Twitch, Where Far-Right Influencers Feel at Home
What’s the biggest political surprise of 2021? Not the Democrats’ upset wins in Georgia, flipping the Senate in their favor. Not President Biden’s leftward swerve.
How about the fact that, after he was kicked off Twitter and Facebook, former President Donald Trump pretty much just … went away. He didn’t start his own social media company, as some close observers thought he might, and he didn’t mount a major public battle to get his accounts reinstated. He just quietly retreated (for now) to Mar-a-Lago.
Be honest: Did you ever think that would happen?
Still, the behavior of one man — no matter how famous, no matter how formidable a troll — does not determine the behavior of others. And as Twitter, Facebook and other platforms have cracked down on misinformation, the internet’s younger and spryer purveyors of far-right conspiracy theories have moved elsewhere.
One platform that has particularly attracted them is Twitch, an Amazon-owned livestreaming video site that our tech reporter Kellen Browning describes in a recent article as “a new mainstream base of operations for many far-right influencers.” Many have been drawn to Twitch partly because it allows broadcasters to accept donations on the platform while they stream.
To get a sense of how popular Twitch is becoming among the far-right commentariat — and why — I spoke to Kellen about his piece. Here’s what he had to say.
Hi Kellen. So, you write that as many social media platforms clamped down on hate speech and misinformation around the 2020 election, a number of far-right content creators moved over to Twitch. What was appealing to them about the platform?
In one sense, it was appealing simply because it was one of the few mainstream platforms left to them after being barred from places like Twitter and YouTube. But also, Twitch draws millions of people to the site each day, many of them young men, so they could attract far larger audiences than they were getting on smaller fringe sites. I don’t know if some expected they would be raking in thousands of dollars when they first joined, but I’m sure that doesn’t hurt, either.
Twitch makes it easy for its streamers to get paid through the site or to link to outside websites and payment services. On sites like Twitter, members of the far right would have to build an audience and spread propaganda to interest people, then direct them to a different location where they could donate money. On Twitch, they can do both at once.
One major concern among those who study misinformation in social media is that the loudest voice often gets the most attention — not necessarily a great thing for civil debate. In the case of far-right Twitch users, do we see a correlation between the outlandishness of people’s claims and the amount of money that broadcasters bring in?
Definitely. Because people get invested in the ever-growing conspiracies and in supporting the people who spread them, they’re incentivized to keep coming back to learn more and continue to subscribe and donate.
I’ll share a quote from Joan Donovan, a Harvard University researcher I spoke with for this article. She said that the audience can sometimes have a negative effect on the content creators, because they’re continuing to demand wilder falsehoods and crazier ideas to further the story they’re being spun. So the creator feels the need to keep raising the bar.
“It’s a really difficult phenomenon to watch,” she said. “You find people who are now financially dependent on making new content every day that is somehow more salacious, more inciting, more hateful than the day before in order to compete with other content creators that are now coming into that space.”
Last year, Twitch actually took the lead on moderating President Donald Trump’s public posts, temporarily suspending him for “hateful conduct” well before Twitter and Facebook kicked him off their platforms. But now, Twitch actually houses a number of creators who are no longer welcome on those social networks. Twitch hasn’t established a clear policy on misinformation, so how is it moderating content these days?
It’s a good question, especially because Twitch has been so clear that it is “not a free speech platform,” according to its chief executive, Emmett Shear. I know that Twitch is working on a misinformation policy. Absent that, the service is using its “hateful conduct” policy, which is pretty broad, and recently rolled out a new policy that lets it take action against people who commit violence or crimes in real life, or are members of hate groups.
Despite all this moderation, though, dozens of these channels are still online. Twitch does have algorithms that can filter inappropriate language in streamers’ chats, and streams have human moderators as well, but Twitch still relies on users and streamers to report misconduct.
Also, the live, spontaneous and fleeting nature of Twitch streams probably makes them tougher to police than something like Twitter (and, as Twitch noted to me, those qualities also make misinformation broadcast on Twitch less likely to go viral).
You identify a number of relatively prominent Twitch users who are affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory. Who are some of the major examples?
Some of the biggest names are Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman, who streams every day and often gets 3,000 or 4,000 live viewers; Millie Weaver; and a man who goes by RedPill78 or Zak Paine.
Ms. Maras-Lindeman focuses a lot on mask mandates and election falsehoods, and has made the most money on Twitch of the people we looked at. Ms. Weaver, a former Infowars correspondent, is a bit newer to the platform and focuses on election conspiracies and vaccines. Mr. Paine often directs audience members to other QAnon-related sites and methods to donate, and deals with some of the bedrock QAnon conspiracies, like the idea that children are being killed to harvest a chemical compound called adrenochrome.
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The Improvement Association: The power of election fraud allegations
From the makers of “Serial,” “The Improvement Association” is a true story about election fraud.
A few years ago, Bladen County, N.C., made national headlines. In 2018, Mark Harris, a Republican, defeated his Democratic opponent for a congressional seat, but the result was later thrown out and a new election was called after his campaign was investigated over suspicions of fraud involving absentee ballots.
But according to some local residents, the authorities got it all wrong. They say there’s a powerful group still at work in the county, tampering with elections, bullying voters and stealing votes — a Black advocacy group, the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC. These accusations have never been substantiated, but they persist.
We won’t spoil anything, but we’ll just say that Zoe Chace, the reporter for the series, helps us understand the ultimately “human-sized” form that election fraud took in one small town in rural North Carolina. It’s a show about “individual people, in a tight-knit place, using their relationships to either make money or take revenge. Or both,” she said. It’s also about one of the oldest fights of all in American politics: the fight for the Black vote. All episodes are out now, and you can listen here.
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