The U.S. Army and Navy might have different express purposes and a football rivalry, but they’re united in their shared passion for avoiding talk of war crimes. Soon after the Army took flak for banning viewers who asked about war crimes from its Twitch channel, the Navy is employing a similar tactic.
Like the Army, the Navy has its own Twitch channel. It’s a gamer-flavored recruitment tool, and the Navy makes no bones about this. “Other people will tell you not to stay up all night staring at a screen,” reads the channel’s “About” section. “We’ll pay you to do it.” On stream, members of the Navy’s esports team play a range of games including League of Legends, Escape from Tarkov, and Madden. Recently, Navy stream viewers, inspired by the Army’s Twitch audience, have taken to asking about war crimes.
This has not gone over well, as chronicled on Twitter by activist and writer Jordan Uhl, who previously got banned by the Army’s Twitch channel and reported on the channel’s recruitment efforts for The Nation. Phrases like “war crimes,” as well as alternate spellings like “w4r cr1mes,” are banned in chat, and Uhl got banned on Saturday seemingly for asking why a Navy streamer rattled off a list of viewer stats in response to torrents of questions and criticism. He was mid-sentence typing that the Navy streamer “completely ignored the dozens of comments about PTSD” when he received a “You are banned from chat” message. Despite this heavy-handed approach on the Navy’s part, conversations about war crimes, as well as related issues like fascism, imperialism, and freedom of speech, have completely overtaken the Navy channel’s chat at various points over the past handful of days.
Uhl, like many others who’ve sought out the Army and Navy’s channels to ask questions about these issues, believes that the Navy is misusing its platform.
“The Navy, similar to the Army, are either playing dumb or actually have no idea how the law works,” Uhl told Kotaku in a DM. “They aren’t regular Twitch users. They’re bound to standard First Amendment restrictions on speech and especially political speech. If the military can’t withstand people pointing out all the war crimes it has committed, they shouldn’t have committed war crimes. Twitch users shouldn’t be banned for speaking out.”
During a prior (and since-deleted) stream, a different Navy streamer added the name “Eddie Gallagher” to the channel’s list of banned phrases. (Gallagher is a Navy SEAL who got turned in by his own platoon for allegedly murdering a prisoner of war and posing for photos with the body, as well as shooting civilians and other offenses. Despite the fact that these are war crimes, he was acquitted on all but one charge, and Trump controversially pardoned him.)
“People are using that to kind of, like, skirt around the whole ‘war crime’ thing,” the Navy streamer said, explaining why he was banning Gallagher’s name. “Like, ‘Hey, have you heard of my good buddy Eddie Gallagher?’ It’s like ‘I see what you’re doing. Heard that one before.’”
A viewer saved that moment as a clip entitled “America’s Navy taking away first amendment rights.” It is currently the channel’s fourth-most-popular clip of all time. Evidently, the Navy noticed, as “Eddie Gallagher” is no longer a banned phrase. During a Saturday afternoon stream, viewers briefly discussed Gallagher in chat.
“Can you get Eddie Gallagher on stream to talk about what he did in the Battle for Mosul?” asked one viewer in chat, referring to the battle in which Gallagher murdered a prisoner of war.
Members of the Navy’s stream team have copped to other dodgy behavior, as well. During a Saturday morning stream, a Navy streamer said that the channel engages in maligned practices that allow it to inflate its numbers, like embedding on popular gaming wiki hub Fandom, which means that users of that site’s pages count as viewers of Navy broadcasts, even though they’re likely not watching. This, in turn, makes the Navy channel more visible on Twitch, a metrics-driven platform.
“Basically, we have partnerships with Fandom and Twitch,” said the streamer. “When that starts up, we get a lot more viewers. Not everyone is a click-on, actively participate [sic]. So, you know, yeah, we get a lot of viewers, but that’s just the way it goes. Not everyone’s gonna participate in the chat.”
This follows questionable behavior from the U.S. Army’s channel, which, in addition to banning viewers for discussing war crimes, also staged giveaways that redirected viewers to a recruitment page sans any mention of a contest, prizes, or anything that would indicate a giveaway. Last week, Twitch forced the channel to stop doing that. In a statement to Kotaku, an Army representative said that there was, despite appearances, a giveaway system in place.
“Each giveaway has its own URL and marketing activity code that directly connect the registrant to the specific giveaway,” the rep said in an email. “An eligible winner is selected at random, and the prize is given out. Twitch asked our team to remove the giveaway for lack of transparency, and they did. The team is exploring options to use platforms for giveaways that will provide more external clarity.”
The U.S. Army also has a deal with Twitch, which sources told Kotaku last week likely cost the Army around $1 million. However, despite both the Army and Navy engaging in conduct that, according to the ACLU, violates viewers’ constitutional rights to speech, Twitch has not put a stop to the bans. When asked about this, a Twitch representative pointed Kotaku to a section of the platform’s FAQ on bans and suspensions, which says that “Channel owners and moderators are free to ban anyone from their channel, regardless of the reason. Twitch Staff will not assist in reversing channel-specific bans.”
This raises serious questions about the idea of internet governance. If branches of the U.S. government and Twitch, which functions as the government of its own gargantuan platform, aren’t going to enforce their home country’s free speech laws as they pertain to that government, who will? In this particular instance, Uhl sees a conflict of interest.
“This really highlights one of the biggest issues we need to collectively address in coming years,” he said. “We cannot entrust giant corporations motivated by profit to moderate political speech. That the military is rumored to be spending millions to promote its channels on Twitch and elsewhere on the internet while simultaneously blocking dissidents complicates this dynamic even further and presents a serious conflict of interest… As organizing and activism on social media platforms grows increasingly common, the lack of safeguards to protect those spaces becomes glaringly apparent.”
The Navy most recently streamed two days ago. As of now, the Army has not streamed in 11 days. An Army representative did not reply to Kotaku’s inquiries as to why.
Update 7/21, 12:00 PM EST: A Navy representative responded to Kotaku’s requests for comment about claims from the ACLU that Twitch bans are unconstitutional due to the Navy’s status as a government entity.
“We moderate our channel in accordance with our posted channel rules, which are available to everyone who chooses to participate in the chat,” the representative said in an email. “We strive to allow for maximum freedom of discussion in our chat and seek to only ban those who break the posted rules or engage in personal attacks against our streamers or their families.”
They added that they have a system in which “offenders are given several chances to correct infractions prior to being banned and our moderators will engage with those who violate the rules to inform them of which channel rules they have broken.”
This does not explain why Uhl was suddenly banned, nor does it address the fact that, for example, mentioning the name of somebody like Eddie Gallagher is not, itself, an attack. It also fails to engage with the question of constitutionality, which remains on the table whether members of the Navy regard comments as attacks or not.
The rep concluded by saying that if anybody feels like they were unfairly banned, they “have every right to contact a moderator for an explanation and possible unbanning.”