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Video giant Twitch pushes Trump rallies and mass violence into the live-stream age

Twitch’s evolution shows how quickly the Internet can change

President Trump's Minneapolis rally on Twitch. (Twitch)

At President Trump’s wild rally earlier this month, roughly 20,000 people watched in person, and another 40,000 later on YouTube, as he mocked his political enemies and urged a crackdown on refugees.

But more than 100,000 people have watched the same performance on Twitch, an Amazon-owned video giant that has become the Web’s biggest arena for live-streaming. Viewers used the site’s chat and video tools to cheer on his speech and pull sound bites into clips with names like “GO BACK HOME.”

First popularized by video-game fans, Twitch has transformed into a global playground for advertisers and influencers seeking to win over a young audience that barely cares about traditional TV. Tens of millions of viewers have watched billions of hours of video streamed on Twitch so far this year, including from the campaigns of Trump and from Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Andrew Yang.

But the site’s exploding fan base also has attracted those seeking to sow discord and spotlight mass violence. On Oct. 9, a day before Trump’s rally, a gunman who killed two people outside a synagogue in Halle, Germany, used a head-mounted camera to live-stream the bloodshed to Twitch’s global clientele. More than 2,000 people watched the attack on Twitch before it was removed, though copies can still be found across the Web.

Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard Kennedy School, said Twitch’s roots in video-gaming and its audience of young, white, American men have made it a fruitful target for hate groups and extremists seeking to recruit new followers to their cause.

The German shooter’s use of English in his video narration, Donovan said, suggested he was looking to get the attention of American viewers. Because Twitch is newer and less well known than other social media, she added, the shooter may have assumed his video would have a greater chance at not being quickly detected and removed.

“The shooter obviously chose Twitch because of the audience on Twitch,” Donovan said. “The Internet is providing this export of American white supremacy, and these platforms are providing the rails to disseminate them."

Twitch’s emergence as a live-streaming repository for political speech and terrorist propaganda has underscored how quickly the Internet’s bloodstream can change, as audiences and attackers move from platform to platform, outpacing moderators and regulators in a rapid, unstoppable march.

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Concerns about political manipulation and extremist violence remain focused largely on legacy social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, which have built up billions of users over years of online operation.

But Twitch is part of a new crop of fast-growing Internet platforms that offer the same basic features as the older sites — from anonymous chatter to live-stream video — but with less public awareness and the same widespread risks.

After the shootings around two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, were broadcast live on Facebook, the social media giant tightened its live-streaming controls and joined large tech companies, including Amazon, in pushing a plan aimed at addressing the technology’s abuse. The anonymous message board 8chan, where the alleged gunmen in Christchurch and El Paso announced their attacks, collapsed after the Internet-infrastructure companies that worked with it pulled their support.

But the gunman in the Halle shooting faced no resistance in streaming his attack on Twitch. Anonymous trolls and self-professed white nationalists in recent days have shared copies of the video and celebrated the anti-Semitic attack on the message board 4chan and another refuge for 8chan exiles, the encrypted messaging app Telegram, where the attack has been viewed more than 70,000 times.

That shift shows how the problems facing the modern Internet are often bigger than any one website, reflecting the inherent risk of a technology that allows anyone with a video device to instantly broadcast to the world. The difficulty of moderating so much live video also means Twitch could become a new avenue for disinformation and radicalization, because the company has few tools to detect and block live-streamed abuse.

“That’s why it’s so interesting to extremists,” said Bill Maurer, dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of California at Irvine. “There is no way they can stop someone from airing something in real time.”

Three mass shootings this year began with a hateful screed on 8chan. Its founder calls it a terrorist refuge in plain sight.

Twitch has moved aggressively to combat trolls seeking to stream violent videos on its site, filing a lawsuit in June against anonymous users who had repeatedly tried to upload the Christchurch shooting footage and other rule-breaking videos.

Twitch chief executive Emmett Shear told the Hollywood Reporter last month that setting online guidelines was “the issue of our times,” adding, “If you work in social media and you’re not thinking about moderation and safety and trust on your platform, I don’t know what you’re doing.”

But Twitch would not say how many people work to review or moderate the videos on its site. Twitch spokeswoman Brielle Villablanca would only say the company’s “safety operations team” has doubled in size during the past year.

Twitch has injected new adrenaline into live video online, outpacing the live-streaming offerings of Big Tech rivals Facebook and YouTube and developing its own insular subculture of memes, emoji and ways of speech.

When Amazon bought the site in 2014 for nearly $1 billion, the company’s chief, Jeff Bezos, said it was the vanguard of a “global phenomenon.” Bezos also owns The Washington Post.

Anyone can live-stream video there, and more than 3 million people do so every month. That fan base and widespread accessibility have led Sanders and Yang to use the site to stream town halls and ice cream socials.

