The Army esports team will resume gaming on Twitch on Friday after taking a five-week pause following accusations that its decision to ban users from its channel violated their First Amendment rights.
In July, the team, which operates under U.S. Army Recruiting Command, banned progressive activist and organizer Jordan Uhl after he began "trolling" the channel about war crimes, Vice.com reported.
The action touched off a storm of spam, including comments such as "what's your favorite war crime" and prompting the team to ban about 300 accounts from its Twitch channel.
The esports team's move resulted in the American Civil Liberties Union calling the bannings a violation of First Amendment free speech protections, Vice reported.
The team took a five-week pause from streaming on Twitch to establish new policies and procedures to ensure users are treated fairly. It also recently unbanned the accounts of those involved, but leaders in charge of the team maintain that no one's First Amendments rights were violated.
"We decided to unban the users and give everyone a straight shot now that we are coming back online with our new rules and procedures, but we absolutely believe that we banned the users because of their behavior and not because of their viewpoints," said Col. Megan Stallings, commander of the Marketing and Engagement Brigade.
"They still will have to comply with the guidelines and rules and the new policies and procedures that will be published on the Twitch channel," she added. "Their behavior must still be in compliance and in line with those because, again, our U.S. Army esports team is out on the Twitch channel to connect America's people to America's Army, and if there [are] select individuals or a few out there who are not allowing for that civil discourse to occur, it doesn't allow for an enjoyable experience for everybody else that is out on that channel."
Stallings did say that she had to consult with Army lawyers to respond to a letter from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University questioning the decision to ban the 300 accounts.
"There was a letter that was sent back to the Knight institute and, in the letter, we let them know that we would unban the individuals," she said.
The controversy also attracted the attention of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who proposed an amendment in the House's fiscal 2021 defense funding bill that would have prevented the military from using streaming for recruiting purposes, but the House voted to block the amendment, 292 to 126, TheWrap.com reported.
Despite the negative attention, Army officials have said that the esports effort is worth continuing, clarifying that it is not tied directly to securing recruiting contracts for the service, according to Stallings.
"We don't specifically tie to contracts because the members of the U.S. Army esports team are not recruiters; their purpose is awareness and outreach," she said. "If someone wants to join the Army, it's generally not a decision that is made off of one interaction."
Lt. Col. Kirk Duncan, commander of the Mission Support Battalion, which oversees the team, conceded that, over the past several weeks, "There have been less than positive aspects that have happened with our esports brand through some of the negative attention that has been brought to the program."
But overall, the team has received a massive amount of attention and increased young people's awareness of the Army, he said.
"I don't know if we have a choice not to be in esports, and what I mean by that is the stats that we have tell us that about 80% of 17- to 24-year-olds either watch video games, play video games or both. Essentially, it's how that age demographic spends their time," Duncan said. "I think it's really important that the Army needs to be in the gaming space."
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the team had participated in gaming competitions all over the country, such as the Penny Arcade Expo, or PAX, East in Boston in February, he said, adding that its 30-foot by 30-foot booth space at the event drew thousands of visitors.
"We are estimating that about 38,000 actually went through the booth and, of that 38,000 [surveyed], 93% of visitors indicated that they had a positive impression of the Army's presence at PAX East," Duncan said.
Moving forward on Twitch, the team will release a new set of procedures it will follow to deal fairly with users who violate its Twitch channel policies, he said.
The esports soldiers serving as moderators for the stream will have the ability to use the "timeout function on Twitch and, if someone is commenting in a way that is not in line with our guidelines, then we are giving them the tools to time that person out anywhere from like one hour to 48 hours, depending on what the inappropriate behavior was," Duncan said.
Timeouts are a better way "to make sure that you don't have one individual in the heat of the moment making a decision" to ban a user, Stallings said.
There is also an appeal process banned users can go through to be reinstated.
"The other important tool that we wanted to include and make sure everyone on our platform understood is that, if you are in fact banned from our channel, we wanted to give you an opportunity to submit a ban appeal request," Duncan said.
The new procedures are an attempt to take a layered approach to dealing with Twitch violators, according to Stallings.
"Before, the moderators were really trying to answer everything and respond to everything," she said. "Now, there is a layered approach that the moderators are going to take in answering questions or, in some cases, ignoring them."
Army esports officials said that the team "can always improve" how they handle situations.
"They have learned together and grown and done some training to ensure that they are prepared for potential similar situations to come up," Stallings said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.