Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaking at a press conference in Queens in New York on April 14, 2020.Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP (Getty Images)
U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez plans to file an amendment that would bar any part of the U.S. military from spending federal funds to operate accounts on any “video game, esports, or live-streaming platform,” Vice reported on Wednesday. At the same time, prominent civil rights groups have demanded service branches immediately reverse bans of users who had criticized the military on Twitch, calling them unconstitutional.
Official Twitch and Discord channels run by the U.S. Army—and then the U.S. Navy—have attracted attention in recent weeks for banning users that queried military esports teams on topics like their “favorite w4r crime.” The Army said it had banned hundreds of users, while the Navy has been banning users for bringing up topics like recruitment techniques or Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL accused of atrocities in Iraq who was later pardoned by Donald Trump.
That, in turn, triggered the Streisand Effect. The ACLU called the bans a violation of the First Amendment in accordance with recent federal court rulings (in a suit against Trump) concluding that unlike private individuals, government officials can’t block members of the public from following or engaging with accounts used for official government business. On Wednesday, Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute sent a letter to the U.S. Army and Navy demanding that they immediately stop banning users from the @USArmyEsports and @AmericasNavy Twitch channels on the basis of viewpoint on behalf of Jordan Uhl, an activist who rallied users to ask critical questions of the esports teams and was banned as a result:
It is also clear that Mr. Uhl (and others) were banned on the basis of the viewpoints implicit in their questions and messages. They were banned after they engaged in speech critical of the military, drew attention to war crimes, criticized the teams’ answers to questions about war crimes, or raised questions about the President’s decision to pardon soldiers convicted of war crimes… The messages were quintessential political speech, which lie at the “core of the First Amendment.” Nor does the government have the authority, in a forum like this one, to adopt rules that effectively prohibit participants from criticizing the military.
Many of the users said they were engaged in legitimate protest and that the bans were a clear-cut crackdown on free speech. Fatima Al-Essa, a Twitter user who told Gizmodo this week her parents had fled from Iraq to Switzerland during the Iraq War, said she was banned in seconds for asking “how many xp when u drone strike an iraqi child.” Electronic Frontier Foundation legal fellow Naomi Gilens told Gizmodo the bans are “plainly unconstitutional” and that the military can’t “reserve the right” to censorship in user agreements, because it doesn’t have “any right to violate the First Amendment in the first place.”
On Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez also filed an amendment to the House Appropriations bill that would prohibit U.S. military service branches from using funds in the legislation to maintain “a presence on Twitch.com or any video game, e-sports, or livestreaming platform.” That would put a stop to what has become a sizable and creepy investment by the military since the early 2000s, when the Army spent $10 million developing a game named America’s Army that turned virtual killings into a recruitment tool aimed at young people. In 2019, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Jones told WBALTV 11 that over 7,000 Army had applied to join its esports team, with 16 eventually selected for a three-year temporary duty assignment traveling to schools and videogame events in an 18-wheel gaming trailer.
As Vice noted, the legislation has to be approved by the House (requiring passage through the Appropriations Committee and others) before it can even go to the Senate, which is currently controlled by Republicans and thus seems rather unlikely to pass. So it’s not clear how strong the chances are that the amendment will make it into federal law—at least this year.
“It’s incredibly irresponsible for the Army and the Navy to be recruiting impressionable young people and children via live streaming platforms,” Ocasio-Cortez told Vice. “War is not a game, and the Marine Corps’ decision not to engage in this recruiting tool should be a clear signal to the other branches of the military to cease this practice entirely.”
For its part, the military previously told Gizmodo that the bans were actually for harassment of their esports team, an argument that seems unlikely to hold up in court:
The U.S. Army eSports Team’s social media pages were being spammed with ‘what’s your favorite war crime’ memes and questions. 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 used creative spelling to continue related posts. The U.S. Army eSports Team banned users for behavior intended to harass, degrade and intimidate, which violates the Twitch community guidelines.
Uhl, who explained to Vice that recruiting is an “extremely predatory process that goes after kids who are captivated by this myth of war, perpetuated by the media,” told Gizmodo via Twitter DM that he was impressed by how quickly civil rights activists moved on the issue.
“The reaction and response has really surprised me in a good way,” Uhl wrote. “It’s encouraging to see so many people immediately agree it’s unacceptable and take steps toward changing things for the better.”
Update: 7/22/2020 at 9:50 p.m. ET: Gizmodo’s sister site Kotaku reported that an internal U.S. Army email detailed plans to put a halt to all esports activity (including streaming, social media posts, and event invitations), possibly until spring 2021. The email also cites unflattering media reports in recent weeks as the cause for the shutdown. The Army declined to comment to Kotaku and Twitch didn’t have anything to add in response to their request for comment.