On Friday, the US Army returned to play some video games on Twitch, a video livestreaming service. Under fire from civil liberties groups and US House representatives for allegedly using the platform as a recruiting tool and banning hundreds of viewers asking about war crimes, the channel had stopped streaming last month.
The USArmyEsports pressed resume late Friday night, to thousands asking about the “war crimes”.
Why are US defence forces on Twitch?
The US Army, Navy and Air Force have esports teams and channels on major streaming platforms like the Amazon-owned Twitch. The military gamers stream a range of titles, from family-friendly Animal Crossing to war simulations such as Call of Duty, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Escape from Tarkov.
Amid growing allegations that video games are being used as a recruiting tool, Machinist’s Mate-ranked Andrew Crosswhite said during a US Navy live stream: “We’re here to show that we like video games too. Like, literally, we’re not here to recruit. That is not the point of this.”
A few days later, Vice website’s Matthew Gault discovered Navy Recruiting Command Twitch Guide for Streamers — a handbook that says, “Everything done on social media should be aimed at making connections between prospects and recruiters.” Guidelines include “talk about the excitement of your Navy career” and “ban trolls.”
Why did the US Army ban users?
Twitch users in the chat began ‘trolling’ the US Army streamers by asking about the military’s “war crimes”. In the Navy chat, the name “Eddie Gallagher” became a banned term. Gallagher is a former Navy SEAL who was found guilty of inappropriately posing for a photograph with an enemy corpse in the war zone.
— Rod Breslau (@Slasher) July 8, 2020
The moderators on the US Army channel responded by banning them. Political advocate, Jordan Uhl posted a link to the Wikipedia page for US war crimes in the chat. He was barred from watching the rest of the US Army stream, but not before the military gamer — Joshua ‘Strotnium’ David, a Green Beret and 12-year army veteran — told Uhl: “Have a nice time getting banned, my dude,”
What was the effect of banning people?
Bans served to Uhl and several others brought the issue to the notice of legal organisations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Knight First Amendment Institute. The civil liberties groups argued that a government agency such as the US Army, banning people on an online public forum, is in violation of free speech laws. Critics also referenced the recent federal court ruling that US President Donald Trump is restricted from blocking people on Twitter.
Calling out the government’s war crimes isn’t harassment, it’s speaking truth to power. And banning users who ask important questions isn’t "flexing," it’s unconstitutional. https://t.co/E8N10fM5IR
— ACLU (@ACLU) July 10, 2020
Amid growing criticism, the US Army took a break from streaming on Twitch on July 9. The controversy, however, raged on and reached the US House of Representatives late July. Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proposed an amendment to ban the military from using online gaming platforms for recruitment.
Ocasio-Cortez also brought up fake ‘giveaway’ contests run by the US Army’s channel — users were frequently notified of an opportunity to win an Xbox Elite Series 2 controller, a high-end gamepad that costs upward of $200, but clicking on the link led users to a recruitment form.
“Whether through recruitment stations in their lunchrooms, or now through e-sports teams, children in low-income communities are persistently targeted for enlistment,” AOC told New York Times. “In many public high schools where military recruiters have a daily presence, there is not even a counselor. As a result, the military stops feeling like a ‘choice’ and starts feeling like the only option for many young, low-income Americans.”
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All 188 Republicans, and 103 of her Democrat colleagues, voted against Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment.
The US Navy continued to stream, issuing timeouts instead of bans to ‘trolls’, while the army announced it will issue unbans.
“The U.S. Army Esports Team is reinstating access for accounts previously banned for harassing and degrading behaviour on its Twitch stream,” read a statement provided to Kotaku. “The team is reviewing and clarifying its policies and procedures for the stream and will provide all who have been banned the opportunity to participate in the space as long as they follow the team’s guidelines.”
The US Army then began streaming on August 14.
How did US Army’s Twitch return go?
A lone streamer, Chris ‘Goryn’ Jones, sat on camera for 90 minutes as more than 2,000 users spammed the Twitch chat with messages about “war crimes”, white phosphorus, grooming and recruiting and even the recent defunding of the US Postal Service.
Jones began the stream saying how all war crimes are “heinous” and are “prosecuted as such”, directing users to the Army Criminal Investigation Command if they wanted specific case files of incidents. He answered harmless questions about his time being stationed in Germany, his favourite Twitch streamer and army installation. But majority of the stream was filled with awkward silences as Jones looked on while the chat flooded with messages such as “what time is the drone strike on civilians event?”, “How many war crimes do I have to commit before I can be eligible for the esports teams” and “Hi recruiter, how many confirmed kills do you have?”
There is now a section on the channel where “any user who receives a permanent ban on the U.S. Army E-Sports Twitch channel may submit an appeals request”.