A streamed panel addressing diversity at TwitchCon last weekend was attacked by racism in its chat, with insults and slurs hurdled at the speakers, all of whom were African-American.
Diversify Twitch (you can watch the panel in this stream from the 54 minute mark) was a discussion about harassment, racism and under-representation of people of color on Twitch. The speakers included professional Hearthstone player Terrance Miller, who was the subject of racist abuse during the DreamHack Austin finals in May.
"The chat right now is horrible."
The most egregious comments were deleted by moderators after they appeared, though messages spent enough time in the chat panel to be seen by viewers and by the panelists. "The chat right now is horrible," said panelist Chinny, a college student and two-year game streamer who specializes in MMOs. This was in an early part of the discussion.
Many of the comments were base insults. Others sought to diminish the problem of online racism with well-worn arguments like "black people aren't the only ones who get trolled" and "you should have thicker skin if you want to stream."
The TriHard emote — based on popular African-American speedrunner trihex but co-opted by racists — popped up in the chat room repeatedly. Many often use this emote as a proxy for racist comments, in order to avoid comment deletions and bans.
Panelist DeejayKnight, a Twitch streamer who specializes in sci-fi games, said that he has served in the military and is accustomed to name calling. He said he has taken steps to minimize abuse on his Twitch streams by blocking the TriHard emote. "If you have hatred, keep it. I have better things to do with my life. I don't have to deal with it," he said.
"The trihex emote was not made to be a racist emote. That's not what it was made for," said Chinny. "But people on the internet will find any way to make things racist. Of course racists are going to pick the TriHard emote," she added. "How many black faces are on emotes on Twitch? I think Twitch could look into these emotes to make them a little more diverse so trolls will have a harder time doing this."
Moderator and streamer Ryoga Vee showed the audience a screen demonstrating some of the racist abuse he has faced as a person of color streaming on Twitch. He added that most of the usernames that had attacked are "still active." He showed one follower request whose username was a racist slur aimed directly at him. "The lengths that they will go to get under our skin are limitless," he said.
"We shouldn't have to deal with this."
Vee added that some days he feels reluctant to stream, because of the prevalence of racism in chat. "We shouldn't have to deal with this," he said. He also pointed to the low numbers of people of color represented as guests on Twitch, most especially women of color.
"If there is a toxic community out there then [women of color] will stay away from Twitch," said Chinny. "But we want to be included. We just need to find better ways to connect, to grow our streams and our community." Referring to racist chat, she added that, "this could be fixed."
Some supportive chat comments mocked those spouting racism for hiding behind anonymous account names. Other comments posted during the presentation praised the panel for taking on the subject of diversity.
Many Twitch streamers are cautious about publicly tackling the problem of diversity. According to Vee, some streamers declined to join the panel because they were afraid that talking about racism might alienate some of their followers.
"It's going to be difficult to implement anything that stops racist abuse in chat."
DeejayKnight said he feels it's important to discuss the issue in order to effect change. "If I don't talk about this, then I'm contributing to letting [racism] be cool. I've experienced having joyful times [during a stream] that then turn to disrespect in chat and death threats. Not everyone has a thick skin that it won't affect them when someone says, 'kill all ...' Not everyone can handle that, so I have to say something."
Concluding the presentation, Ryoga Vee called on Twitch to offer up a more diverse guest list for TwitchCon 2017 and to release a diversity report as well as hire more people of color.
A spokesperson for Twitch did not comment on a question about the specifics of the company's preparation for its panel moderators. But they replied to a question from Polygon about increasing diversity at TwitchCon in the future.
"This is an issue we care deeply about which is why we used TwitchCon 2016 to raise awareness and inspire more people to get involved in streaming and supporting their favorite casters," they wrote via email. "The majority of featured guests were based on their popularity as dictated by how many followers, subscribers and concurrent viewers their channels have.
"We would love to help grow the number of POC among that top bracket, which is why we featured a panel on diversity and introduced Inclusivity City, a special zone at TwitchCon 2016 designed to give attendees a chance to connect with organizations that are helping to make Twitch a welcoming place for everyone."
"They [Twitch] have started to take steps by partnering with more people of color," said DeejayKnight. Following the event, he told Polygon that he had been talking to Twitch representatives about offering improved moderation tools to streamers, as well as implementing more stringent controls over racism.
"Being attacked by racist chat proves the point to me that these types of tools are greatly needed," he said. "This isn't about just racist chat. It's about giving us broadcasters better tools to make sure we can combat abusive and toxic chat. The more tools we have to empower broadcasters the better."
"If I did not speak up, then nothing would be accomplished."
But he said that the problem could not be entirely eradicated by technology. "It's going to be difficult to implement anything that stops racist abuse in chat," he told Polygon. "If it's a word ban, it'll be worked around. People are pretty creative in that aspect."
Polygon also spoke to moderator Vee. "I was inspired to put the panel together after attending TwitchCon 2015," he said. "There was a blatant lack of people of color on the guest list. But the actual attendees were of a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds. I wondered why the featured guests themselves did not reflect that."
Based on personal experience, he said that he anticipated racism in reaction to the panel, and he praised the Twitch moderators for doing their best to block the messages. He also received racist messages on Twitter. "I expected there would be some heat in the chat room," he said. "I did not expect it to extend to my Twitter. Given the nature of some toxic elements within the Twitch community, we were practically asking for it. But if I did not speak up and share my voice and opinions with others that wanted to see change, then nothing would be accomplished."