As social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok face intense scrutiny for how they deal with Russian misinformation about the war in Ukraine, one tech platform has largely escaped the spotlight: Amazon-owned Twitch.
The popular livestreaming site, which lets people watch video gamers and other kinds of content, updated its policies on March 3 to ban “harmful misinformation actors,” saying it had partnered with “over a dozen researchers and experts” to tackle the issue.
But weeks later, a Tech Transparency Project (TTP) investigation found multiple Twitch channels that are actively spreading Russian-fueled propaganda on Ukraine.
The channels, including one that was verified by Twitch, pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s widely debunked talking point that Russia is “de-nazifying” Ukraine; spread false information that the Russian bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine was staged; and echoed conspiracy theories that the U.S. is running biolabs in Ukraine.
Some of these channels even used Twitch to generate revenue through subscriptions and advertising, meaning Amazon has been helping purveyors of Russian misinformation make money and taking a cut of the proceeds.
TTP’s findings show how Amazon-owned Twitch, best known for its video game livestreams, is acting as a conduit for Russian misinformation on Ukraine and helping it reach an audience of teens and young adults.
Amazon acquired Twitch in 2014 for $970 million, seeing potential in the platform that allows people to watch other people playing video games. Since then, Twitch has expanded to include livestreams of other, non-gaming content like podcasts, political commentary, and cooking videos. Today, Twitch boasts of its “massive” reach, with 1.3 trillion minutes of footage watched in 2021 and 31 million average daily visitors. The platform also says nearly 75% of its viewers are between the ages of 16 and 34—a young demographic valuable to advertisers.
On March 3, 2022, a week after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Twitch announced a new policy on “harmful misinformation actors” that “account for a disproportionate amount of damaging, widely debunked misinformation online.” Twitch pledged to take action against streamers who meet three criteria: “their online presence – whether on or off Twitch – is dedicated to (1) persistently sharing (2) widely disproven and broadly shared (3) harmful misinformation topics, such as conspiracies that promote violence.”
But weeks later, TTP found multiple Twitch channels that appear to violate the new policy, with no apparent intervention by the platform.
Take “InfraredShow,” a channel with about 19,500 followers and a purple checkmark indicating it’s been verified by Twitch. It featured hours-long rants by a man spreading widely debunked Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine.
One InfraredShow video streamed on Feb. 24—the day Russia began its invasion—was titled “RUSSIAN SPECIAL OPERATION AGAINST UKRAINIAN AGGRESSION,” echoing the language the Kremlin has used to describe the war. On the video, the host claimed that Putin had to go into Ukraine to stop genocide in the eastern part of the country: “Ukraine is sending these thugs, these genocidal neo-Nazi scum to the region to harass, terrorize, and attack the people living there.” That rhetoric mimics Putin’s false claims that Ukraine has been killing ethnic Russians and that its government is dominated by Nazi elements.
The video, which also featured a “VLADIMIR PUTIN IS GOOD” watermark across the screen, had more than 24,700 views as of March 31.
At least two dozen other videos from InfraredShow repeated Russian government talking points, with several prominently displaying the letter “Z,” which has come to be associated with Russia’s invading troops, and the NATO flag symbol with a crossed-out red circle over the top.
Twitch helped this channel to generate revenue through a subscription feature that let it charge viewers a fee for extra perks. Any subscription revenue is split evenly with Twitch, meaning Amazon may have earned money off a purveyor of Russian misinformation. The channel was also a member of the Twitch Partner Program, which provides benefits like covering payout fees, the transaction fees incurred when Twitch sends earnings to its streamers.
On May 10, 2021, InfraredShow complained on its sister YouTube channel that it had been banned from Twitch for 30 days, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. The channel, however, later resumed spreading misinformation on Twitch.
The Twitch channel “JacksonHinkleTV,” which had about 4,200 followers, offered several streams with the title “PUTIN 71% APPROVAL.” In one of them, on March 20, the host spread a false conspiracy theory that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had fled Ukraine and produced a video making it appear that he was still in the country. “Zelensky’s clown show is being exposed … thanks to the advent of modern technology,” the host said. “I'm not saying he's in Poland, but if you're being accused of not being in Kiev… why would you film a video in front of a green screen and try to pass it off as a real video?"