The most popular Twitch videos are vibrant, manic and overrun with eye candy: A single video stream often features not just the real-time action of what’s happening but a video of the person’s reactions, flashing chyrons and text boxes of links and information, and quick bursts of animation to highlight new user donations, subscriptions and inside jokes.

That excitement has made the streams both alluring to digital natives and largely inscrutable to everyone else. Streamers can make money from advertising and donations from their followers, whom they often talk with while recording, addressing users by name. That one-to-many relationship has turned some streamers into virtual celebrities, and the seeming intimacy and camaraderie over many hours of streaming can turn curious viewers into hardcore fans.

Launched in 2011, the site first exploded in popularity as a home for people to watch other people play video games: its name refers to the fast-twitch muscles needed to excel in first-person shooter games and multiplayer brawls.

But as Twitch has grown up, so, too, have its videos: Streamers now broadcast live videos of arts and crafts, cooking tutorials, karaoke, makeup, social commentary and practically anything else. Videos of “Just Chatting” were Twitch’s fourth-most popular category last quarter, with more than 180 million hours viewed, data from the industry researcher StreamElements show. The site has pushed to expand beyond its gamer base, launching its first official advertising campaign last month with the slogan, “You’re already one of us.”

Twitch has helped bring the messages of the two of the oldest candidates in the 2020 race, Sanders and Trump, to the attention of a younger audience, and the Trump campaign’s Twitch page includes links for viewers to donate, volunteer or buy Trump-branded merchandise. But a younger corner of Washington sees the value, too: In January, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) called into a charity fundraiser on Twitch, during which players spent 50 hours on a marathon session of “Donkey Kong 64.”

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The flood of live video has overwhelmed Twitch’s ability to police the content it hosts and distributes. The attack in Germany on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, was live-streamed for 35 minutes, during which the gunman said the Holocaust never happened and that feminism had brought the downfall of Western civilization. “The root of all these problems is the Jew. Would you like to be friends?” he said on live video while preparing his attack.

Only a handful of people watched the video live, Twitch representatives said. But an automatically generated recording of the video was viewed more than 2,000 times on Twitch before it was flagged and taken offline.

The episode drew dark similarities to the Christchurch massacre in March, when a gunman used Facebook to live-stream a grisly attack on two mosques that left 51 people dead. After both shootings, some viewers downloaded the videos and reposted them to other sites in an attempt to circulate them more broadly across the Web.

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The power of online video, and the rush of new platforms seeking to capture it, has challenged the ability of companies and lawmakers to rein in violence, misinformation or abuse.

The video app Snapchat was used by students to record live footage of the shootings last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The short-video app TikTok has faced criticism for its potentially predatory viewers and political censorship.

A Senate Intelligence Committee report said this month that Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo- and video-sharing app, was “the most effective tool” used by Russian operatives to spread false information and exploit political divisions during the 2016 campaign.

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When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg debuted the site’s live-streaming service in 2016, he predicted video would dominate the social network within five years, helping spread “the most personal and emotional and raw and visceral ways people want to communicate.” In the years since, Amazon, Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, have made live video a central element of their business ambitions.

But Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has proved powerless to prevent violence from being live-streamed onto its site. Since the police killing of Philando Castile was broadcast live to Facebook in 2016, the site has been used to live-stream child abuse, rape, murder, the torture of a special-needs man and the suicide of a 12-year-old girl.

After the Christchurch massacre, a Facebook executive wrote in a blog post that the company was investing in human reviewers and artificial-intelligence systems to more quickly detect “suicidal or harmful acts,” adding, “We recognize that the immediacy of Facebook Live brings unique challenges.” The company, which says “the overwhelming majority of people use Facebook Live for positive purposes,” has also instituted more rigid controls for who can stream, including immediate bans for anyone sharing material from a terrorist group.

Twitch, like Facebook, uses automated systems to patrol for copyrighted or objectionable material. The systems scan for patterns and can match videos to blacklist databases, but they aren’t perceptive enough to understand a video’s context — or discern the difference between real-world violence and a video game.

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The company said it had added the Halle shooting footage to an industry database used to fingerprint and track violent videos. That database can make it easier for other social media sites to pinpoint problematic videos and stem their viral spread, but it does nothing to capture and prevent the live streams from being recorded or viewed in the first place.

The Halle shooting was only the latest episode of violence on the site. Last year, viewers watching a live Twitch stream of a Madden 19 video-game tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., saw an eruption of gunfire that injured 11 and left two dead.

Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher at the nonprofit Counter Extremism Project, said the rise of terrorist violence performed online can’t be blamed on any one technology. But the power that a video-sharing platform gives users, to broadcast live to the world, can still have consequences that are too devastating to ignore.

“When someone commits an act of violence like this, they’re speaking to this community that idealizes these extremist mass shooters. There’s a group of people they want to impress,” Fisher-Birch said.

“Live-streaming turns that act of violence into a spectacle, … this simultaneously public and intimate act.” For violent extremists, he added, the technology “has turned mass shootings like these into propaganda gold mines.”