Twitch chat harassment remains unaddressed despite complaints and evidence of potential fraud

CW: sexual content and obscene language will be displayed in this Medium story as well as the accompanying report.

This is a blog post for a report I have written (titled “The ineffectiveness of Twitch with respect to serial harassers and the consequences therein”) Twitch’s shortcomings on addressing harassment from chat. If you’re interested in reading the report in its entirety (it is long), it is available at the end of this post.

One of the outlets that I found during the pandemic which helped me was getting more involved with being a streamer on Twitch. I’ve had an account on the service since 2014, when Twitch Plays Pokémon debuted, but after my partner and a close friend both suggested I start to stream and speedrun, I found myself immersed in the culture that the site has.

Naturally, when harassment claims became front and centre in mid-2020, the arms of Twitch were twisted enough to finally address them. While the verdict is still out on how effective they’ve been since, the focus has primarily been on streamers’ sexual behaviour towards other streamers and their audience.

This has been all well and good, but while streamers often hold the majority of power while they are off and on screen, there is an aspect Twitch has overlooked and outright ignored: the audience.

Cropped portion of a Twitch stream showing obscene chat.
Crop from a Twitch stream of mine where an individual came into chat to post something sexually obscene.

Twitch encourages community participation and provides tools which third-parties rely on to enable this in the video stream. Most common are displaying alongside the main content are the ongoing chat, events such as subscriptions or new followers, and in some cases even manipulating aspects of the game being played on stream. However, this participation comes as a double-edged sword.

While these interactions may drive traffic to the streamer and in turn potential revenue (many streamers rely on Twitch as their main source of income — this author does not and has no intention to do so, but has received money from streaming on the service), it may also provide an avenue for harassment.

It would be easy to say that removing audience participation could lessen the impact of harassment, but Twitch again makes it apparent that this aspect is important and even allows someone to obtain a refund for their subscription should the streamer not meet their expectations.

The audience harassment problem has on the surface remained unaddressed by Twitch for years. This has been further compounded by their legal team demanding any tools used to help coordinate moderation across multiple channels discontinue operating, with examples being OverRustle and Root Online.

When users complain to the company directly about problematic users, there is nary a response from on social media or via their own public support portal.

Should one try and follow the process Twitch provides, the solution is documented in such a way that resembles an infinite loop or you have to rely on third parties or a skillset not possessed by many, which of course is hampered by the chilling effect produced by the company’s terms of service.

The lacking response, the chilling effect by their legal team, and the lacklustre tools provided make Twitch’s remarks about “taking action against [harassment]” on social media ring hollow.

Tweet from January 12, 2021 where Twitch discusses its new harassment policy.

One problematic user often cited (referred to as MoS) when discussing chat harassment became present to me mid-way through 2020. After seeing them a number of times in friends’ streams and then eventually my own, I became interested in who they are and why they were so capable of being prolific across the service.

They first came to attention of Twitch streamers around 2017, but shortly before the pandemic hit in 2020, their behaviour intensified to the point where they registered well over a thousand accounts by the end of the year — data shows there were approximately 1,200 registrations, but in the year prior (2019) only had around 380. It was determined that these accounts and all of their behaviour is likely being performed by hand.

New accounts created by MoS on Twitch throughout 2020.

What became apparent through investigating the actions of MoS was that the process of becoming a Twitch user had a much lower bar than Twitter, which itself has been the constant source of news with respect to large numbers of accounts created to manipulate elections and public health.

Twitch’s inaction combined with the low bar to create accounts is likely enabling fraud and that may undermine their partner and affiliate programs.

Sample of offerings from “BigFollows”, a service which can provide you with inflated numbers of viewers, followers, and most concerning, subscribers. This service is spammed heavily in Twitch chats.

The ease of signing up for Twitch has enabled the ability for services to exist where you can pay to not only have additional followers, but “active” viewers (where you can pay a fee to have a larger viewer count for a period of time) and most curiously, new subscribers at a fraction of what would cost to pay directly to Twitch.

These services rely on the ease of account creation on Twitch which is the same ease that permits harassment by the likes of MoS and many more.

In one such example, using PayPal or cryptocurrency, you can purchase yourself or another streamer 50 additional subscribers for $70 USD, which is 28% of the price of what would have been spent if bought via Twitch themselves (approximately $250 USD).

Twitch does not openly offer bulk discounts for subscriptions — even if they did, it is unlikely to be at such a steep discount.

Based on my professional experience, it is likely that these subscriptions are fraudulently acquired using stolen credit cards or via gift cards acquired by scams. These subscriptions have to be attached to accounts in order for them to apply to the streamer.

Should someone inorganically wish to make partner, allowing them to earn more money from Twitch and have more prominence in attracting more viewers, meeting some of the more difficult requirements could be achieved by spending $200 to acquire the necessary subscribers and followers.

If this seems outlandish and improbable, there are bots which have made partner status — it is not my opinion that any examples shown or any accounts mentioned by me did so by the aforementioned means.

Twitch account “CommanderRoot” displaying statistics about users playing a game, with a purple-coloured checkmark next to their name on the bottom-right, indicating their partner status. Their account’s sole purpose is to idle in other people’s streams and collect data and nothing more with an obnoxious message delivered via Twitch’s moderation appeal system should you ban them.

Twitch’s continued silence on addressing harassments may continue. Though, I have hope that by pointing out the suspected fraud, the company will examine its account creation process and in turn make the bar to engage in such harassment significantly higher.

Increasing the difficulty of creating new accounts on the service could be a start towards making the site better for streamers and the audience alike.

However, I sincerely hope that this does not translate into making becoming partner more difficult for those who deserve and earned it.

If you’re interested in reading about this problem in detail, a PDF is available which outlines the issues in detail, where Twitch falls short, potential mitigations for streamers, details on who MoS might be, and much more.

This document is written as if this were a consulting gig by myself (I allocate time for pro-bono/subsidized work each month and have details about this service in the document) and should be treated as such due to the density of the material.

Download the PDF (5.4 MB)

As this document may be subject to revisions and is the copyright of me, do not share this on a public service (such as Scribd for example) and instead link to this blog post — I will enforce this as necessary.

Queer dork with an interest in LGBTQ+ issues, computer security, video game speedrunning, and Python programming. You can see her stream on Twitch at @KateLibC.