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Twitch's Safety Advisory Council Rollout Has Been A Disaster

Illustration for article titled Twitchs Safety Advisory Council Rollout Has Been A Disaster
Image: Steph “FerociouslySteph” Loehr

Last week, Twitch announced a new Safety Advisory Council intended to provide input on some of Twitch’s most pernicious issues, including work-life balance, safety and moderation, and protection of marginalized groups. The council is made up of social media experts as well as a small handful of streamers. One of those streamers, Steph “FerociouslySteph” Loehr, almost immediately became the focal point of Twitch’s latest controversy—and a whole mess of harassment.

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The controversy began last week with a relatively milquetoast take from Loehr about voice chat in competitive games, spurred by her profile in Twitch’s announcement, which says that she opposes “non inclusive mechanics such as voice chat.”

“The only way to have a level playing field at the highest level of play is to not have voice chat—to not have people give out their linguistic profiles,” Loehr, who is trans, said in a stream on Thursday, May 14, the same day Twitch made its Safety Advisory Council announcement. “If you are a competitive gamer—and people have been like ‘Steph, you know nothing about competitive play’—well, competition requires you to get every advantage possible. To become the top .01% in any video game, you have to squeeze every amount of advantage you can possibly get. Voice chat is unfair. Period.”

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This clip gained traction on Twitter and subreddit Livestreamfail, a notorious Twitch drama farm. On LSF, where it received over 8,000 upvotes, it was headlined as “Twitch staff advocating for voice chat removal from games for giving an unfair advantage.” Loehr is not, in fact, a member of Twitch’s staff, but in its Safety Advisory Board announcement, the company failed to clarify the exact nature of council members’ association with Twitch or how much real power they have over internal processes. As a result, some Twitch viewers assumed the worst—that Loehr had suddenly been granted outsized influence, even though she is not the sole voice on a council composed of multiple people with purposefully varying viewpoints. So they flooded her Twitch chat.

It was an odd thing to swarm her about, given that there are numerous recent examples of people getting harassed for possessing voices that don’t fit the standard gamer dude profile.

“If you use voice chat, you’re revealing your linguistic profile, your voice, which can open you up to being harassed or considered less of a good player, because there are systemic issues with our society and how people treat nonstandard voices,” Loehr said later in her stream, after the clip’s ending point. “So there is an inclusivity cost to voice chat, and if you want to get more marginalized gamers with nonstandard voices to be professional players, you have to address this.”

“Just mute” is a commonly suggested solution, but if voice chat is so unimportant that you can afford to stick your fingers in your ears and carry on, then what is all this fuss about in the first place? On top of that, video game companies have acknowledged voice chat as a factor that leads to competitive imbalances and have been working to fix it with alternative approaches (in addition to voice chat) like Apex Legends’ ping system and Overwatch’s newly customizable voice line wheel. Loehr, in other words, was hardly the first person to call attention to this issue. Shortly after the point where the now-notorious clip ended, Loehr advocated for exactly what companies are already doing, saying, “Maybe we can have other ways to communicate. Maybe we can have other ways to reach a middle ground here.”

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Illustration for article titled Twitchs Safety Advisory Council Rollout Has Been A Disaster
Image: Apex Legends

But what actually happened and what irate Twitch users saw were different things. What they saw was a streamer symbolically flaunting her newfound power, now in position to recklessly strip away features that they believe should be universal. So they flooded into her stream. She argued back and forth with them for a while, eventually saying that “a lot of people with cis white male-sounding voices are here telling me that voice chat isn’t a problem,” noting that she’d heard it all before from the same folks who say that everybody faces harassment, the best solution is to just mute voice chat, and so on. She suggested that she was being lectured by people who haven’t dealt with the same kind of harassment faced by people with voices outside gaming’s presumed default group. This, too, got clipped and shared on Livestreamfail with the headline “FerociouslySteph (Member of the Twitch council) thinks only White Cis Males are against banning voice chat.” Which is not what she said, but it was enough to rile up onlookers even further.

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Before long, Loehr became a major talking point among big streamers and their audiences. Some targeted her opinion—or at least, the part featured in the first clip. For example, on the May 14 episode of the Scuffed Podcast, a popular live talk show hosted by controversial streamer Tyler “Trainwrecks” Niknam, big, also-controversial names like Félix “xQc” Lengyel and Steven “Destiny” Bonnell ultimately concluded that while Loehr did have a point about harassment, removing voice chat altogether would lower the competitive ceiling of multiplayer games. Even in the show’s chat, however, viewers mocked Loehr’s appearance, calling her “Deer” in reference to the flower-strewn antlers she often wears while streaming, saying that her look was “unsettling” and accusing her of being “mentally ill.”

At some point on that same day, a Twitch user went back three months in Loehr’s VODs and surfaced a clip in which Loehr gets her head scratched by her partner. This clip, entitled “Twitch staff btw” on Livestreamfail, now has over 850,000 views and is far and away the most-viewed clip of all time on Loehr’s channel. In the comments on Livestreamfail, Redditors once again accused her of having “mental issues” and called her a “freak.” Some pushed back against the overtly ugly comments, saying things like “You can be weirded out by something without resorting to threats and other weird shit, Jesus Christ guys.” Others on Twitter, some actually smaller Twitch streamers themselves, misgendered Loehr and accused her of identifying as a deer.

