Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Extremists find a financial lifeline on Twitch

Twitch, a livestreaming video site owned by Amazon, has become a new mainstream base of operations for many far-right influencers. Streamers turned to the site after Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms clamped down on misinformation and hate speech before the 2020 election.

By Kellen Browning
Published: Apr 28, 2021

Extremists find a financial lifeline on Twitch
A file photo showing a wall of real-time video game play in the lobby of Twitch Interactive Inc, a social video platform and gaming community owned by Amazon, in San Francisco, California, US. Elijah Nouvelage / Reuters

Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman, a podcaster who fought to overturn the 2020 presidential election, recently railed against mask mandates to her 4,000 fans in a live broadcast and encouraged them to enter stores maskless. On another day, she grew emotional while thanking them for sending her $84,000. 

Millie Weaver, a former correspondent for conspiracy theory website Infowars, speculated on her channel that coronavirus vaccines could be used to surveil people. Later, she plugged her merchandise store, where she sells $30 “Drain the Swamp” T-shirts and hats promoting conspiracies. 

And a podcaster who goes by Zak Paine or Redpill78, who pushes the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, urged his viewers to donate to the congressional campaign of an Ohio man who has said he attended the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6.

All three spread their messages on Twitch, a livestreaming video site owned by Amazon that has become a new mainstream base of operations for many far-right influencers. Streamers like them turned to the site after Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms clamped down on misinformation and hate speech before the 2020 election.

Twitch comes with a bonus: The service makes it easy for streamers to make money, providing a financial lifeline just as their access to the largest online platforms has narrowed. The site is one of the avenues, along with apps like Google Podcasts, where far-right influencers have scattered as their options for spreading falsehoods have dwindled.

Twitch became a multibillion-dollar business thanks to video gamers broadcasting their play of games like Fortnite and Call of Duty. Fans, many of whom are young men, pay the gamers by subscribing to their channels or donating money. Streamers earn even more by sending their fans to outside sites to either buy merchandise or donate money.

Now Twitch has also become a place where right-wing personalities spread election and vaccine conspiracy theories, often without playing any video games. It is part of a shift at the platform, where streamers have branched out from games into fitness, cooking, fishing and other lifestyle topics in recent years.

But unlike fringe livestreaming sites like Dlive and Trovo, which have also offered far-right personalities moneymaking opportunities, Twitch attracts far larger audiences. On average, 30 million people visit the site each day, the platform said.

Twitch “monetizes the propaganda, which is unique,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who tracks extremists online. She said it was as if listeners of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who died in February, were donating in real time and chipping in greater sums whenever Limbaugh shared more controversial ideas.

“You can turn the dial up and down and turn the flow of money up and down by saying certain things on your stream,” Squire said.

At least 20 channels associated with far-right movements have started broadcasting on Twitch since the fall, according to data compiled by Genevieve Oh, a livestreaming analyst. Dozens more have been on the site for longer. Some are associated with QAnon, the false theory that former President Donald Trump is fighting a cabal of Democratic paedophiles.
The channels range from intermittent broadcasters with several hundred views to ones that go live nearly every day and attract thousands of viewers.

In a statement, Sara Clemens, Twitch’s chief operating officer, said QAnon users were only a “small handful” of the 7 million people who streamed on the site each month.

“We will take action against users that violate our community policies against harmful content that encourages or incites self-destructive behaviour, harassment, or attempts or threatens to physically harm others, including through misinformation,” she said.

Twitch viewers support streamers through monthly subscriptions of $5, $10 or $25 to their channels, or by donating “bits,” a Twitch currency that can be converted to real money. The site also runs advertisements during streams. The platform and streamers split the revenue from ads and subscriptions.

It is difficult to determine how much money individual streamers earn from their Twitch channels, but some of the far-right personalities have made many thousands of dollars.

By viewing chat logs of streams that denote when a new user has subscribed, Oh has tallied at least $26,000 in subscriptions for Maras-Lindeman since December and about $5,000 in “bit” donations before Twitch took its cut.

