How much power do users have to influence the ways tech companies govern their platforms? This week, prominent Twitch and Reddit users separately coordinated two platform-shaking actions with the goal of making the digital spaces they work and play in safer. In the latter case, at least, it appears they've already seen results.
On Twitch, top streamers went on strike Wednesday under the banner #ADayOffTwitch to push the company to end an ongoing wave of harassment against marginalized streamers. On Reddit, meanwhile, moderators made dozens of subreddits private to protest the company's policies around Covid misinformation. Speaking with WIRED, organizers are cautiously optimistic that their actions helped spur change.
“Maybe I’m a dreamer,” says Twitch streamer Raven. “I think we need to normalize being able to really make change on our own.”
Raven, who goes by RekItRaven on Twitch, helped lead Wednesday’s #ADayOffTwitch initiative in response to an epidemic of harassment on the platform known as hate raids—a huge, often coordinated bot attack that floods streamers’ text chats with bigoted vitriol. Over the past month, trolls and their bots have regularly entered Raven’s Twitch channel and filled their chat with derogatory language, including messages like, “This channel now belongs to the KKK.” Harassers have targeted and published Black streamers’ addresses and personal information, too, leading to reported incidents of doxing. While hate raids have been a perennial issue on Twitch, the problem has dramatically escalated over the past month.
Last month Raven launched the hashtag #TwitchDoBetter to pressure Twitch to prevent the bot accounts from harassing them. Soon after, Twitch acknowledged the problem, tweeting on August 11 that “we know we need to do more to address these issues.” The company added that they were able to “identify a vulnerability” in its filter system and rolled out an update to more comprehensively identify hate speech. However, the hate raids roiled on.
Raven is exhausted but feels in their heart it is unfair that they or any other marginalized streamer must choose between doing what they love and their mental health. And for people whose livelihoods depend in part on streaming, hate raids can impact income, too. Tanya DePass, a Twitch streamer who goes by CypherOfTyr, has limited her streaming from two to four days a week to just one or two. She asks, “What job can take 50 percent of your earnings and do literally nothing to protect you other than go, Here are these tools that we now see these bot creators and raiders easily can navigate?” (Twitch takes a 50 percent cut of Partnered streamers' subscription revenue. The breakdown of revenue split for donations on the platform is less clear.)
#ADayOffTwitch asked streamers to step away from the platform to raise awareness of the hate raid epidemic. Over 10,000 fewer streamers were streaming live Wednesday afternoon compared to the same time on recent days, according to data from TwitchTracker. Raven says their goal is partially met: “People are talking about this all over the world. We have created a sense of solidarity. Twitch has responded and met with me.”
In a statement to WIRED, a Twitch spokesperson said the company supports streamers’ “rights to express themselves and bring attention to important issues across our service … We are working hard on improved channel-level ban-evasion detection and additional account improvements to help make Twitch a safer place for creators.”
On Reddit, users frustrated with the company’s policies are also getting what they asked for. Over the past week, moderators on dozens of subreddits, some of them with millions of subscribers, coordinated a blackout to protest the platform’s admittance of Covid disinformation. They switched their subreddits to private and posted messages accusing Reddit of failing to enforce policies against misinformation. Some demanded that Reddit remove communities dealing in phony information on Covid prevention and vaccination. These communities have also been known to brigade other subreddits, meaning members would hop into other subreddits and spam them with falsehoods about the anti-parasite drug ivermectin or the effectiveness of vaccines. (Reddit says /r/NoNewNormal, a large subreddit skeptical of scientifically proven Covid treatments, instigated about 80 of these brigades over 30 days.)
Reddit initially responded to user complaints by leaning in to its reputation as a bastion for free speech. “Dissent is a part of Reddit and the foundation of democracy,” wrote Reddit CEO Steve Huffman in a post last week. “Reddit is a place for open and authentic discussion and debate.” On Wednesday, after days of blackout, the company reversed course. Employees had crunched the numbers and determined that these subreddits were intentionally spreading disinformation across the platform, violating the company’s policy against encouraging physical harm. Reddit quarantined 54 Covid-denial subreddits by adding more hoops that new subscribers must jump through before joining and limiting the spread of its content. The company also banned /r/NoNewNormal, which had been quarantined since mid-August, for violating rules against interfering with or harassing other communities.
Several Reddit moderators interviewed by WIRED feel their collective action helped spur this change. “I believe Reddit would NOT have taken action on NoNewNormal and misinformation subreddits in any way without the protest and the blackout,” said Agent_03, who moderates /r/Futurology, which has 15.6 million members and went dark last week.
Making noise on these platforms can get the job done, but the companies operating them are reluctant to say whether collective activism is a driver for change. Both Reddit and Twitch declined to comment on this point.
Twitch streamers and Reddit moderators are the backbone of these websites, keeping them entertaining, usable, and even valuable to advertisers. Both companies are valued at billions of dollars. The users generating their content don’t have the same options as traditional employees when there are problems, such as an HR department or union, but they are banding together to test out what sort of power they might have collectively. “I think the volunteers who run things and allow Reddit to run ads without paying masses of people to moderate are seeing that it makes a difference,” says /r/Futurology moderator TechGuyGuru.
More and more in recent years, platform users are coordinating to better the sites they pour their hearts into. In the past, YouTubers have attempted to unionize under the YouTubers Union. In Brazil, there was a “Streamers Group,” which last month organized a strike against Twitch over payment and transparency. Blackouts and hashtags may just be the beginning. Rafael Grohmann, the principal investigator for the Fairwork project in Brazil, a watchdog group for the platform economy, believes there will be more collective actions by digital laborers, echoing Twitch streamers and Reddit moderators’ activism this week.
“They already see themselves not just as ‘creators’ or ‘streamers’ but as workers. The platformization of labor means an increasing dependence on these platforms—and their mechanisms—for people to be able to survive economically,” he says. And platforms aren’t always great places to work. “Platforms frequently change their affordances and materialities. And creators have to adapt to them, at a high cost,” he says.
It is impossible for outsiders—moderators and streamers—to know how effective their actions have been without being a fly on the wall in privileged Zoom calls. Confidence in their actions, though, may beget more action. “Do I think our collective action had something to do with it? Absolutely,” says /r/ChildFree moderator Raveynfyre. “Will we know how much? Not in a million years. That's what PR is for.”
Updated 9/2/2021, 12:47 pm EDT: A previous version of this story included /r/NoNewNormal in the 54 subreddits quarantined on Wednesday. It has been corrected to say that NoNewNormal was banned.