools to allow victims of harassment to report incidents, and once it has been reported, we need proper investigations conducted. And, if a person is found guilty of harassment, the punishment must be swift and it needs to be severe [enough] to hold the offender accountable.

Punishments should involve instant bans for an extended period of time and they must happen at a network level that includes their account, IP address and even MAC address to drive the point home that online harassment is not welcome on their platform.

When a ban occurs,it needs to be communicated to the overall community to make everyone aware that reporting harassment works and will not be tolerated. We also need to see all platform owners united with universal policies, so if you are banned on Xbox Live, then you are also banned on Steam, PlaystationNetwork, Twitch, etc.The only way we defeat online harassment is by doing it together.” 

This to me is a clear and comprehensive approach that these companies could easily cooperate around. Truly banning harassment would be monumental in encouraging more people to utilize these platforms and could go a long way in strengthening creator relationships.

Demanding Change from Twitch and Others

The survival of these platforms depends on us using them. By default, we have the power to demand change from these businesses. Customer service matters, and these companies not enforcing their policies is doing a disservice to customers.

Accountability must be something we as consumers take seriously as well. I have faith that more companies are holding themselves to a higher standard in the past few months, and I hope that, before the year ends, we see tangible action from companies like Twitch and Xbox. Internet call-out culture exposed internal harassment at Ubisoft, so perhaps it will also force streaming and gaming platforms to take a closer look in the mirror. 

Despite a down economy, 2020 has been a year of growth for the industry, and I can only hope that companies take some of their profits and invest them in creating safer, more welcoming communities. I’m looking forward to the day when we can focus on the joy of gaming without wading into a cesspool of racism, sexism and homophobia.

Until then, guard yourself online as best you can and report the offenders repeatedly. Change doesn’t happen in a day, but if we make our voices heard, I know it's going to come.

Note: As with all of our op-eds, the opinions expressed here belong to the writer alone and not Tom's Hardware as a team.

  • jimmysmitty
    "IP address "

    The issue with this is that the mass majority of consumer home internet does not have a static IP. They have an IP that can and does change. We have dealt with it on the forums when someone gets IP banned and a new user is banned or because it may have been from an internet cafe that entire site is banned.

    I am all for the tools to address harassment. However there also has to be acceptance from both ends. If there is a reported incident then we should assume innocence, allow them to do their job then apply the punishment if found guilty. However on the other side if they were not found guilty then there has to be acceptance.

    The biggest issue I see is that there would have to be a good definition to follow. Some people don't like any criticism, well most people do not, and may decide that it is because of their sex, race or gender etc even if its not. That's something even in the rest of the world that bothers me the most. Unless it's specific there is no way to know the intent behind what someone says.

    Another issue I always see is this then gets stated as the normal in gaming culture. People tend to forget that not too long ago being a "gamer" wasn't that cool. I remember being criticized and picked on for it. Most gamers are accepting of anyone and its a very fringe element that does this kind of stuff. However we also do give each a lot of crap.

    In the end it is unfortunate that anyone has to deal with this at all but it is the world we live in. The internet has never been a truly nice place TBH.
    Reply
  • AtrociKitty
    The vast majority of people don't want even more moderation and policing on what are already heavily moderated platforms. It's particularly dangerous to advocate for bans based on terms such as "hate", which is vague and ambiguous, making such rules easy to abuse in suppressing viewpoints or populations.

    As for in-game chat, banter and trash talk have always been part of a competitive environment. Sure, disallow it on games or servers targeted at kids, but it's utterly hypocritical to ban someone for saying something "aggressive" while playing a game where you're trying to kill their character.
    Reply
  • teak421
    Seems like you took care of the issue... You banned them from your channel. You solved the problem with a click of the button. Also, could you post the actual harassment that you got, not just the names? Interested in seeing what the idiots were saying.

    teak
    Reply
  • setx
    This American trash is all over again... Why do you think the world is obligated to protect "Black woman in gaming"? No one else cares if you are Black or Green.

    major platform, such as Twitch, turn a blind eye and fail to enforce their own, seemingly well-intentioned, anti-hate speech policies
    Because those "seemingly well-intentioned policies" were forced down their throats and absolutely ridiculous?

    Imagine the excitement of hearing you’re getting a feature in front of thousands of viewers! ... during the moment I’m supposed to shine my brightest.
    Why would you think that being in front of thousands is supposed to be your brightest moment and not the most shameful one? Wrong expectations -> wrong results.

    This gave me nightmares and caused me to stop playing games for a few months.
    And this didn't teach you anything at all? Maybe direct interaction with internet community is just not for you? Maybe you should've just disabled the commenting and live happily? Don't force other people to solve your problems that come from wrong expectations.
    Reply
  • spentshells
    You can't unplug the other player controller mid-game as we used to.
    Reply
  • Pyrostemplar
    oooh... plays the world's smallest violin
    Reply
  • eichwana
    Some of these above comments show how people think about people being banned for harassment. From their comments alone, they sound like they’re people who get off from harassing others.

