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The truth behind Twitch’s leaked ‘do not ban’ list

(The Washington Post)

If there’s one consistent criticism of Twitch over the years, it’s the inconsistency in how it applies its rules. If there’s another, it’s vague or nonexistent communication. And those questions converged as part of last week’s unprecedented Twitch leak when a list of streamers surfaced with the file name “do_not_ban_list.”

On Twitch, bans and suspensions carry higher stakes than a simple timeout. When streamers’ channels are disabled even for a handful of days, they are unable to immediately generate income and longer-term paying subscribers begin to look for the door. Many Twitch users have taken the “do not ban” list as proof that certain streamers are bulletproof — that, for them, these consequences do not truly exist. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

Some have applied this rationale to streamers like Kaitlyn “Amouranth” Siragusa, the most-watched female streamer on Twitch who recently returned from her fifth suspension, and others who’ve been associated with controversial 2021 trends like hot tub streams. Others have made note of leniency shown to top male streamers who have repeatedly violated conduct policies and smaller streamers who’ve been penalized for attire or age when streamers with larger audiences have not.

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The truth is more complicated: Several former Twitch employees — who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss these matters publicly due to nondisclosure agreements — said the “do not ban” list is around five years out of date. This means it predates many recent trends and streamers who have earned Twitch users’ scorn. However, it did, those former Twitch staffers added, contribute to a culture in which a handful of streamers sometimes got more leeway than others.

Twitch declined to comment on the record regarding the list.

When it was still in use, the “do not ban” list was meant to work in conjunction with an internal Twitch tool called Better Desk, which the company replaced years ago. Twitch administrators would work within the tool to field reports against streamers who users believed broke the rules. If streamers were not part of Twitch’s partner program, admins could mete out punishments as they saw fit. Matters involving partnered streamers, on the other hand, were generally escalated to a separate partner conduct team, which would issue warnings or make its own judgments.

The “do not ban” list let admins know when they couldn’t just suspend streamers out of hand — it was instead necessary to escalate the issue to other Twitch staffers or make an exception to the rules.

“It was a way to quickly put a banner up to the admins on duty so they wouldn’t just blindly ban another admin or a prominent staff [member] for something dumb,” said one former Twitch admin.

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“The ‘do not ban’ list was more like a ‘do not ban this channel for x’ [list],” said the former Twitch staffer responsible for creating Better Desk. “[It was] basically a way to add a red notification on reports against [a] channel to make the admins working on reports aware that there are some agreements in place or that the channel is allowed to do certain things. Often it was used to allow what we now call IRL streams.”

While it’s strange to think about during an era in which “Just Chatting” is Twitch’s top category, nongaming streams used to be forbidden on the platform. However, even before Twitch created an “IRL” (short for “in real life”) category in 2016, it was already experimenting with allowing non-video game streams in select cases. This is why many of the entries on the “do not ban” list specify that certain streamers should not be suspended for “nongaming,” “talk shows” and various sports.

“There were people that had alternate rules for or an alternative email contact,” the former Twitch admin said. “So like, TimTheTatman [Tim Betar] had the non-playing entry so that [partner conduct staff] would not get escalation reports all day.”

In other cases, a version of the list that has circulated widely includes language like “do not ban for literally any reason,” which Twitch users have taken as evidence that some streamers are completely off limits for disciplinary action. However, that note appears next to the channel names of high-level Twitch staff, like Twitch CEO and founder Emmett Shear. For obvious reasons, you would not want to ban the boss of the whole company.

Twitch’s head of community productions Marcus “DJWheat” Graham, meanwhile, had “underage” as a note next to his name because, one ex-Twitch staff member explained, he frequently brought his child on stream, and viewers would report him for breaking Twitch’s rule against broadcasts by people under the age of 13.

But while the “do not ban” list was predominantly used to communicate these sorts of special exemptions, it did allow repeat rule-breakers to avoid harsher punishments in at least a few cases. Bryan “RiceGum” Le, a popular YouTuber with a history of inappropriate jokes and insensitive comments, is on the list even though admins should have been able to suspend or ban him after he temporarily lost his Twitch partnership status a handful of years ago.

“RiceGum got partnership removed way back in the day, but Twitch refused to ban him outright because he got viewership,” said one former Twitch staffer. “So even though he wasn’t a partner, he was treated like one and given partner outreach when he broke the rules instead of being suspended by the admin team.”

Another former Twitch admin pointed to the inclusion of controversial “League of Legends” streamer Tyler “Tyler1” Steinkamp — who, before beginning to clean up his act in 2017, had a reputation for verbally abusing other players — as an additional example.

“I do remember RiceGum and Tyler1 both being given way more grace than they should have been,” the former Twitch employee said. “And if one of us admins reported them [to the partner conduct team] anyway, we were told to kick rocks and pay attention to the do not ban list. … It wasn’t quite a ‘get out of jail free’ card, but there were clearly some streamers who got treated with more chances or abilities than others.”

Before Amazon acquired Twitch, it was a much smaller operation with a more exclusive partner program. This, say former Twitch employees, created an environment in which some streamers got more leeway based on who they knew or who liked them, rather than immutable policies. One pointed to two notoriously controversial streamers, Paul “Ice Poseidon” Denino and “NoSleepTV” (who has not shared his real name publicly), as beneficiaries of this dynamic. Ultimately, they were both banned from the platform, but only after numerous indiscretions.

This also gave members of Twitch’s partnerships team undue power over streamers. One streamer alleged that former Twitch partnerships team member Hassan Bokhari manipulated and abused her both before and after the two began dating in 2015 after first providing her with exclusive perks and, eventually, a Twitch partnership to gain her favor. Twitch parted ways with Bokhari last year following an investigation. Bokhari did not respond to a request for comment.

However, according to a former Twitch admin, there were still limits even during the era of the “do not ban” list.

“[The list] wasn’t permission to just do anything,” the former admin said. “Egregious things would still get escalated. They could get banned for other reasons.”

“Twitch partners did get more leniency — [and] maybe still do — but there was never a ‘do not ban this account whatever they do’ list,” said the creator of Better Desk.

Nowadays, Twitch’s rule enforcement process is more standardized. The company uses a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to escalate rule violations based on severity rather than sometimes-arbitrary standards. The “do not ban” list, at least in the form it took years ago, no longer exists. This, said one former employee, doesn’t eliminate the possibility of favoritism, but it makes it more difficult to obscure.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean some aren’t given extra slack still, but it does mean that if they are, it’s not hidden from other staff,” said an ex-Twitch employee. “Anyone with access to that system is going to be aware of additional leniency.”