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US Army Suspends Twitch Streaming Amid Recruitment Concerns and Free Speech Controversies

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  • The U.S. Army has faced substantial blowback for banning Twitch users asking about war crimes on its eSports channel, a move that potentially violates free speech laws.
  • The criticism has been so intense that the Army has now paused streaming on its Twitch channel, which it uses as a recruitment method. 
  • Also on Wednesday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) filed a measure that aims to completely block the military from using Twitch to recruit. 
  • Separately, the Army has come under fire for seemingly hosting a fake giveaway that linked to a recruitment page. Twitch ultimately forced it to remove that giveaway, but the Army maintains that it was a legitimate giveaway.

Army Suspends Twitch Streaming

The United States Army has hit pause on the Twitch channel for its eSports team as of Wednesday, following mounting concerns that it has repeatedly violated First Amendment free speech laws by banning viewers who ask about everything from U.S. war crimes to Eddie Gallagher.

The news of the Army’s banning practice gained traction on July 8 when activist Jordan Uhl posted a clip of him asking about war crimes during a stream on the channel. Notably, the channel is used as a way for the Army to promote recruitment and talk with viewers about life in the military.

“What’s your favorite U.S. w4r cr1me?” Uhl asked after learning that “war crime” was already a banned phrase on the channel. 

Uhl also posted a link in the chatbox to the Wikipedia page for U.S. war crimes. He was then banned. 

“Have a nice time getting banned, my dude,” said Army recruiter and gamer Joshua “Strotnium” David.

On Saturday, Uhl was again banned for asking similar questions, this time on the Twitch channel for the Navy’s eSports team. Reportedly, others asking similar questions were also banned during that stream.

On Wednesday, the Knight First Amendment Institute then demanded that the Army and Navy change their banning practices. It also asked the Army to restore access for not only Uhl but also for 300 others who have been banned for similar comments. 

“When the government intentionally opens a space to the public at large for expressive activity, it has created a ‘public forum’ under the First Amendment, and it cannot constitutionally bar speakers from that forum based on viewpoint,” the Institute said in a letter to the two branches.

Later that same day, the Army announced it would suspend streaming on Twitch to “review internal policies and procedures, as well as all platform-specific policies.”

Still, a spokesperson for the Army has maintained that the branch did not violate free speech laws, arguing that people like Uhl were banned because the term war crimesis “meant to troll and harass the team.” 

AOC Files Measure to the Block Military from Twitch

Also on Wednesday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) announced plans to file an amendment that would block the military from using video games and esports as recruitment methods. 

“It’s incredibly irresponsible for the Army and the Navy to be recruiting impressionable young people and children via live streaming platforms,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

“War is not a game,” she added while pointing to the Marine Corps, which is the only branch of the U.S. military that has refused to form an esports team.

For its part, the Marines have said it does not want to “gamify” combat since it is a military agency that deals in combat. 

“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,” Ocasio-Cortez said. 

Is the Army Violating the First Amendment on Twitch?

Uhl has maintained that he wasn’t simply trying to troll the Army eSports Team; rather, he said the reason he asked questions about war crimes was because he had heard rumors of people receiving bans by the Army and Navy for broaching such topics on their Twitch channels. 

“Was I undiplomatic? Sure,” Uhl said in an article posted on The Nation. “But if the military is going to use one of the world’s most popular platforms to recruit kids, then it shouldn’t be able to do so without some pushback. Right now, with the support of Twitch, gamers with the US military are spending hours with children as young as 13, trying to convince them to enlist.”

“While members of military e-sports teams offer the regular gaming skill set, they’re also on-screen talent and recruiters,” Uhl said. “Instead of approaching a recruiter behind a table in a school cafeteria, kids can hang out with one who is playing their favorite video games and replying to their chat messages for hours on end.”

While a normal Twitch streamer can generally moderate their channel however they want, public forums hosted by the government must abide by free speech laws. In fact, there’s even legal precedent to support this. 

For example, in June 2019, a federal appeals court ruled that President Trump can’t block critics from his Twitter account because it constitutes a public forum.

Despite that, in a statement, the Army originally argued that it banned Uhl because he had violated Twitch’s harassment policies.

“Team members are very clear when talking with potential applicants that a game does not reflect a real Army experience,” a spokesperson said following the July 8 incident. “They discuss their career experiences in real terms with factual events.”

“Team members ensure people understand what the Army offers through a realistic lens and not through the lens of a game meant for entertainment,” the spokesperson added. “This user’s question was an attempt to shift the conversation to imply that Soldiers commit war crimes based on an optional weapon in a game, and we felt that violated Twitch’s harassment policy.”