    Interesting to see accounts were made just to post these comments.

    Brushing it under the carpet by saying
    And this didn't teach you anything at all?
    As for in-game chat, banter and trash talk have always been part of a competitive environment.
    In the end it is unfortunate that anyone has to deal with this at all but it is the world we live in.Shows that these people advocate and support racially, homophobically, sexually harassing others.
    How would they feel if it were their daughters, sisters, girlfriends, wives facing these comments?
    Reply
  • salgado18
    setx said:
    This American trash is all over again... Why do you think the world is obligated to protect "Black woman in gaming"? No one else cares if you are Black or Green.

    Because those "seemingly well-intentioned policies" were forced down their throats and absolutely ridiculous?

    Why would you think that being in front of thousands is supposed to be your brightest moment and not the most shameful one? Wrong expectations -> wrong results.

    And this didn't teach you anything at all? Maybe direct interaction with internet community is just not for you? Maybe you should've just disabled the commenting and live happily? Don't force other people to solve your problems that come from wrong expectations.
    Hey, it IS toxic. And it DOES disturb people. Because you and many people are hard-ash strong guys well versed in the law of the strongest, doesn't mean anyone has the right to disrespect, attack or even threat another.

    You are saying that anyone wanting to take part in an online community must read people saying they will come to your house to rape and kill you, and be cool with it? And especially that the community hosts (Twitch, etc) should do nothing about it? Only the strong will survive? Is this the middle-ages again?

    Everyone has the right of free speech, but that right is not absolute. You can't attack someone, not even verbally, and get away with it. If these things can be taken to court as a crime, they shouldn't be regulated in an online community?
    Reply
  • jimmysmitty
    eichwana said:
    Some of these above comments show how people think about people being banned for harassment. From their comments alone, they sound like they’re people who get off from harassing others.

    Interesting to see accounts were made just to post these comments.

    Brushing it under the carpet by saying
    And this didn't teach you anything at all?
    As for in-game chat, banter and trash talk have always been part of a competitive environment.
    In the end it is unfortunate that anyone has to deal with this at all but it is the world we live in.Shows that these people advocate and support racially, homophobically, sexually harassing others.
    How would they feel if it were their daughters, sisters, girlfriends, wives facing these comments?

    Excuse me? You think I support any of that? Or that I even do any of that?

    Nice way to not read my entire post and just pick a single line to try and make it seem like I am in any way supporting harassment of anyone.

    I do not believe in it. Hell I was picked on and very alone for most of my life just because I was a nerd and geek. One of my closest friends was threatened in high school for hanging out with me. I have dealt with this all my life so I know what it is like.

    I do support ways to stop anything that is blatant. I do not support what some people want though which is to be able to deem what is hate or harassment. Some people do offer valid criticism and get told they just don't like them because of x/y/z. That I am heavily against. I have seen this happen on YouTube channels and other media where people use something to try and silence any criticism even if its valid.

    I am also someone who is realistic. The world is not a nice place. Its harsh and unforgiving. The internet itself has never been "nice". That's not me brushing it under the rug. That's me being realistic about how things are and sometimes you have to accept that you will never find a place where everyone is nice to you.

    I did a very long time ago.
    Reply
  • apiltch
    Though we posted this as an op-ed, I want to come out on behalf of Tom's Hardware and say that we agree with Natasha and we urged her (I urged her) to write this. It's easy to say "hate and harassment have no place in tech or gaming," but both companies and individuals need to actually do something about it. The fact that so many Black, POC, women and LGBTQIA users are being left to fend for themselves when attacked by bigoted trolls should not only shock but shame us all.

    It's hard for me to believe that anyone could take issue with the message here. If you disagree are you saying that A.) bigoted harassment is not an actual problem or B.) you agree that it is a problem but think that platform owners like Twitch are doing a fantastic job of responding to it and don't deserve criticism or C.) that harassment is ok and not actually a problem that should be dealt with?

    I think A.) we see plenty of people complaining about it in addition to Natasha. Her story is representative. B.) If you just look at some of the complaints on social or talk to people in these attacked groups, you'll see that they aren't getting a proper response. If you believe in C, because you support the harassment, there's really nothing we can say to you.

    Finally, I know some will say that Tom's Hardware should stick to benchmarking hardware, but this is an important technology topic. The tech and gaming communities, which are intertwined, should not only be open but welcoming to people of all races, genders, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations. If they are not, everyone loses out, even those of us who fit into categories that don't attract the ire of bigots.
    Reply