Vlad Lomakin used to stream himself on Twitch chatting with his followers about TikTok videos or playing video games such as Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto from his apartment in Kharkiv. But when the war in Ukraine started, he quickly switched to sharing images and videos of his city getting bombed to his 92,000 subscribers, the majority of whom live in Russia.
“Fortunately, my followers understand everything; they clearly see that this is a war, civilians are dying, many are forced to leave their homes,” Lomakin, whose Twitch username is Lomaka, told Motherboard. “A lot of people came in and apologized in the chat for the action of their president, even though they did not choose him.”
Lomakin would soon leave Kharkiv himself, as the city, which lies just 15 miles from the border of Russia, continued to be shelled for weeks. Now, much of the city lies in ruins. The 20-year-old Russian-language streamer is now a refugee in Dnipro living with his family and waiting for a chance to stream again.
But many other Twitch streamers in Ukraine are continuing to stream images and videos from an increasingly violent war, giving their Russian followers a different picture than the one painted by official media. And after the Russian government shut down Western social media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook and limited content on YouTube last month, the gaming-focused platform owned by Amazon has become one of the rare channels Russians can access without the help of VPNs.
Lomakin believes that Russia's government hasn't focused on spreading propaganda on Twitch to the extent it has on other networks, and says that the young audience on the platform is generally more skeptical of the Russian government. Russia has kept a tight grip on information, passing a law that imposes a jail term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally "fake" news about the military and shutting down independent media.
At the beginning of March, Lomakin and other Ukrainian Twitch streamers made a video asking Twitch not to pull out from Russia. As western countries introduced sanctions, many tech companies, including Google, TikTok, Nintendo, and Netflix have either paused some of their services or decided to pack up and leave. Twitch suspended payments to Russian users due to sanctions.
“We thought that we can address Russian audiences, young audiences that can accept information better than people that are watching Russian propaganda,” said Mykhailo Zvieriev, a professional YouTube broadcaster and Twitch streamer known as Olsior with a 116,000-strong follower base.
Zvieriev’s last stream from his home in Kyiv was on Feb. 24, the day Russia launched its invasion. Two days later, he escaped with his family to the Carpathian mountains and then to Lviv, a city on the western side of Ukraine close to the Polish border.
The streamer has switched his usual content of watching anime and talking to followers to bringing news from different media and government outlets to his followers, about 63 percent of whom are Russian, according to data he can see on the Twitch backend. He says he’s careful when sharing unverified information, warning his followers to do their own research. But as the war drags on into its sixth week, Zvieriev is no longer sure his streams have the power to change minds.
“Ninety-nine percent of the audience that wanted to get real information from Ukraine already got it,” he says. “And for the people who don't want any information from here and prefer watching Russian TV, Twitch won't help.”
Ukrainian Twitch streamers have gained many followers in Russia because of the shared language: Across former USSR countries, streamers are using Russian to reach larger audiences than by using their native languages, explains Stepan Shulga, head of e-sports at Parimatch Tech.
Shulga believes it’s just a matter of time before the Russian government bans Twitch. The platform has no geo-locks and no possibility to restrict content on certain territories. Despite the fact that many Ukrainian streamers have stopped streaming because of the war, those who are online do not plan to stop spreading information about bombings and the casualties: “There’s no way just to prevent people to get the truth.”
The streams, however, may not be enough to change minds. Around 70 percent of Russian Twitch commenters he's analyzed do not realize how bad the situation is, he says. Not only that, but many of the posts are spreading hate, creating a moderation problem for streamers.
“What’s sad for me is that I streamed for a lot of people from Russia for eight years and they know me very well; I am a streamer with a good reputation,” says Arseniy Trynozhenko, known for his Twitch nickname Ceh9. “That's why the situation hurts me. A lot of streamers from Ukraine can't understand why their audience from Russia doesn't believe that airplanes are bombing their hometowns here.”
Trynozhenko is a Counter-Strike champion. As a Russian-language commentator for esports tournaments and a founder of the Ukrainian professional esports organization Natus Vincere, he is well known in the field.
Politics has always been part of his streams, from the Euromaidan protests to the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. But since the start of the war, Trynozhenko has lost a huge number the Russian followers from his 700,000-strong base.
The esports player is living in Lviv where a bomb fell just 1.2 miles (2 km) away from his apartment. He got banned from Twitch for a couple of days after a user reported him for showing dead bodies during his stream. Twitch reinstated his account after he explained it was an accident, he said.
“Nowadays, I can't play video games because I can't relax. Every day is really terrifying,” he said. “You can't just play killing someone, shooting someone in a video game when your neighbors from Kyiv and Kharkiv, your friends, Ukrainians, are dying.”