Founded as a part of Justin.TV in 2007, Twitch rebranded in 2011 to become a standalone platform for live streaming video game content. This content consists of a person—the streamer—who appears on screen, often in the corner, while broadcasting footage of themselves playing a video game.
Amazon acquired Twitch in 2014, and its steady growth continued. According to reports, Twitch has grown from 55 million active users in 2015 to 140 million monthly active users as of 2021. In 2020, Twitch’s popularity exploded due to the COVID-19 lockdowns and fueled by a large influx of content other than video games. Viewership of non-gaming content related to music and the performing arts quadrupled from 2019 to 2020, while viewership of Twitch’s “Just Chatting” section of conversational video streams more than doubled in the same period.
The first attempt at a Twitch-specific streaming event with politicians took place in 2018 and 2019 when The Washington Post hosted a series of events featuring journalists playing video games with politicians and discussing political issues. The series was not widely popular despite episodes featuring high-profile national politicians such as Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, and Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida. None of these streams received more than 3,000 views.
More recent political events on Twitch, pioneered by Representative Ocasio-Cortez (a gamer herself), have proven far more popular, reaching millions of viewers. The Center for Technology and Society collected data from the following Twitch events between October 2020 and January 2021:
- On October 21, 2020, Ocasio-Cortez and her invited guests, Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, and video game streamers Pokimane, HasanAbi, DrLupo, Hbomberguy, as well as others gathered for a get-out-the-vote event. They played the video game Among Us (generating 225,771 comments on one channel).
- On November 28, 2020, Ocasio-Cortez and Canadian Member of Parliament Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, joined video game streamers HasanAbi, Contrapoints, xQc, and others, playing Among Us to raise money for COVID-19 relief efforts (generating 283,762 comments across two channels).
- On December 22, 2020, Georgia Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate, Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, played the card game Uno with video game streamers from Georgia in an event focused on engaging young voters for the 2021 runoff elections (generating 6,233 comments on one channel).
- A January 28, 2021 event with Ocasio-Cortez, streamer TheStockGuy, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, and economic policy analyst Alexis Goldstein discussed Reddit communities’ involvement in the GameStop investment controversy (generating 125,796 comments on one channel).
To compare the experiences viewers had concerning these political events and those that marked other Twitch events, CTS also collected the data from the April 6, 2021, event hosted by comedian Jimmy Fallon to raise money for the charity Feeding America. Fallon played the video game Among Us alongside the drummer Questlove and other members of the band The Roots, Among Us community manager Victoria Tran, cast members from the popular show Stranger Things, and video game streamers Sykkuno, Valkyrae and Corpse Husband (generating 74,242 comments on one channel).
Political Events, WallStreetBets, and Antisemitism
Public online events featuring Ocasio-Cortez might be expected to attract an onslaught of hate and harassment. The high profile progressive member of Congress has spoken openly about the many death threats she receives via her Twitter account. Other elected officials and high-profile individuals have also faced outpourings of online harassment. Earlier this year, malicious hackers disrupted Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock’s virtual Shabbat sermon in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Video game streamers Pokimane, DrLupo, HasanAbi and others have been targeted by swatting, doxing, or death threats on Twitch and other platforms. Studies have demonstrated the many anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attacks that Omar has faced on an ongoing basis on Twitter and Facebook. Senator Ossoff talked about a Facebook advertisement against him that trafficked in classic antisemitic tropes.
More broadly, ADL’s research has also highlighted the abuse targeting gamers, as well as politicians. A report from October 2020 showed a deluge of online antisemitism directed toward incumbent Jewish candidates on Twitter in advance of the 2020 U.S. presidential election. ADL’s annual survey of hate, harassment and positive social experiences in online games for 2020 found 81% of adult gamers in the U.S. experience harassment in online games.
Given the reality of these experiences, it seemed likely that public events that featured both prominent politicians and video game streamers would become hotbeds of hate and harassment. But our investigation found that the four prominent political Twitch events we reviewed resulted in primarily positive and inclusive spaces.
For example, on January 28, Ocasio-Cortez hosted a Twitch event around the controversy surrounding the game retailer GameStop and the subreddit r/WallStreetBets, a community forum on Reddit whose members advocated the takedown of the hedge funds that shorted GameStop’s stock. The event drew over 600,000 viewers. While ADL’s investigators noted some classic antisemitic tropes associated with the GameStop incident on other platforms, the commentary was dominated by courteous and enthusiastic discussions related to the stock market at Ocasio-Cortez’s event. Our analysis shows that of the 125,796 comments we tracked in the chat during the event, only 0.002%, or 30 comments, contained antisemitic slurs. They included derogatory use of “Jew” or “Jews”, conspiracies related to George Soros, and use of the “echo” or triple parenthesis symbol.
On the other hand, the most prevalent comments were the phrases “To the moon” and “hold the line,” which made up 5,186 of 125,796 comments, roughly 4% of the commentary. Both of these phrases were from the WallStreetBets community on Reddit. “To the moon” means the value of a particular stock is on an upward trajectory, while “hold the line” encourages holding on to a stock regardless of its current price.
The results were similar when we analyzed the chat on another Ocasio-Cortez Twitch event, held last year on October 21, 2020, which had focused on encouraging viewers to vote in advance of the presidential election. The most prevalent comments were expressions of LGBTQ+ pride. They comprised 5,303 of the 225,771 comments in the chat, or 1.16% of all comments. The frequency of various insults or conspiracy theories regarding the politicians who appeared in the chat was very low. For example, the baseless conspiracy theory that Omar married her brother is only mentioned in the event chat 40 times among 225,771 comments, or 0.0001%. This is a stark contrast to Omar's experience on Twitter two years before: a study showed that roughly half of 90,000 tweets directed at the representative in 2018 contained anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant rhetoric.
