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By Sebastian Herrera and Sarah E. Needleman
Amazon.com Inc.'s Twitch last year showed at least 8.4 billion hours of video, but a 35-minute clip this week highlights the challenge of preventing extremists from sharing their violent acts in real time.
A German man was accused of killing two people Wednesday near a synagogue and streaming the assault online. The suspect, identified by a German security official as 27-year-old Stephan Balliet, was charged with murder Thursday.
The shooting in Halle, Germany, was shown live on Twitch, a platform typically used by avid gamers, and adds Amazon to the list of tech giants that have had to deal with violent acts being live streamed. Amazon's peers -- Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Alphabet Inc., which owns Google's YouTube -- most recently dealt with stopping the spread of footage from a deadly attack on a pair of New Zealand mosques earlier this year.
Twitch on Thursday didn't provide additional comment about the company's investigation, and a Twitch spokeswoman didn't say whether the company would consider adding stiffer controls to live video. On Wednesday the company offered condolences to people affected by the attacks and said it removed the video from the platform and took steps to prevent it from being shared further.
Live streaming is central to the business model of Twitch, which Amazon bought for $970 million in 2014. Its live broadcasts have helped differentiate it from YouTube, whose video content is mostly prerecorded and edited, said Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter. "Their core business is live streaming as it happens," he said of Twitch, adding he doesn't expect that to change.
Every day, nearly half a million people stream live on Twitch, according to the company. The account that live streamed the video was created two months ago, Twitch said, and it had attempted a live stream only once before.
Twitch said Wednesday that five people watched the 35-minute live stream from the suspect. A recording of the video was viewed on the platform by about 2,200 people in 30 minutes before it was flagged and removed.
By then, the video or parts of it were uploaded to other sites, including Twitter, fringe forums such as 4chan, instant messaging site Telegram and hosting platform Streamable, according to Storyful, a social-media intelligence company owned by News Corp, which also owns The Wall Street Journal.
Companies such as Amazon and Facebook that stream live video need to delay broadcasts or find a way to prevent acts of violence from airing in real time, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human-rights group. "They can solve this," he said. "The companies that don't want to cooperate, I hate to say it, but there's something called regulation."
Video-sharing platforms haven't yet figured out how to apply artificial intelligence or other technology to quickly flag real-life violence, said Ben Nimmo, head of investigations at New York-based Graphika Inc., a social-media-analytics firm. To do that would be especially challenging for a platform like Twitch, he said, since most of its broadcasters stream themselves playing videogames and many games simulate gun violence.
"You would have to train the AI to distinguish between gaming gunfire and real-life gunfire," Mr. Nimmo said. "That's a very subtle distinction to have to make."
A man charged with carrying out shootings at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 51 people dead broadcast the massacre in a 17-minute video on Facebook. After a user flagged the video, it took another half-hour for it to be removed. The video was also posted on YouTube and Twitter.
Online forums that offer platforms for hate speech and threats of violent acts have been difficult for law enforcement to police, especially with users who are able to post anonymously, and move from site to site if one is shut down.
Mass shooters have deployed videogame-like tactics in the past. The Christchurch shooter, for example, wore a body camera while live streaming, framing his video into a first-person account, similar to the primary camera angle used in many shooting games.
But Joan Donovan, director of a Harvard University project on technology and social change, cautioned against blaming the event on the popularity of such games, pointing out that millions of people each day play them without turning to real-life violence.
Ms. Donovan said Wednesday's shooting speaks to the audience the shooter aimed to reach. "The terrorist was using gaming culture as a framing device to get media to pay even closer attention," she said. "It's really about style. He's trying to reach a very particular audience of young men and gaming is a way to do that."
The shooting in Germany also wasn't the first time Twitch has dealt with violent acts appearing in live feeds. In August of last year, two people were shot and killed at a videogame tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., and parts of the tournament were streamed live on Twitch.
Internet companies including Twitch have bulked up their staffs in recent years in efforts to moderate content. Facebook, for example, earlier this year said it had more than 15,000 content reviewers as part of a 30,000-person department working on safety and security issues at the company.
Twitch relies on round-the-clock monitoring both from human reviewers and machine-learning algorithms to flag violent or inappropriate content. It also has centralized those operations from multiple teams to one team.
When Amazon bought Twitch, it said the purchase would help it round out its gaming business, which includes its game-development division Amazon Game Studios.
Founded in 2011, Twitch is by far the most popular game-streaming platform, accounting for 75.6% of live hours watched during the most recent three-month period measured by industry tracker Arsenal.gg. Twitch, whose competitors include YouTube, Facebook and Microsoft Corp.'s Mixer, said an average of 1.3 million people are on its platform at any given moment and it sees an average of more than 15 million daily visitors.
Amazon doesn't break out revenue for Twitch in its financial reports. Twitch is free to use but people can access exclusive in-game content by joining Amazon Prime. The platform also makes money through the sale of advertisements.
Write to Sebastian Herrera at Sebastian.Herrera@wsj.com and Sarah E. Needleman at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 10, 2019 18:10 ET (22:10 GMT)
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