That spokesperson also went on to defend the Army by noting that it offers multiple career paths and that “the goal of the Army eSports Team is to accurately portray that range of opportunities to interested youth.”

Despite that, the statement quickly drew the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union, which responded on Twitter by saying, “Calling out the government’s war crimes isn’t harassment, it’s speaking truth to power. And banning users who ask important questions isn’t ‘flexing,’ it’s unconstitutional.” 

US Army Caught Seemingly Offering Fake Giveaways

In addition to free speech concerns, the Army has also found itself defending its recruitment practices on the platform.

Last week, Uhl accused the branch of “repeatedly” presenting viewers “with an automated chat prompt that says they could win a Xbox Elite Series 2 controller… and a link where they can enter the ‘giveaway.’” 

However, upon clicking that link, Uhl said he was redirected to a recruiting form with no additional information on the “contest, odds, total number of winners, or when a drawing will occur.”

The news prompted outrage among streamers and game developers who urged Twitch to take action against the Army’s esports channel. 

On Thursday, Twitch finally responded, telling Kotaku that it had forced the Army to stop advertising that giveaway, saying, “This promotion did not comply with our Terms, and we have required them to remove it.” 

Since then, an Army representative has said that, despite transparency issues, a legitimate giveaway system had been in place. 

“Each giveaway has its own URL and marketing activity code that directly connect the registrant to the specific giveaway,” the rep said. “An eligible winner is selected at random, and the prize is given out. Twitch asked our team to remove the giveaway for lack of transparency, and they did. The team is exploring options to use platforms for giveaways that will provide more external clarity.”

See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Kotaku) (Vice)

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Black Mirror or Reality? Microsoft Granted Patent for Tech That Lets It Create Chatbots of Dead People

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  • Microsoft has been granted a patent that would allow it to create artificial intelligence chatbots of dead people using “voice data, social media posts, electronic messages, written letters, etc.”
  • As Microsoft noted in its patent proposal, chatbots could also be created to imitate living people — opening the door for users to train a digital version of themselves to be used after they die. 
  • In the patent filing, Microsoft also suggested creating 2D or 3D models of chatbot subjects by studying images and videos of them.
  • Online, many noted the similarities between Microsoft’s patent and a 2013 episode of Black Mirror in which a woman creates an AI version of her deceased boyfriend. 

Microsoft Granted Controversial Patent

The United States Patent and Trademark Office has granted Microsoft a patent for technology that would allow it digitally revive dead people.

If implemented, Microsoft would use information like “voice data, social media posts, electronic messages, written letters, etc.,” to create artificial intelligence chatbots meant to replicate the person.

In its filing, Microsoft noted that the person could be “a friend, a relative, an acquaintance, a celebrity, a fictional character, a historical figure, a random entity, etc.”

Microsoft also noted, “the specific person may also correspond to oneself (e.g., the user creating/training the chat bot), or a version of oneself (e.g., oneself at a particular age or stage of life).”

As The Independent pointed out, that opens up the door for living users to be able to “train a digital replacement in the event of their death.”

But it doesn’t stop there. Microsoft has also suggested creating 2D or even 3D models of the person by studying images and videos of them.

Has Life Finally Become an Episode of Black Mirror?

Online, many noted the similarities between Microsoft’s patent and a 2013 episode of Black Mirror in which a character, played by Hayley Atwell, revives her recently-deceased boyfriend through an AI chatbot. As the episode progresses, that AI — played by Domhnall Gleeson — eventually becomes an exact replica android of her boyfriend. 

“More people that need to remember Black Mirror is a warning sign, not a product manual,” said Tama Leaver, an internet studies professor at Curtin University in Australia. 

Indeed, many critics have interpreted the episode, which focuses on the grief felt by Atwell’s character because of her loss, as an examination of “our own mortality and our desire to play God.” 

“It shines a spotlight on our desperate need to reverse a natural and necessary part of life without considering the consequences on our emotional well-being,” Roxanne Sancto said in a review for Paste Magazine.

In fact, series creator Charlie Brooker said part of his direct inspiration for writing the episode was based on Twitter and the question: “What if these people were dead and it was software emulating their thoughts?”

See what others are saying: (The Independent) (IGN) (Indie Wire)

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JoJo Siwa Fans Caution Against Labeling the Star’s Sexuality

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  • JoJo Siwa was featured in two TikTok videos Wednesday that many felt signaled her as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
  • One showed her dancing and lip-syncing to Paramore’s “Aint It Fun,” along with members of the TikTok group Pride House LA. Siwa specifically mouthed the lyric “Now you’re one of us,” which is also the caption of the post. 
  • The second video showed her lip-syncing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” a song that has long been heralded as an LGBTQ+ anthem.  
  • The 17-year-old entertainer has not directly addressed speculations about her sexuality, prompting many to caution against labeling her.

