Steph “FerociouslySteph” Loehr has been on the Twitch Safety Advisory Council since day one. Twitch announced the eight-member group on May 14th, 2020, and spent the next few days clarifying what exactly it would do. The advisors would offer insight regarding moderation policies and harassment on the site, but they wouldn’t have the power to change rules, arbitrate specific cases or represent Twitch publicly.
Meanwhile, Loehr, a trans woman, was targeted in a coordinated harassment campaign led by Twitch fans who didn’t like the idea of a Safety Advisory Council, regardless of what it would actually accomplish. Loehr became the de facto face of the council and her streams were inundated with cruelty, transphobia and death threats. She was doxxed and she feared for her life daily. She had to move. She stopped streaming for a while.
“Twitch has not done enough to protect me in the slightest,” Loehr said.
Even as a member of the Safety Advisory Council, Loehr has felt like she’s on her own with the death threats, bigotry and vitriol spewing out of Twitch. She may have the company’s ear, but this relationship hasn’t given her any extra tools to combat harassment on the platform.
So, she created her own.
Peer2Peer.Live is a third-party site that allows Twitch streamers to tag themselves using identity-based words and phrases, such as “lesbian,” “trans,” “Black,” “disabled” or “Jewish.” This allows streamers to build communities around their identities, while serving as a directory for viewers seeking streams they can connect with at the most basic levels. Peer2Peer is built by a team of five people, including Loehr, and in collaboration with the non-profit group Trans Lifeline.
“The essence is that people of marginalized identities feel safest in spaces that understand them, and the easiest way to find those safe spaces is by finding their peers,” Loehr said. “And that discoverability has been totally blocked by Twitch.”
Twitch has a tagging system offering hundreds of descriptors relating to video game genres, fictional characters and specific ways to play, but it only has one based on identity, LGBTQIA+. If you want to natively find a Twitch streamer who’s non-binary, or Latinx, or disabled, or Muslim, it takes a ton of scrolling and luck.
As Twitch has evolved into the largest live-video platform in existence, it’s expanded beyond video games to include streams about art, music, podcasting and “just chatting.” There are thousands of people streaming Fortnite, Warzone and Grand Theft Auto V at any given time, so viewers are often drawn to creators based on other traits, including personality, behavior and identity. Still, Twitch’s tagging system doesn’t make it easy to find streamers based on these factors.
Peer2Peer’s tagline is “identity is content.” This is a key focus for Peer2Peer advisory member Irene Nieves, a non-binary Afrolatine woman who streams on Twitch.
“From Twitch's current lens, identity is both not content and does not matter enough to them to allow people the personal autonomy to tag themselves with the aspects of their identity that matter the most to them,” Nieves said. “Because those tags don't exist for trans people and for marginalized people alike, it alienates them from the platform at large. It makes it next to impossible for trans people and marginalized people to find each other and create the sense of community that many times gives us the space and freedom to be ourselves.”
So far, Twitch has ignored Peer2Peer, Loehr said. The Safety Advisory Council is adjourned for the time being and she hasn’t had a chance to bring up identity-based tags with her fellow members. Mainly, the council has discussed policy updates and community guidelines.
In response to a handful of prompts about Peer2Peer and the company’s approach to safety for marginalized streamers, Twitch offered Engadget the following statement:
We know that many groups on Twitch — including the trans community — unfortunately continue to experience a disproportionate amount of harassment and abuse online, including on our service. Facing harassment because of race, gender, or any other protected characteristic is unacceptable, and has no place on Twitch.
We've invested heavily in safety over the past year. We’ve overhauled our Hateful Conduct & Harassment, Nudity & Attire, and Off-Service Misconduct policies to enable us to take consistent action against harmful behaviors, and to provide greater clarity to our community. We've introduced improved reporting processes so the community can flag inappropriate or harassing content, and we've grown our moderation team by 4x, enabling us to respond to user reports much quicker. We’ve made improvements to our moderation and proactive detection tools to block harmful content, and have more work underway. We’ve partnered closely with industry experts and streamers from underrepresented groups to ensure our policies and technologies are optimized to protect our global community, and consider the unique needs of all of our users.