Weaver has earned nearly $3,000 since she began streaming regularly on Twitch in March, according to Oh’s tally, and Paine has made at least $5,000. Those numbers do not account for money made in other ways, such as through Square’s Cash App or Weaver’s online merchandise store.

Twitch generally has stricter rules than other social media platforms for the kinds of views that users can express. It temporarily suspended Trump’s account for “hateful conduct” last summer, months before Facebook and Twitter made similar moves. Its community guidelines prohibit hateful conduct and harassment. Clemens said Twitch was developing a misinformation policy.

This month, Twitch announced a policy that would allow it to suspend the accounts of people who committed crimes or severe offenses in real life or on other social media platforms, including violent extremism or membership in a known hate group. Twitch said it did not consider QAnon to be a hate group.

Despite all this, a Twitch channel belonging to Enrique Tarrio, leader of the Proud Boys, a white nationalist organization, remained online until the middle of this month after The New York Times inquired about it. And white nationalist Anthime Joseph Gionet, known as Baked Alaska, had a Twitch channel for months, even though he was arrested in January by the FBI and accused of illegally storming the US Capitol on Jan. 6. Twitch initially said his activities had not violated the platform’s policies, then barred him this month for hateful conduct.

Maras-Lindeman and Paine are Twitch Partners, a coveted status that grants improved customer support and greater options to customize streams. Twitch vets these channels to approve what they do. The company’s website says partners should “act as role models to the community.”

Maras-Lindeman, who is barred from Twitter, averaged about 3,000 viewers a broadcast in March, and her live video broadcast quickly became one of the 1,200 most popular channels across all of Twitch. Her streams are often akin to extended monologues about current events.

Sometimes, the “O” in her “ToreSays” username is replaced with a fiery “Q,” and she uses the slogan “Where we go one, we go all,” both symbols of the QAnon movement. She has encouraged her viewers to find legal avenues to throw Ohio legislators out of office because, she said, they were elected using illegitimate voting machines.

“You want a great reset? Here it is. We’re going to do it our way, and that’s by eliminating you,” she said during one January stream.

Aside from money made on Twitch, Maras-Lindeman’s fans donated more than $84,000 for her birthday through a GoFundMe campaign. She said the donations went toward a new car, medical treatments and a lawyer.

In an email, Maras-Lindeman disputed the characterization of her as a member of the far right and said she did not advocate violence.

“It is not a crime to discuss science and challenge popular current narratives or express my thoughts and opinions,” she said.

On a recent stream, Maras-Lindeman addressed questions emailed to her for this article. She said she was a “centrist” who was simply encouraging her viewers to become more politically active.

Paine’s channel has more than 14,000 followers and is rife with conspiracy theories about vaccines and cancer. In one stream, he and a guest encouraged viewers to drink a bleach solution that claims to cure cancer, which the Food and Drug Administration has said is dangerous. Last week, he referred to a QAnon belief that people are killing children to “harvest” a chemical compound from them, then talked about a “criminal cabal” controlling the government, saying people do not understand “what plane of existence they come from.”

Paine, who is barred from Twitter and YouTube, has also asked his Twitch audience to donate to the House campaign of J.R. Majewski, an Air Force veteran in Toledo, Ohio, who attracted attention last year for painting his lawn to look like a Trump campaign banner.

Majewski has used QAnon hashtags but distanced himself from the movement in an interview with his local newspaper, The Toledo Blade.

Majewski has appeared on Paine’s streams, where they vape, chat about Majewski’s campaign goals and take calls from listeners.

“He is exactly the type of person that we need to get in Washington, D.C., so that we can supplant these evil cabal criminal actors and actually run our own country,” Paine said on one stream.

Neither Paine nor Majewski responded to a request for comment.

Joan Donovan, a Harvard University researcher who studies disinformation and online extremism, said streamers who rely on their audience’s generosity to fund themselves felt pressured to continue raising the stakes.

“The incentive to lie, cheat, steal, hoax and scam is very high when the cash is easy to acquire,” she said.

©2019 New York Times News Service