What Might Make Twitch Different?
While our study looks at only a small snapshot of events, its findings are striking and raise intriguing possibilities for mitigating online hate. One possible reason that none of the political events CTS analyzed on Twitch was dominated by hate and harassment is the nature of the livestreaming Twitch chat as the dominant mode of communication on the platform. On a platform like Facebook or Twitter, the primary modes of communication are comments with unique URLs that exist in perpetuity unless deleted or hidden by the user or removed by the platform. Even on Facebook Live and Facebook gaming streams, users can choose to reply or like comments in the chat, providing avenues for targeting and amplifying hate and harassment. On Twitch, the dominant mode of communication is livestreaming chat comments. In Twitch chat, comments cannot be engaged with individually and flow from bottom to top, potentially mitigating the amplification of any individual comment. This result is especially evident during big events when many people populate the chat at a fast clip. Harassment and hate on Twitch requires a different level of effort by the user—if a user wants to disrupt the chat on a Twitch stream, they may have to repeat their hateful or harassing content many more times for it to be as visible as a similar comment on another platform.
Another reason these events stayed positive may be a consequence of the suite of tools that Twitch provides its community moderators. These include bots that automatically moderate chats and can be fine-tuned to provide greater control to moderators, and also provide the ability to delay the appearance of comments in the chat of a particular channel. Community moderators can decide how long the delay lasts and adjust it depending on the stream's size and the speed of incoming comments. That delay allows community moderators to adjust the flow of the chat to a comfortable level and address problematic comments in near-real time without being overwhelmed.
Settings on Twitch’s “Automod” tool for community moderators
The nature and centrality of chat and the availability of tools for moderation speak to what sets Twitch apart from other social media platforms, but do not account for how hate and harassment manifest in large amounts during some Twitch streams while being much less prevalent during others. Community members on the platform have voiced concerns about how poorly moderated some events on the official Twitch channel are, exposing tens of thousands of users to hate and harassment. CTS’s analysis of comedian Jimmy Fallon’s April event found that the most popular expression in the chat was the emote “TriHard”, which was used 40,555 times in 2,541 comments in the chat, making up almost 4% of comments.
The overwhelming prevalence of the emote “TriHard” at Fallon’s event speaks to the importance of experienced community moderators during a Twitch stream. An emote is an emoji or image that is unique to Twitch and can be used in a chat by viewers of a particular stream to express themselves. “TriHard”, which shows the excited face of the Twitch streamer Trihex, has been used in different ways on Twitch but one such use has been associated with racist harassment targeting Black gamers. Professional gamer Terrence Miller, for example, was plagued by racist harassment on Twitch, including the TriHard emote, during a finals match in 2016. He discussed the incident within the context of diversity in gaming at Twitch’s annual conference in 2016, where he was again targeted by racist harassment with the emote.
In 2019, political streamer HasanAbi discussed Bernie Sanders’ 1985 trip to Nicaragua on his channel when viewers began to repeatedly post the “TriHard” emote into the chat, alongside the “CmonBruh” emote, which has also been used in racist harassment on the platform. Subsequently, HasanAbi banned viewers from using both emotes in his channel. TriHard was the sixth most popular emote on February 3, averaging 16 million uses on the platform every day during the first three days of the month.
The choice here is not simple. Although Trihex himself is aware of how his emote has been used in racist harassment, he has opposed banning the emote due to the power that would give to those who appropriate the emote for hateful ends. It also increases the representation of BIPOC people among Twitch emotes. Fortunately, experienced and skilled community moderators on Twitch understand how emotes and other facets of Twitch culture are being used in a particular chat and the context of specific events, and can contemporaneously address any abuse.
Why Are Experienced Community Moderators so Important?
Content moderation on Twitch works at both the broader platform level and on individual channels. At the channel level, a streamer can set rules for their community beyond the broad platform rules. Users are also empowered to address content that goes against those rules. For popular streamers with millions of viewers, having a reliable team of community moderators is essential.
For Ocasio-Cortez’s first Twitch stream in October 2020, the moderation team consisted of several automated bot moderators and 14 human moderators (a mix of Twitch employees, moderators for large gaming events, and smaller audience streamers engaged in both gaming and political content on Twitch). Members of this moderation team joined in subsequent events hosted by Ocasio-Cortez. By contrast, the moderation team at Fallon’s first Twitch event earlier this month comprised three users that seemed to have been created specifically for the event. During the stream, users in the chat called out the lack of moderation explicitly; statements recognizing or lamenting the lack of moderation appeared 755 times in the chat, making up 1% of the total discussion during the event.
Chat moderators during Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s October 2020 event vs. Jimmy Fallon’s April 2021 event
In addition to having a deep understanding of how to moderate large live events, community moderators such as the ones employed by Ocasio-Cortez had extensive knowledge of how to best use the tools the platform made available to them. It is important to note that the use of platform tools by experienced community moderators to make events on Twitch respectful and inclusive is not something that happens automatically. The political events analyzed here involved extensive work by community moderation teams making numerous context-driven decisions on how to moderate a channel both before and during an event. The consequences of not undertaking this work are evident in the high levels of hate and harassment present in Fallon’s stream.
The lack of experienced community moderators may limit the effectiveness of Twitch events in other ways: despite the star power present at Fallon’s stream, it only raised $17,000 of the $25,000 goal it set to give to Feeding America. (Fallon agreed to cover the rest personally.) By contrast, Ocasio-Cortez’s second Twitch event, with Candian politician Jagmeet Singh, raised over $200,000 for food and housing insecurity in the U.S.