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Twitch's reputation takes a hit when Buffalo shooter used it to livestream attack


In 2019, a gunman in Germany went live on the video streaming site Twitch. That apparently inspired the shooter in Buffalo the other day. Investigators say he wrote about this. NPR's Bobby Allyn takes a closer look at Twitch's role.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: What makes Twitch so popular among video gamers is how easy and quick it is to livestream and find an audience. Harvard social media researcher Emily Dreyfuss says that's a blessing and a curse.

EMILY DREYFUSS: Livestreaming is always a risk that someone is going to livestream something terrible.

ALLYN: She noted that Twitch did act fast. The company was able to remove the live feed in less than 2 minutes after it started. Still, she thinks if the gunman had no easy way to livestream, he might not have gone through with the killing.

DREYFUSS: That may honestly have stopped him from doing it because in an instance like this, the media is part of the point.

ALLYN: In his writing, the Buffalo suspect said he hoped a livestream on Twitch would amplify his reach. An average of 31 million people use the Amazon-owned Twitch every day, for everything from streaming concerts to watching influencers eat lunch. But it's mostly a community for video gamers. Just ask 36-year-old Ben Fulton in North Carolina.

BEN FULTON: I'm actually a full-time content creator on YouTube and Twitch.

ALLYN: Like many on Twitch, Fulton livestreams himself playing video games for hours and hours a day. People pay to watch him do this.

FULTON: One could make the argument, why would you want to watch football or soccer when you can play it? It's the same sort of analogy of why you'd want to watch video gaming if you could just play it.

ALLYN: He narrates as he plays, like he's doing here on a recent stream of him playing a medieval role-playing game.


FULTON: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I'm not escorting your mules. Get out of here.

ALLYN: When he heard the Buffalo massacre was broadcast on Twitch, he was disgusted. And he knew it would overshadow what so many others do on the platform every day.

FULTON: If you consider all of the millions upon millions of hours of streams on Twitch that weren't mass shootings, for such a tiny fraction of its content to be known that way would be pretty tragic.

ALLYN: The shooting isn't just a hit to Twitch's reputation. It could be in legal trouble, too. New York Attorney General Letitia James has announced that online platforms like Twitch and Discord, which was used by the gunman, are under investigation. Inside Twitch, leaders have pored over how the company responded and have called emergency meetings to discuss the incident. In a statement, Twitch said white supremacy and hate have no place on the platform. It acknowledged that livestreaming presents unique challenges. Twitch streamer Fulton, who used to work as a software engineer, says there's no easy way to police a livestream as it's happening.

FULTON: If I was in Twitch's shoes, I'm not sure that there is a good answer other than a lot of human review. I think if you leave it up to an AI, it will fail.

ALLYN: Twitch does use a mix of human reviewers and artificial intelligence. With livestreams. There are limitations to both. Twitch can't staff enough people to actively monitor every single livestream, and AI can be flawed. Pulling down the Buffalo shooting feed within 2 minutes was applauded as a success, but that didn't stop it from popping up on various other corners of the internet. Harvard researcher Dreyfuss says focusing too much on what more Twitch can do misses some larger forces at play in society.

DREYFUSS: We have to figure out how to break this cycle of incentivizing people for becoming famous for violence.

ALLYN: That cycle has been around for centuries, but social media has sped it up. Bobby Allyn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBLAB AND AZALEH'S "ARCANUM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.