We know that we still have work ahead of us, and remain committed to making Twitch the safest and most inclusive community it can be.
This is similar to language Twitch used in December 2020, when the company rolled out its new rules on hateful conduct and harassment. At the time, Twitch said in a blog post, “We know that many people on Twitch — particularly women, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, Black, Indigenous, and people of color — unfortunately continue to experience a disproportionate amount of harassment and abuse online, including on our service.”
Twitch’s responses are all too familiar to Lucia Everblack, a pansexual, non-binary trans woman who helped develop Peer2Peer.
“It's performative,” she said. “Like, ‘We’re trying. Here's what our plan is.’ Someone pointed this out the other day — they always have the plan, but there's not the execution of the plan.”
Just last week, Twitch rolled out another one: Our Plan for Addressing Severe Off-Service Misconduct. For years, Twitch has been criticized for failing to protect its most vulnerable community members while simultaneously supporting streamers who engage in sexual harassment and hate speech, and otherwise violate the company’s rules. The favored streamers tend to be white, cisgender, heterosexual men. In other words, folks who wouldn’t get much use out of identity-based tags, since their identities are already accepted as the norm on Twitch.
Twitch executives have told Loehr that they’re hesitant to implement a “trans” tag because it could invite harassment.
“But that is ridiculous for a number of reasons,” Loehr said. For one, marginalized Twitch creators already face abuse every time they go live, according to Loehr, Nieves, Everblack and many others. Twitch hasn’t taken appropriate steps to stop or prevent the current harassment, which makes the company’s concern ring hollow.
“Mostly,” Loehr said, “we should allow trans streamers to consent to discoverability and the additional harassment that comes from it, which is part of Peer2Peer.”
Peer2Peer went live on March 20th and it’s received more than 1,600 applications from interested streamers. Every one of them has read the disclaimer that more visibility could lead to targeted harassment, and they’ve chosen to tag themselves based on identity regardless. For these streamers, the benefits of discoverability outweigh the threat of more harassment.
“Getting that visibility helps humanize us in a way that I think is probably the most powerful aspect of any movement,” Everblack said. “Once people see we're just people, they stop treating us like we're demons or men just trying to sneak into a different bathroom when all we're trying to do is pee. It really does help. I think that even what we're doing, allowing people to tag themselves, slowly moves us forward.”
It likely wouldn’t be difficult for Twitch to implement Peer2Peer’s tagging system, Everblack said.
“The tags that they have, it's not like they're adding an entire infrastructure behind it,” she said. “If they wanted to add new tags, it would literally just be adding something to a database that has ‘trans’ and then some unique ID to it. And that's it. There's no complexity to that.”
As things stand, it often falls on marginalized Twitch streamers — the victims of abuse themselves — to moderate their own communities using inadequate tools. Just two weeks ago, Nieves was subjected to a “bot follow” attack, where a user flooded her channel with fake accounts in an attempt to trigger punishment from Twitch. As a result, Nieves’ follower count dropped to “next to nothing.” She was forced to start building her community from scratch, once again.
“Every day I still watch my black and brown streamer friends, the people that I follow that are trans, LGBTQIA+ streamers, get harassed with little to no consequence other than moderation on behalf of their own community,” Nieves said. “There is no system in place that prevents harassers or abusers from making an unending amount of accounts to continue spewing vitriol, or hate raiding.”
Loehr said there are some good ideas in Twitch’s repertoire, including chat delay, which holds messages for two to six seconds before posting, giving moderators time to delete abuse before it goes live.
“And that's what you want. But you have to dive into your moderation settings to set that,” she said. “It's not even on Twitch's radar that this is the tool people need.”
That’s despite Loehr’s place on the Twitch Safety Advisory Council.
“I get to have some of these conversations with Twitch about their philosophy,” Loehr said. “And I'm still confused, because — I don't want to speak for Twitch, but I get the feeling that Twitch is scared to implement what we've done. I think they feel like they will mess it up and aren't capable. They feel that they are not equipped to support marginalized communities and the safety of these marginalized communities on their platform. But they also love to feature us on Pride Month and Black History Month, and so they're wanting to reap the rewards without accepting the responsibility.”
For now, Peer2Peer will take it on.