Twitch, the streaming platform owned by Amazon, finds itself in an uncomfortable position. That isn’t new territory for the company and though there have been controversies in the past – mainly tied to content moderation and the suspension or permanent banning of popular streamers – this latest issue is in my view far more serious and potentially damaging to the brand’s reputation and illustrative of just how far we’ve deviated from compassion and common sense.
Twitch is a platform that provides content creators the opportunity to livestream video games, cooking, political commentary, travel, or anything else that the creator chooses, so long as it falls within the platform’s terms and conditions.
Twitch enters into an agreement with each of its partnered content creators, allowing them to monetize their channels and splitting the revenue received from subscribers who pay up to $24.99 per month to support their favorite streamers. This arrangement has been lucrative for Twitch, and content creators with large followings can make well into the high six figures annually, with the very top echelon pushing into seven figures in earnings. Many leverage their fame and reach into other lucrative opportunities for sponsorships or content creation on other platforms.
Cracking the Façade to Find an Ugly Reality
One of those enormously successful streamers is a 28-year-old named Kaitlyn Siragusa, better known by her Twitch handle, Amouranth. She’s one of several young women who have attracted vitriol and blowback from some corners of the internet and media for leveraging their appearance, sexuality, and charm as part of their online personality to make a living. Whether you agree with her persona and presentation or not, you can’t argue with her success. Siragusa pulls in a reported seven figures per month, Twitch being her primary platform.
But the reality is much darker.
Beyond the standard harassment that any woman in the public eye, particularly in the historically male-dominated world of gaming and streaming – sadly experiences, Ms. Siragusa revealed on a live stream on October 16th that she’s not actually single, as she’s represented in the past. In fact, she’s married to her trafficker.
She’s alleged she’s a victim of labor trafficking, her husband forcing her to stream and create content – some of it risqué – against her will. Live on stream she showed text messages from her husband in which he threatens her with financial abuse and her pets with physical harm if she doesn’t comply and keep up the facade. She claimed he’s taken control of her finances and bank accounts and has physically broken the door to the room in which she streams so she can’t lock him out.
“I’m basically living in a fancy prison,” she said.
The recording of the stream has since been deleted.
Toxicity, Misogyny, and Liability
Fellow prominent Twitch streamers broadcast their support for Ms. Siragusa across their own social channels, but a vocal contingent of her community and other streamers, some with enormous reach, had a different perspective.
The issue, they said, wasn’t that she had been forced to entertain them against her will. The issue was that she pretended to be single when she wasn’t and because they’d been duped, they deserved refunds for all the money they’d spent supporting her.
Twitch is no stranger to controversy, but this time feels different. The company has banked millions of dollars from its partnership with Amouranth, but it seems clear that those profits were the direct result of exploitation and forced labor. Does Twitch, or any organization for that matter, have an obligation to the people from whose efforts the company profits?
I’m not an attorney, but it seems unlikely that there’s any legal exposure for Twitch or Amazon in this case. Siragusa is an independent contractor and thus has none of the myriad worker protections that those with employee status enjoy. Further, there’s been no indication that she told anyone at the company about her situation before she came forward publicly on her stream. The moral argument is more crucial in this case.
Twitch boasts up to 8 million unique streams every month. More than 31 million people visit the site or use the app every day. They employ more than 1800 people globally. It a dominant player in the streaming space.
What do you do as an industry leader when such an ugly situation comes to light on your platform and the response from certain corners of your customer base and creator community isn’t sympathy or support, but anger, misogyny, and victim-blaming? This is a question that cuts to the core of the kind of company Twitch wants to be, who they want to serve, and who they want to partner with as a business.
What Comes Next?
The easiest thing that Twitch, and by extension Amazon, could do would be to ignore the situation entirely, to put the onus on Ms. Siragusa to manage the crisis on her own. That’s not how a responsible organization behaves, but it wouldn’t be entirely unexpected.
Though there may not be a legal obligation for Twitch to investigate whether this is an isolated incident, could a conscientious organization really fail to do so? Can a company live with itself, and what price will it pay in the court of public opinion, if it does nothing or stays silent when entangled in something as ugly as this that its directly profited from?
If you’re a woman who works at Twitch, or who streams on the platform, how would you feel about an organization that’s historically done relatively little to stem harassment and toxicity and is now silent after this revelation by one of their partners? I might find myself questioning how many other prominent young women on the platform are being forced to work against their will.
I would argue that the time is now for some introspection, and an evaluation of how the platform incentivizes content creators and protects potentially vulnerable individuals. Children as young as 13 can stream on the platform, after all. Is there more that Twitch could be doing? Almost certainly.
These are uncomfortable questions that should concern an organization if they’re being asked by employees or business partners, and even if the microscope of public scrutiny hasn’t found Twitch or Amazon yet, it’s only a matter of time should other content creators on the platform come forward, inspired by Ms. Siragusa’s bravery.
You can’t be dedicated to responsible business practices only when it’s convenient. It requires getting your hands dirty when things get complex and messy, taking ownership, and showing leadership. You don’t need to have all the answers, but people know the difference between right and wrong. Make sure they know that your company does too.
Neither Twitch nor its parent company, Amazon, have to this point issued a statement on the matter.
Ms. Siragusa published a recent video announcing that her husband is “getting help” and that she has regained access to all her finances and accounts and is “seeking legal and emotional counsel.”