US Army pauses video game streams after accusations of violating free speech

The US Army has paused streaming video games on Twitch as an outreach and recruitment tool after facing criticism for banning viewers who asked its streamers about US war crimes.

The pause was first reported by esports consultant Rod “Slasher” Breslau who said the Army team was stopping streaming, social activity, and participation in the upcoming Twitch Rivals competition. Breslau said there was “no official time frame for a return” and that Twitch had not cancelled its official partnerships with US Army and Navy esports teams.

A spokesperson for the US Army confirmed the news to GameSpot: “The team has paused streaming to review internal policies and procedures, as well as all platform-specific policies, to ensure those participating in the space are clear before streaming resumes.”

The “policies and procedures” being referred to include how military streamers handle critics on their channels. Streamers from the US Army and Navy, which include active duty and reserve personnel, have banned viewers for asking about US war crimes and for bringing up figures like Eddie Gallagher, a former Navy SEAL charged with war crimes after being accused of stabbing a 17-year-old prisoner to death and posing with the corpse. (Gallagher was later acquitted of most charges following intervention by President Trump.)

Although Twitch streamers are generally free to moderate their channels as they see fit, the US military is a branch of the government and must obey different rules, say civil rights lawyers. A video game stream counts as an open forum for debate, they argue, and so the military must uphold the first amendment right to free speech.

“The Army and Navy can’t constitutionally delete comments or ban people from these Twitch channels simply for asking questions about issues they would rather not address,” said Katie Fallow, senior attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, in a statement.

The Army, meanwhile, argues that questions about war crimes constitute harassment, and so violate Twitch’s terms of service.

“The eSports Team blocked the term ‘war crimes’ in its Twitch channel after discovering the trend was meant to troll and harass the team,” Kelli Bland, a spokesperson for the Army, told The New York Times. “Twitch members used creative spelling to continue related posts. Following the guidelines and policies set by Twitch, the US Army eSports Team banned a user from its account due to concern over posted content and website links that were considered harassing and degrading in nature.”

In addition to accusations of censorship, the US Army has been accused of using fake prize giveaways to push its viewers towards recruitment pages. The practice was highlighted by a report in The Nation, which said that automated links dropped into Army streams told users they could win an Xbox Elite Series 2 controller. When viewers clicked the link, though, they were redirected to a recruitment form with no information on the prize giveaway. The Army says the URLs tracked users in order to allot prizes, but Twitch forced them to remove the links, citing a lack of transparency.

Pressure for the military to reform its streaming policies could even tip over into legislation. As first reported by Motherboard, US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) is planning to file an amendment to an upcoming appropriations bill that would prevent the military using the funds in the bill to “maintain a presence on Twitch.com or any video game, e-sports, or live-streaming platform.”

“It’s incredibly irresponsible for the Army and the Navy to be recruiting impressionable young people and children via live streaming platforms,” Ocasio-Cortez told Motherboard. “War is not a game, and the Marine Corps’ decision not to engage in this recruiting tool should be a clear signal to the other branches of the military to cease this practice entirely.” (The Army esports team mostly streams video game shooters like Call of Duty.)

It’s unclear, though, if the amendment will survive the process of approval for the bill, which will have to pass through both the House and the Senate before it can become law.

We’ve reached out to the US Army and Navy for comments on this story and will update it if we hear more.


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