Steam has a hate group problem because Valve fails to enforce its own rules

Last week, Apple, Youtube, and Facebook removed Alex Jones' Infowars from their platforms. Infowars is the internet-era version of fringe talk radio, which host Alex Jones uses to sell pills like "Brain Force Plus" and spread conspiracy theories about the children killed in the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.  In the words of Facebook, the ban was "for glorifying violence, which violates our graphic violence policy, and using dehumanizing language to describe people who are transgender, Muslims and immigrants, which violates our hate speech policies." Some argued it was long overdue, others argued it was bad for free speech, and one particular joke caught my attention because it felt a little too real.

Over the last year, Motherboard has reported extensively on the presence of hate groups on Steam: groups promoting Nazism or school shootings, among other things. These groups were often filled with racist language that's against Steam's code of conduct, but remained on the platform largely ignored. As Kotaku reported this March, some of those groups have since been removed with no statement from Valve. Its moderation practices remain frustratingly opaque, and the joke that Infowars could safely find a new home as a Steam group still doesn't feel too far-fetched.

Most of the offensive groups that remain on Steam seem designed to be jokes, but their trolly memes still contain hate speech, and a quick search will reveal plenty of these groups are still around, untouched by moderation. They're easy to find. Some of the groups Kotaku highlighted, like AustrAryans and Right-Wing Death Squads Union, are still there. Others pointed out by Motherboard, like "Future School Shooter Material" and "School Shoot Gang" are gone.

Is this simply a problem for any platform of Steam's size? Or is it a failure of moderation? Or the result of looser guidelines, deliberate or accidental, for what is acceptable speech on Steam? After comparing Steam's code of conduct to Microsoft and Sony's, the problem doesn't seem to be universal. Steam's rules aren't notably looser, either. Offensive and hateful speech remains on Steam because Valve doesn't aggressively enforce its own rules or use filters to prevent that speech in the first place.

Steam's code of conduct

Steam's code of conduct is brief and broad. It covers uploading illegal material, infringing on copyright, spreading viruses, harvesting information, and says users should not "violate any applicable laws or regulations." Pertinent to hate speech and harassment, there's only this line laying out forbidden activities:  

  • Defame, abuse, harass, stalk, threaten or otherwise violate the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others. 

That overly broad language doesn't really apply to hate groups that merely champion antisemitism or school shootings without threatening individuals. But it's also not Steam's only policy governing speech. In addition to its code of conduct, buried deep in the Steam Support knowledge base, is this page: Rules and guidelines for Steam: Discussions, reviews, and user generated content.

The rules on this page are much more specific, telling users not to bypass filters, flame other members, bump threads, or post spam. The content rules listed here also more specifically address types of speech that are not allowed, including:

  • Threats of violence or harassment, even as a joke
  • Racism, discrimination
  • Abusive language, including swearing
  • Religious, political, and other “prone to huge arguments” threads

Under those guidelines, many of the offensive Steam community groups are clearly in violation of the content policies. 

Steam's punishment for breaking the rules: Neither the conduct page of the guidelines page lays out the consequences for breaking Steam's rules. Steam's subscriber agreement says "Valve may cancel your Account… in the event that… you breach any terms of this Agreement (including any Subscription Terms or Rules of Use)." This page also suggests an account could be suspended for violating the agreement or code of conduct, but offers no specifics.

How Xbox compares to Steam

Xbox Live's code of conduct starts out with a strong qualifier: "the examples below are just a few examples of Conduct prohibited by the Microsoft Code of Conduct. Just because something isn't on this list doesn't mean it's OK." It's basically the corporate phrasing of the "don't be a dick" rule. Here are just a few of the conduct rules that pertain to speech: 

  • Profane words or phrases
  • Negative speech (including hate speech or threats of harm) directed at people who belong to a group, including groups based on race, ethnicity, nationality, language, gender, age, disability, veteran status, religion, or sexual orientation/expression
  • Anything involving sensitive events, current or historical
  • Content that promotes, or sounds or looks like words, phrases, puns, images or imagery that refer to any prohibited content

That last bullet point in particular covers borderline material that could by trying to get around filters or pass off as innocuous, like racist memes.

Xbox's punishment for breaking the rules: Content deletion, automatic assignment of a new gamertag, restrictions of your access Xbox live services, up to a permanent service or device ban.

How PlayStation compares to Steam

PlayStation's community code of conduct is the least detailed of the three. But it does include some details on the kinds of speech that isn't allowed. It also suggests adding users to your friend list, because friends are nice.