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On Friday, during a stream marked by the presence of trolls that Loehr’s chat worked to extinguish, Loehr reacted to a viewer in chat saying, simply, that they were white.

“You can be cis! You can be white! Someone thinks I’m, like, super racist against white people,” she said during the stream. “No! I’m just not cool with white supremacy, y’all. I think a lot of you gamers are actually white supremacists. Sorry, just a fact—of how I feel. Which is an opinion.”

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On Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, and Twitch, this escalated things to a fever pitch. Popular streamers like World of Warcraft mainstay Asmongold accused Loehr of discrimination.

“This person can say negative things about white people, and it’s fine,” Asmongold said during a stream over the weekend. “If I said that about black people or about trans people, I would be banned... It’s plain fucking discrimination, and if anybody had said that about anyone else, they would be off the platform. But this person is being endorsed by Twitch. That is offensive to me. It’s not fair, and it’s wrong, and Twitch needs to fix it.”

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Major figures outside of Twitch weighed in too, with deeply problematic drama YouTuber (and occasional Twitch tournament host) Daniel “Keemstar” Keem saying on Twitter that “Twitch really need to put a end to this! It really is going to cause something like a Gamergate. I really believe this!”

This also prompted comments from another council member and popular streamer, Ben “CohhCarnage” Cassell. During a weekend stream, Cassell expressed disappointment over the fact that “there’s already a lot of negative PR against this council for reasons that have nothing to do with this council,” later adding that he feels it’s become “mired in drama” which could actively impede his personal goal of using the council as a means of achieving more transparency on Twitch.

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On Twitter, Loehr clarified many of her most controversial comments.

“I have never and will never say most gamers are white supremacists,” she wrote over the weekend. “White men have the most privilege when it comes to voice chat communication. This statement has riled more than a few white supremacists. Remember having privilege does not invalidate your hardships. There are problems with voice chat, let’s talk about how to make the playing field more level, i.e. ways to effectively exchange tactical information without your voice. I’m not coming to steal voice chat from you. I was arguing against [an] impending reckless implementation.”

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Still, the harassment against Loehr has continued to escalate. During a stream on Sunday, she said she got doxxed, specifically noting that the doxxers have assembled a profile that includes her deadname and high school. Throughout all of this, however, she’s largely stayed the course, sticking to her guns even as online crowds get more intensely riled up than usual thanks to a brand of over-the-top cringe that pushes the internet’s buttons especially hard. This has involved no small amount of bravado. In a handful of cases, she has taunted the irate Twitch users venturing into her chat, dancing while her chat moderators banned viewers who didn’t follow the rules last week and, shortly after revealing that she’d been doxxed, speaking of the power she now possesses.

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“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I have power. They can’t take it away from me. And honestly, there are some people that should be afraid of me. They are, because I represent moderation and diversity, and I’m gonna come for hurtful, harmful people. If you’re a really shitty person, then I’m gonna stand up against you. Period. Twitch is endorsing me to do that.”

This also got clipped and shared out of context as both fuel for further harassment and part of a larger body of supposed evidence that Loehr is immune from being banned by Twitch, which is not true. Generally, it was also not a great choice of words on Loehr’s part given that, as she acknowledged later, she didn’t have all that much power at the time and still does not. It was on Twitch to transparently lead with this information, to outline what exactly council members can and cannot do. Until this afternoon—five days after the controversy and ensuing harassment began—it did not.

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Today, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear clarified what exactly it means to be on Twitch’s Safety Advisory Council in a post to Twitch’s official blog.

“Council members will not make moderation decisions, nor will they have access to any details on specific moderation cases,” Shear wrote, characterizing what’s happened in the aftermath of the initial announcement as “a lot of discussion and questions.” “They are not Twitch employees, and they do not speak on Twitch’s behalf. While we value their opinions and their right to share them, they are independent actors who will have opinions that aren’t shared either by Twitch, Twitch employees, or even by other members of the council. Nevertheless, we believe that having diverse viewpoints will make the council and its recommendations stronger, and ultimately better for our community.”

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He also denounced harassment, though he did not specifically name Loehr or mention any punitive measures against streamers—some of whom arguably crossed the line on Twitter—who harassed her: “Harassment directed at council members or anyone at or on Twitch only underscores the importance of the council. We do not condone bullying or harassment of any kind and will continue to take action against accounts who engage in that behavior,” Shear wrote.

Today, Loehr also made a Twitter statement of her own backing up and agreeing with much of what Twitch said, noting that today the council had its first meeting, and she is proud to be “one of many voices that will contribute to us collectively having real impact here.”