On his channel, JacksonHinkleTV suggested that viewers check out other streamers, including InfraredShow.
Like InfraredShow, JacksonHinkleTV offered subscriptions and links to a sister YouTube channel. Many of these conspiracy-spewing streamers operate on multiple platforms—giving them extra reach and providing backup in case one service shuts them down.
Biolabs and ‘crisis actors’
Other streamers on Twitch spread Ukraine misinformation with impunity.
For example, a March 9 video from the Twitch streamer “theofficialpatriotnews,” pushed an unfounded theory promoted by Russian state media that the U.S. is funding bioweapons laboratories in Ukraine.
In the video, the host said, "We found documents—that are up on my website—confirming that there are in fact biolabs located in Ukraine and we have government documents—United States government documents that also confirmed that they had helped fund these biolabs and they helped equip and supply these biolabs that were in fact located in Ukraine."
Meanwhile, the Twitch channel “lifttheveil411,” which counted about 6,600 followers, echoed Kremlin rhetoric that attacks on civilians in Ukraine are actually staged events.
In a March 16 stream titled “Breadline Massacre,” the host repeated Russia’s accusation that a reported Russian attack on civilians in line for bread in the northern Ukrainian city in Chernihiv was a hoax perpetrated by Ukraine’s security service. Without evidence, the host flatly stated, “It's kind of ridiculous. I think they staged it.” In another video streamed on March 17, he claimed that video evidence shows the attack was a hoax because the footage shows no bread near victims’ bodies lying on the ground. (The U.S. embassy in Kiev has said Russian forces carried out the attack.)
Lifttheveil411 previously used Twitch streams to falsely claim that the terror attacks in San Bernardino, California and Brussels were staged. Both theofficialpatriotnews and lifttheveil411 channels used Twitch’s subscription feature to generate revenue.
In a March 10 video titled “Enjoy Your Freedom While You Still Can - Elite Globalist Agenda is in Full Swing & Future of Humanity is at Stake,” Twitch streamer NazztyNaz claimed that the infamous Russian bombing of a maternity hospital in the besieged city of Mariupol, Ukraine was a fake attack: “I don't think he actually bombed that hospital. I think some sort of like—whether it be the Ukrainians or just the globalists bombed that hospital and they blamed it on Putin. 100%. It's called a false flag."
That echoes the debunked conspiracy theory, spread by Russian officials, that the hospital bombing was staged. Russian officials and other conspiracy theorists have falsely claimed that an injured pregnant woman shown in media footage was a “crisis actor.”
Other accounts on Twitch mixed coronavirus conspiracies with Ukraine misinformation.
The Twitch streamer “pgunnels,” who had approximately 6,200 followers, did a March 9 stream called “Biolabs and Lies,” in which he claimed the war in Ukraine is connected to a coverup of deaths caused by the COVID vaccines, riffing off a common conspiracy theory:
America's deep state provoked Russia in Ukraine to cover up its own massive crimes against American citizens, which now verge on being fully exposed… America, indeed the whole word has awakened to the apparent reality that mass vaccination is killing off an awful lot of people before their time.
Russian state media
Twitch, as part of its new policy against “harmful misinformation actors,” said it would block Russian state media from establishing a presence on the platform. But TTP found that some Twitch streamers circumvented these rules.
One example is the Twitch channel “vietgal,” which shared a continuous stream of RT, the Russian state-controlled network, in Spanish. The channel offered subscriptions, and one stream included mid-roll ads, showing how this channel was also profiting from advertising on Twitch.
Another channel called “Israelcreative,” which was tagged under Twitch’s “Politics” category, had a stream of Russia Channel One, another state media outlet. All of the streams since March 13 had the same title in Russian: “De-Nazification and Demilitarization of Ukraine.”
TTP’s findings reveal major holes in Twitch’s policy enforcement at a time of heavy Russian misinformation about the war in Ukraine. Amazon’s enormous resources give it ample means to better monitor Twitch, which is one of the most popular livestreaming platforms today and reaches a vast audience of young people.