Here's some of the speech PlayStation specifically forbids:

  • Make sure your Online ID, messages, forum posts, user generated content or any other form of communication are not offensive to others: do not post anything that is defamatory (making an untrue statement that may be damaging to the person concerned) or racially, ethnically, religiously or sexually offensive.
  • Don't stalk, bully, discriminate against or abuse other users.

There are also more specific terms in the terms of service including anything Sony or its affiliates "find, in their sole discretion, offensive, hateful, or vulgar." It also flat out says: "You may not organize hate groups."

PlayStation's punishment for breaking the rules: Sony may suspend your account or even ban your system, and "reserves the right to suspend or ban a user for a first offence."

How Xbox enforces conduct rules

Xbox Live has an analogue to Steam groups called Clubs, which members can join. These clubs live on Xbox Live, so they're less like mini discussion groups and more like clans for partying up with friends or like-minded players.

What I assume are strong filters have kept the names of these clubs clean. Searching for obscenities and some common phrases like "feminazi" don't bring up anything. Alex Jones does have a few fans on Xbox Live, though the groups are all tiny. If any hate speech exists on Xbox Live, it's not easy to find in text. What you experience on voice chat may be a different story.

How PlayStation enforces conduct rules

PSN proves that Steam isn't the only gaming platform with unmoderated hate groups on its platform. Within a few minutes of searching I was able to find several groups dedicated to school shooters, Nazis, and decrying feminism. Are these groups serious, or meant to be silly, edgy trolling? It shouldn't really matter when they're clearly violating Sony's terms of service. Some of these groups have months of history in plain view and are openly joinable without an invitation.

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PSN naturally has a few Infowars communities, as well. The biggest I saw, with some 1,200 members, has comments like "there's no good jews now" in its recent history. Some of the PSN groups I found are notably larger, newer, and more active than similar groups on Steam. Many of Steam's have similarly offensive names that should be in breach of the code of conduct, but actually contain few posts. And those posts are months or even years old. This may be a result of the attention Motherboard and other publications have given to Steam's groups, resulting in the most active groups being banned. PSN hasn't been given the same scrutiny.

How Steam enforces conduct rules

Steam's community forums have a profanity filter that censors out obscenities in posts, but that same filter isn't active in Steam groups. Stronger filters for groups, like Xbox Live's, could help Valve cut down on offensive groups without manual moderation. As it stands, it's easy to create a group on Steam with a hateful name like Ze Nazi Party (TheHolocaustWasAHoax), Dolphy's Kingdom of Jews, or CUNT WARRIORS. Other groups, like this one ostensibly about Feminist Frequency, can be innocent in name but still contain harassing posts.

And then there are those Infowars groups, which are actually barely active and seem to be about making fun of Jones just as much as they are praising him. Even if Jones himself has promoted views that would violate the Steam code of conduct, the groups haven't, really, outside the occasional use of profanity. Technically they're all political, but far less than your average forum argument.

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Without Valve's input, it's impossible to know how many groups have been deleted from Steam for violating its policies. Valve did not respond to a request for comment for this story. It's possible that newer, more active groups have been effectively handled with manual moderation. Many of the offensive ones that remain date back to 2016 or before, and contain virtually no active discussion threads or comments. These are, by and large, not active hate communities, but one-off creations that a few dozen people joined and seemingly forgot about shortly after.

Still, it's obvious Valve—and Sony—have more work to do to keep their platforms clean. The most disappointing thing about Steam is that it allows users to run rampant with memes co-opted by white supremacists and turned into hate symbols, and the repercussions for creating offensive Steam groups seem to be laughably light: getting that group closed, and nothing more. The creators of some now-shut groups I've traced are still on Steam, having created new groups to replace their old ones. They're not banned, despite violating the code of conduct. Merely closing a group could barely be described as a slap on the wrist—it takes less than a minute to create a new Steam group.

Valve needs to do more than ban problematic Steam groups. It needs to ban the creators of those groups, too.

Valve may not be willing to ban the accounts of the customers who buy games from Steam for posting racist memes and other hateful material in discussion groups. The one place its rules fall short is spelling out, in detail, the punishments users can expect for such behavior. That may be because for most users, there is no punishment; cheating in CS:GO can get you a clear account ban, while peddling racism with memes seemingly just gets your group closed.

That's not good enough: Valve should at least be banning the creators of racist, sexist Steam groups from the social side of Steam. Without real consequences, Steam's code of conduct remains selectively enforced.