A US senator has questioned Valve over extremist and antisemitic user content on Steam, after an alarmist report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
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Democrat New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan wrote to Valve Corporation founder and President, Gabe Newell. The letter in question shows Hassan insisting, “Disturbingly, Steam has a significant presence of users displaying and espousing neo-Nazi, extremist, racial supremacist, misogynistic, and other hateful sentiments.”
“Valve should be taking steps to prevent harmful content, especially given the relationship between online comments and violence in the offline world,” Hassan demanded.
Hassan noted that only “cursory keyword searches using terms and images commonly associated with neo-Nazi, extremist, and racial supremacist ideologies” was needed to find “pervasive” extremist content. This included references to neo-Nazi terminology and symbols.
Along with hateful content inhibiting “many Steam users from participating in communities free of harassing, abusive, and threatening behavior,” Hassan once again claims “allowing racist, extremist, antisemitic, and other hateful ideologies an unimpeded space in which they can flourish online allows for the very real threat of violence in offline, physical spaces.”
She goes onto to cite the ADL’s recent “Hate and Harassment in Online Games 2022” report. Namely that “nearly one in ten gamers between ages 13 and 17 had been exposed to white-supremacist ideology and themes in online multiplayer games.”
The report also claimed “adult exposure to white supremacy in online games has more than doubled to 20% of gamers, up from 8% in 2021.”
Hasan poses four questions to Valve, with many subquestions as part of them. In summary, these demand to know if the content she had outlined was against Steam’s terms of service, what actions had been taken against accounts producing similar content, how Steam identifies and punishes hateful content, what data is stored, and how pro-active the Steam moderation team is.
“Opposing the spread of extremist and racist activities online should be something that all can agree is important,” Hasan closes, “and ensuring that online recreational spaces are safe and welcoming for everyone should be a top priority of video game makers and distributors.”
As a senior member of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, and chairing the Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight subcommittee, Hasan gave Valve a January 15, 2023 deadline to respond.
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The ADL’s Hate and Harassment in Online Games 2022 made other allegations, such as claiming a fourth year-on-year rise of player harassment. Though it should be noted some figures were lower under closer examination. For example, while harassment against 13 to 17 year olds increased by 66%, only a 30% or less was due to offensive names or identity base harassment.
Some other claims may also draw scrutiny. Dr. Steinkuehler of Games for Change is also quoted, stating, “In broader national movements, it is typically antisemitism that lies at the root of white supremacy movements; in games, it is misogyny.” This is despite identity-based harassment of adult women falling 2% from last year — somehow without a drop in antisemitic content.
Seven members of Congress — all Democrat representatives — cited the report in a co-signed a letter to major gaming companies. These companies included Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Microsoft, Roblox, Sony, Tencent, Valve, Riot Games, PUBG Corp, Ubisoft, Square, Epic, Innersloth, and Take-Two Interactive.
The senators reportedly asked to “better understand the processes you have in place to handle player reports of harassment and extremism encounters in your online games, and ask for consideration of safety measures pertaining to anti-harassment and anti-extremism.”
To that end, they requested for information on the scale of the companies’ moderation teams, and investments they had made into preventing extremism. They were also asked if they would be willing to create and share data on player discipline on a regular basis.
Coincidentally, the ADL had requested data of that nature before, and led to the precursor of what has happened with Valve this month.
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The ADL declared they would target harassment and hate in video games in 2020. Assistant Director of the ADL Center for Technology and Society Daniel Kelley solicited the gaming industry share data relating to player harassment. Though at the time also admitted it would require those companies to have policies and enforcement against hateful content “that are much more robust than they have now.”
Rather than simply ban the “worst of the worst,” Kelly explained the goal was to study “pathway to radicalization, [or] the pathway to reforming folks in these spaces.” He claimed Valve had been “actively pushing against this kind of work,” thanks to declaring they would allow any content except that which was “illegal, or straight up trolling.”
That announcement was discussing Steam’s store content however, rather than user interaction.
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Even so, the ADL launched their report claiming Steam “harbored extremists” that year. Doubt was cast as it seemed to be hyper-focused on troll accounts — rather than true support or grooming of hateful ideologies — and more dubious signs of extremism such as Pepe the Frog memes.
The report also cited several individuals who planned mass shootings and terrorist attacks who allegedly plotted or orchestrated their plans via Steam. This is at the ADL’s affirmation, as official reports cite chat rooms from undisclosed “online gaming platforms.”
This is despite the extremist content — genuine or otherwise — already being against Steam’s subscriber agreement and rules for user-submitted content. In her letter, Hasan even quoted Steam’s own subscriber agreement and terms to Valve Corporation founder and President Gabe Newell.
The ADL also asserted games with a World War 2 setting attracted neo-Nazis in their 2020 report.
Even the report itself admitted, “The evidence of the widespread extremist recruiting or organizing in online game environments (such as in Fortnite or other popular titles) remains anecdotal at best, and more research is required before any broad-based claims can be made.”
Yet the ADL recommended Steam have stricter and more active human and AI moderation against hateful content, frequent reports on how those policies had been enforced along with third-party auditing, and “Product level design changes with anti-hate principles in mind.”
Failure to do so would risk “industry, civil society and government” deeming Steam as akin to Telegram or Gab, the ADL insists. Earlier in the report, the ADL considered Telegram and Gab platforms where white supremacists “can openly express their ideology and calls for violence.”
At the time the ADL’s report was denounced by Reclaim the Net, stating, “When organizations become increasingly irrelevant, they have to create new enemies in order to stay funded.” Nonetheless, it seems the ADL’s 2022 report has gotten some US Senators afluster, and essentially doing what the ADL wanted in the first place.
For example, Activision Blizzard announced they would be seeking AI moderation and stricter rules for their games, after the received the aforementioned letter from US senators.
NEXT: Activision Blizzard Seeking To Implement AI Moderation And Stricter Rules To Combat Bad Behavior Following Damning Anti-Defamation League Report