JoJo Siwa TikToks Trigger Sexuality Speculations

JoJo Siwa fans are urging the public not to label the 17-year-old entertainer’s sexuality, especially when she has not explicitly done so herself.

The request came after Siwa became a trending topic Wednesday when many speculated that she had come out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

The speculations stem from two TikTok videos she was featured in. The first was posted on choreographer Kent Boyd’s account. It features him and other members of the TikTok group Pride House LA, which includes several stars from Disney Channel’s “Teen Beach Movie.”

It showed them all lip-syncing and dancing along to Paramore’s hit song “Ain’t It Fun.” Siaw specifically mouthed the lyric “Now you’re one of us.” That lyric was also the caption of the post.

@kentboyd_

Now your one of us!! @itsjojosiwa @molleegray @garrettclayton91 @jekajane #pridehousela

♬ now ur one of us – Mia Mugavero

Later in the day, Siwa posted a video on her personal TikTok account that featured her lip-syncing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” a song that has long been heralded as an LGBTQ+ anthem. 

Part of the lyrics she sang along to were: “No matter gay, straight or bi, lesbian transgender life / I’m on the right track baby, I was born to survive.” 

Reactions

These posts really started all the rumors online, and things picked up when influencers like James Charles, Bretman Rock, and others expressed their support.

Many fans also left comments on the videos saying they were proud of her, and journalist Yashar Ali tweeted, “This feels like a big deal if it is what I think it is…JoJo Siwa is hugely popular with kids.”

“And as someone just pointed out, if it is what I think it is, she’s doing it at the height of her fame when she’s selling out arenas,” he continued.

Despite the wave of praise, other fans feel that it’s inappropriate and harmful to make speculations about anyone’s sexuality.

Many have even shared their own experiences coming out, reminding people not to label Siwa as anything until she explicitly chooses to share that information herself. 

While Siwa hasn’t directly addressed any of the responses as of yet, she has retweeted a post that features her video, the pride flag emoji, and the caption, “@itsjojosiwa is on the right track, she was born this way.”

Still, others also noted that she has publicly asked Lady Gaga to collaborate with her in the past, so perhaps this is a signal about that happening soon.

Others believe it could also be Siwa’s way of signaling that she is an ally of the LGBTQ+ community.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (Metro) (Teen Vogue)

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Google Investigates Top AI Researcher Who Was Looking Into a Previous Firing

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  • Google is investigating the co-leader of its Ethical AI team, Margaret Mitchell.
  • While Mitchell has not been fired, her account has been locked because Google said she “exfiltrated thousands of files” and shared them with people outside of the company. 
  • In a tweet, Mitchell indicated that she had been “documenting current critical issues” related to the firing of another Google AI Ethicist in December.
  • Sources reportedly told Axios that Mitchell had been specifically looking for messages that showed discriminatory treatment of that fired researcher.

Google Investigates Margaret Mitchell

On Tuesday, Google stated that it is now investigating the co-leader of its Ethical Al team, Margaret Mitchell.

Mitchell has reportedly not been fired, but her company email account has been locked.

According to Google, its security systems automatically lock employee accounts “when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered.”

In this case, Google said Mitchell “exfiltrated thousands of files” and then shared them with people outside of the company. 

Why Did Mitchell Begin Looking Through Files?

Mitchell’s investigation is related to the ousting of another top AI ethicist at Google, Timnit Gebru, who was fired at the beginning of December. 

Before Gebru was fired, managers reportedly instructed her to withdraw an unpublished research paper upon her return from vacation. In an email to the internal listserv Google Brain Women and Allies, Gebru then voiced frustration at managers for allegedly making the decision without her input. 

“You are not worth having any conversations about this, since you are not someone whose humanity (let alone expertise recognized by journalists, governments, scientists, civic organizations such as the electronic frontiers foundation etc) is acknowledged or valued in this company,” Gebru said in a critique of the decision. 

Gebru’s firing led to such a massive outcry from Google employees that Google CEO Sundar Pichai pledged to investigate the situation. 

On Friday, Mitchell indicated in a tweet that she was also looking into Gebru’s firing, saying that she was “documenting current critical issues from [Gebru’s] firing, point by point, inside and outside work.”

According to Axios, sources have said that Mitchell used automated scripts to siphon through messages that potentially document discriminatory treatment against Gebru.

See what others are saying: (Axios) (The Verge) (Bloomberg)

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