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Congress debated on Thursday whether to end the US military’s use of e-sports teams to recruit teenagers, following a Nation report published two weeks prior about the practice. Shortly after the article’s publication, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced an amendment to the year’s defense spending bill that would have barred the use of funds on military recruiting efforts “by any of the Armed Forces for [the Amazon-owned livestreaming platform Twitch] or esports activities.”
“I believe that we should act with reservation and caution first rather than entering with both feet in and then trying to undo damage that could potentially be done,” Ocasio-Cortez said while speaking in support of the measure on Thursday afternoon. “That’s why I believe we should, again, restrain and restrict ourselves from explicit recruitment tactics, not others, but recruitment, specifically, on platforms that children are using to play games like Animal Crossing—from Animal Crossing to Call of Duty.”
Originally, congressional staffers close to the issue expected the amendment to be grouped with several other noncontroversial amendments, voted on en bloc, and passed via voice vote. Instead, to the surprise of many staffers and advocates following the amendment’s progress, it was singled out and voted on separately. The amendment ultimately failed to get enough support, after 103 Democrats joined with 188 Republicans to vote against it. The final tally was 126-292. No Republicans voted in favor of it.
“Imagine trying to explain to your colleagues who are members of Congress what Twitch is,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in a thread while the vote was happening. “Congress is voting on legislation regarding Twitch today. It’s totally fine if you don’t know what Twitch is. But tech literacy is becoming [a] growing need in Congress so we can legislate to protect people’s privacy, etc. When our legislative bodies aren’t sufficiently responsive to tech, then that means we don’t have the tools required to protect people.”
Her comments on colleagues’ misunderstanding of the issue are perfectly encapsulated by a statement Representative Max Rose of New York gave to the New York Post.
“This is incredibly insulting as it perpetuates the limousine liberal trope that soldiers are idiots who only get duped into enlisting,” Rose, an Army veteran, told the Murdoch tabloid about the amendment designed to keep military recruiters away from minors online.
But even without passage of Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment, the military’s online recruitment efforts have been curtailed. A day after our article’s publication, Twitch told the Army that it must immediately stop using deceptive giveaways to collect personal information. After the Army booted me from its Twitch channel for mentioning US war crimes, First Amendment lawyers also started speaking out, arguing that banning me constituted a violation of free speech rights. The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University even sent a letter to the Army and Navy demanding an end to speech prohibitions in military Twitch channels.
“The Army and Navy esports teams’ banning of users based on their speech about war crimes is unconstitutional. 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 letter reads.
Under a barrage of negative press, the Army quietly retreated from Twitch, and opted out of future competitions. The Army e-sports team’s social media accounts went dark. There is “no official time frame for a return” to Twitch, according to one report, but industry insiders told me they suspect this will last through spring 2021.
The Navy e-sports team, in contrast, hasn’t stopped. Its recruiters admitted that they block unfavorable terms—like “Eddie Gallagher,” a Navy SEAL accused of war crimes in Iraq. One recruiter lied to viewers, saying military e-sports channels were not a recruiting tool.
“We’re here to show that we like video games too. Like, literally, we’re not here to recruit. That is not the point of this,” Machinist’s mate Andrew “Saltysn1pe” Crosswhite said during a recent stream. A few days later, Vice’s Matthew Gault discovered and published the Navy Recruiting Command Twitch Guide for Streamers.
Then, after all this, the progressive firebrand from New York’s 14th district introduced the amendment.
“It’s incredibly irresponsible for the Army and the Navy to be recruiting impressionable young people and children via live streaming platforms. War is not a game, and the Marine [Corps]’s 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 in a statement to The Nation.
In support of the legislation, Representative Ilhan Omar said in a statement:
War is not a game. Video games should not be recruitment tools for the military. And it is particularly concerning that users were blocked from platforms by the US military for asking about war crimes, raising serious first amendment concerns. I am proud to work with my colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on this amendment.
Anti-war groups echoed the Minnesota representative’s sentiments. “Recruitment via Twitch and other video game platforms should be understood as a continuation of a long line of manipulative tactics the U.S. Military uses to glamorize and gamify violence and recruit young people,” Carley Towne, a national organizer with Code Pink, said in a statement.
Ocasio-Cortez also introduced another amendment that would block federal funds from being used on military recruiting in middle and high schools.
“In many public high schools where military recruiters have a daily presence, there is not even a counselor,” she told The New York Times. “As a result, the military stops feeling like a ‘choice’ and starts feeling like the only option for many young, low-income Americans.”
This amendment didn’t make it out of committee, but does underscore her as well as other progressive lawmakers’ commitment to tackling the military-industrial complex head-on.
“Military recruitment at its core is a predatory industry. If it’s online on Twitch or at a cafeteria in a public school, recruiters are there to generate ‘leads’ of new young people to fill the ranks. These recruiters posing as fellow gamers and streamers are part of a long history of the military trying to use sports to find new bodies to fill uniforms,” said Tory Smith, a national organizer with War Resisters League.
Despite the setback on the Twitch amendment, anti-war groups are gearing up for a sustained fight. If the military has moved into the world of e-sports, then so has the anti-war left. Ocasio-Cortez’s introduction of the amendment and the support of colleagues and activists demonstrates that a bold and concerted effort to prevent misleading recruitment efforts has begun.
Erik Sperling, the executive director of Just Foreign Policy, told me, “Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment should be just the first step in an ongoing campaign to address long-standing issues in military recruiting such as targeting children in disproportionately working-class schools, and inadequate disclosures about what benefits will be available, and frank answers about what service is like in a time of global war.”