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Given that many people began with the assumption that Loehr and other council members were Twitch staff and came up with ideas as far-fetched as ban immunity, Twitch waited far too long to post its note. This kind of information should have been in the announcement from the get go, but as ever, Twitch failed to reach a relatively low bar of meaningful transparency, resulting in oodles of harassment directed toward a member of a council ostensibly dedicated, in part, to advising on harassment and transparency. Even now, a lot remains unclear. How often will Twitch reach out to the council? Do council members convene, or does Twitch speak to them individually? Will we know when the council has had input on a policy change or feature? Will we get to understand their rationale? Are council members even allowed to talk about that stuff?

At the very least, Twitch should have rolled out this shiny new element of its platform with a better understanding of how its own platform functions. Streamers blab; that’s their whole job. Of course users were going to have questions about select streamers suddenly being elevated above countless others, and of course streamers were going to try to answer them. Twitch must understand, too, that its users are especially curious about what’s going on behind the scenes and want more transparency because, well, it established this council in the first place.

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But instead of actually providing that, it let users stew in uncertainty, harass a council member, and lose all confidence in the council for five days. And what do internet-savvy people do when they’re uncertain? They dig using all available tools. Twitch clips make it quite easy for them to share their findings out of context and, in this case, justify harassment against a trans woman, with many mocking her simply for being trans and acting different—not just saying something they disagreed with. This was all pretty easy to see coming, if not necessarily to avoid entirely, because determined harassers often find a way to slip beneath the fence no matter how much barbed wire companies put up. But the fact remains that Twitch failed to do everything it could to try to prevent this from occurring.

It must be said that Loehr has not been a model professional in the traditional sense, kicking the hornet’s nest more than a little and haphazardly choosing her words in some cases. But Twitch also did not ever indicate that she needed to be anything other than what she’s always been. If there’s a code of conduct for council streamers, it’s not public, and streamers are often lauded for being edgy and combative in the face of adversity. Regardless, it was once again on Twitch to know what it was getting into when it brought her on. Presumably, the company understood that her content is quirky and partially rooted in her identity, which is why it selected her for the council.

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Speaking to Kotaku via email, Loehr said that Twitch was “prepared for some backlash,” but “not nearly as much as I received.” With shit now thoroughly lodged between the fan blades, she says she feels “supported” by Twitch, employees of which have been “helping how they can to keep me safe.”

One council member, Zizaran, agreed that Twitch should have done a better job with its initial announcement of the council.

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“I think the initial blog post should have made it very, very clear with maybe an FAQ at the bottom or something saying, ‘These people are not employed by Twitch. They are in an advisory role. They’re going to be giving advice on updates to the terms of service. They don’t have anything to do with moderation or bans. They have no power on Twitch at all. They’re not exempt from the rules in any way’... Obviously the situation from other people was not necessarily handled very professionally, which I think is very regrettable. I’m very surprised myself that it happened like that,” Zizaran told Kotaku over a Discord voice call.

Video: Devin Nash

The past five days have rattled streamers’ and viewers’ confidence in Twitch’s new council. It’s hard to believe Twitch is committed to turning over a new leaf when it’s so badly botching the rollout of the council intended to help it do so. This has led to valid questions about whether or not the company’s measure, ostensibly intended to give the community a more direct line into decision-making, will ultimately succumb to the same lack of follow-through as Twitch’s previous ovations for streamers and viewers to hold it accountable. Streamer and N3rdfusion CMO Devin Nash pointed out in a recent video that Twitch’s light-on-details approach to the council thus far once again provides few mechanisms viewers and streamers can use to hold the company accountable. Twitch, he explained, doesn’t seem to owe council members anything beyond a phone call.

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“There might be some legitimately good advice that is coming out of this council,” Nash said in the video. “But it’s going to get lost in the noise of these big [Twitch development and business] teams that have this push and pull system, which is why we have the inconsistency in the first place. This council doesn’t solve the problem. The problem that is happening within Twitch is the same problem happening in so many companies that are horizontally managed. There isn’t enough accountability via individuals and nobody wants to take the fall for it.”

Zizaran is also worried about Twitch’s accountability issues rearing their Hydra-like heads once again. “Every time before, when Twitch has said ‘We’re gonna listen to the community more,’ there’s never been any tangible change... I don’t want this to just be a PR move,” he said. “I’m much more comfortable with letting actions speak louder than words. That’s why, when someone is like ‘Oh Ziz, congratulations on being appointed to the council, I’m like ‘Don’t congratulate me now. Congratulate me if we can make something happen,’ because for the longest time, that hasn’t been the case.”

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Loehr has been through the ringer these past five days, telling Kotaku in an email that “it’s been a lot to handle” and her “body’s been shutting down from not eating enough.” However, despite concerns rooted in both the past and Twitch’s replication of its worst habits in the present, she remains hopeful for the council.

“Aside from physical stresses, I feel spiritually well,” she said. “I’m absolutely feeling the pressure of the scrutiny on me, and am trying my best to compensate without losing my voice. I believe in the council and will stay on it. My presence there is important.”

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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DISCUSSION

I just...don’t understand. I couldn’t even finish the article because I just don’t understand the central conceit.

How is voice chat unfair? How is being able to talk to your teammates...unfair? I can see how it might...open you up for harassment i...guess?(????) But...providing an unfair advantage? I just...don’t get it.

Can someone ELI5 that?