Army Denies Violating 1st Amendment in Esports Recruiting, Sponsoring Fake Giveaways

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The U.S. Army debuted its Esports gaming trailer at the Salt Lake Gaming Con in Salt Lake City.
The U.S. Army debuted its Esports gaming trailer at the Salt Lake Gaming Con in Salt Lake City, Utah, June 27-29, 2019. (U.S. Army)

U.S. Army Recruiting Command is pushing back against accusations that its esports Team violated the First Amendment rights of Twitch users and sponsored fake giveaway offers for gaming prizes on the popular social media channel during a recent recruiting drive.

The Army has, however, temporarily stopped its esports team from streaming on Twitch while it reviews its policies in the wake of accusations that it banned commenters for asking about war crimes.

The Army launched its esports Team in 2019, choosing the service's top gamers to compete in tournaments as a way of connecting with America's youth. The team is a significant part of the service's virtual recruiting presence, which ramped up in March when the novel coronavirus pandemic forced it to temporarily close its recruiting stations.

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But months later, the Army is struggling to navigate through the minefield of rules and norms of operating in the online world.

Vice.com recently reported that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) views the commenter bannings as a violation of First Amendment free speech protections and believes that the government cannot decide which comments it allows on a public forum.

Military.com reached out to the ACLU for comment on this story but did not receive an immediate response.

"Calling out the government's war crimes isn't harassment, it's speaking truth to power," the ACLU tweeted about the issue. "And banning users who ask important questions isn't 'flexing,' it's unconstitutional."

Progressive activist and organizer Jordan Uhl told Vice that he began "trolling" the Army's Twitch channel about war crimes after seeing videos of people being banned from the Discord messaging platform for "asking uncomfortable questions," the site reported.

"Sure, at a base level, it's trolling," Uhl told Vice. "But it was also interesting that [the Army is] being aggressive with removing any incidences of [U.S.] war crimes in what is essentially a recruiting tool for the military."

Army Recruiting Command officials see it differently.

"The U.S. Army eSports Team's social media pages were being spammed with 'what's your favorite war crime' memes and questions," Lisa Ferguson, USAREC spokeswoman, told Military.com in a statement. "The eSports Team blocked the term 'war crimes' in its Twitch channel after discovering the trend was meant to troll and harass the team."

Twitch members then used creative spelling, replacing letters with numbers to bypass the controls in place, Ferguson said.

"Other derogatory questions included racial and ethnic slurs, curse words, and specific crimes, and those are all things previously blocked through filters the team enacted on their pages," she said.

The Army esports team, she said, followed guidelines and policies set by Twitch and banned users from its account "due to concern over posted content and website links that were considered harassing and degrading in nature."

Since early July, the esports team has banned about 300 users on Twitch, Ferguson said. The team has also banned about 350 users on Discord since early July, after its Discord channel "was flooded with thousands of users making a contest of how fast they could get banned," she added.

"The team had to contend with everything from users asking about war crimes to discussing pornography to direct threats to team members in public chats and direct messages," Ferguson said.

Uhl told Vice that "this boils down to an issue of speech."

"If the Army wants to recruit with these modern tools and these modern platforms that are widely used by young, susceptible kids -- young, impressionable kids -- the kids have at least a right to know what the military does and has done," he told Vice.

The Army esports social media sites are nonpolitical forums for sharing information about joining the service, Ferguson said.

"The soldiers creating content on these forums are not elected or appointed officials and do not determine Army policy," she said. "The Army offers other channels of communication that would be more appropriate for dialogue with leaders who are informed and authorized to speak about subjects outside the scope of recruiting."

The Army also ran into trouble recently when Mashable.com reported that its esports team was allegedly promoting fake giveaways as part of its recruiting effort and was told by Twitch to take one down.

U.S. Army Recruiting Command confirmed that "Twitch asked the team to remove the giveaway, because of lack of transparency, and the team complied," Ferguson said, explaining that the Army's procedures for using goarmy.com for giveaways may be confusing.

Participants who click through to the goarmy.com landing page and fill out the virtual information card are entered for a chance to win, she said.

The landing page "looks generic," and each giveaway has "its own URL and marketing activity code" that directly connects the registrant to the specific giveaway, Ferguson explained.

The team has given away 10 game controllers, gaming stations and chairs in the last year, she added.

"The team is reviewing ways to customize its submission forms and provide more clarity for each of its giveaways," Ferguson said.

As a result of the accusations, the Army esports team has "paused streaming while they review internal policies and procedures, as well as all platform-specific policies," she said.

"With regards to social media, U.S. Army Recruiting Command and the U.S. Army regularly remind its soldiers to conduct themselves professionally at all times, even in light of derogatory and inflammatory trends aimed at getting banned from an Army channel," Ferguson said.

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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