Are Twitch livestreamers legitimate political commentators? Although the platform began as a setting to watch gamers play, Twitch has increasingly varied its content. Cooking, day-to-day activities, webcam models and political commentaries are all watchable nowadays, particularly in the platform’s “Just Chatting” category, which was added in late 2018. “Just Chatting” often has more viewers than any other game, and although some streamers play games in “Just Chatting,” Twitch has clearly diversified its content. Still, regarding politics, many perceive the mainstream media outlets as more legitimate than streamers. Is this fair? That depends on how one defines streamers and whatever they decide a true political commentator is, so the question is much more complicated than it might initially seem. If one perceives streamers as a mass of mere stereotypical gamers, as people without a background in politics, their legitimacy may be in question. To some extent this perception applies, but in an increasing number of cases, the largest political commentators on Twitch already have backgrounds in politics and therefore are legitimate, although unofficial, commentators.
Take Hasan Piker, 29, who garnered nearly 1.2 million followers and 41,000 subscribers, under his Twitch handle Hasanabi. According to twitch.tv, paying a subscription to a streamer grants access to several benefits, including the ability to use emotes in a community chat, streams solely accessible to subscribers, “ad-free viewing and more,” but anyone can follow a streamer, regularly watch their content and receive updates from the channel for free. The more popular a streamer is, the more subscribers and followers they have, and Piker currently stands seventh on the leaderboard of Twitch’s current active subs.
But why is Piker’s popularity important? Previously an associate of The Young Turks, one of the most popular progressive news shows online, he encourages leftist politics — particularly among young men, who make up Twitch’s primary viewership. Throughout 2020, Piker reacted live to videos of the countrywide Black Lives Matter protests. Piker told The New York Times, “I showed what the people on the ground were saying rather than the way local news or the mainstream media was covering it to some degree … I broadly criticized the local news networks that hyper-focused on looting and all these other tropes they were building about these protests.” According to that same article, he streamed for 16 straight hours on Election Day 2020, reaching a peak of “225,000 concurrent viewers” — and this stream has since been viewed over 4.5 million times. It’s known that young voters came out in unusual droves during the last election cycle, and streamers like Piker certainly played a positive role by energizing voters, though the magnitude of their impact is unclear.
Politicians and mainstream activists have also realized Twitch’s ability to reach potential voters. In October 2019, the Trump campaign joined Twitch to broadcast the former president’s campaign speeches. Then-presidential candidate Bernie Sanders did the same that year. Trump was removed from Twitch following the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, but Sanders continues to broadcast. On March 26, for instance, Sanders screened speeches in support of Amazon workers creating their own union to over 5,700 viewers total. Perhaps most notably, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) streamed themselves playing the video game “Among Us” with several other popular streamers, Hasan Piker included. Ocasio-Cortez’s first stream reached 700,000 concurrent viewers, and there have been 1.6 million views on the video. Moreover, Stacey Abrams is lauded for her voter turnout initiatives in Georgia, arguably shifting the whole of the 2020 election in the Democratic Party’s favor. As a means to do so, the New Georgia Project, which Abrams co-founded at the end of 2013, streamed a 12-hour marathon on Election Day. According to The Esports Observer, the stream featured live music, a panel discussion, prizes, celebrities and more to encourage Americans to vote. Abrams later streamed with Tanya DePass, 48, otherwise known as cypheroftyr on Twitch. “I’m joining activist and gamer @cypheroftyr tomorrow, 1/4, in an Animal Crossing gaming session to discuss what’s at stake in Georgia’s Senate runoff election,” she posted on Twitter on January 3.
Returning to the original question, the political legitimacy of streamers cannot be totally dismissed, as several of the platform’s most famous faces are politicians, pundits and activists. Of course, mostly apolitical streamers have the ability to influence their audiences too. One might argue that they ought not to use their influence without some formal education in contemporary issues. However, the internet as a whole allows other influencers and celebrities to do so on platforms besides Twitch. Former President Donald Trump, for instance, used Twitter as a political outsider in order to become the commander in chief. Liberals and leftists certainly detested the former president’s Twitter, but that did not neutralize the legitimacy of his messages among those who agree with them.
If another political candidate or an up-and-coming influencer begins pressing left-wing talking points, left-wingers should not condemn this person due to a lack of qualifications. Instead, they should accept these talking points as the means to legitimize that person as an acceptable political commentator. Moreover, claiming that apolitical influencers should not voice politicized opinions online is elitist. One might as well say that no one aside from college-educated persons and network employees should have input in politics. In another sense, this argument is pointlessly utopian — people will never willingly remove themselves from the political sphere. Furthermore, the bias against Twitch streamers, who can flesh out their arguments without restrictions, is odd considering Twitter only allows for 280 characters per tweet. So instead of being hesitant to hear a streamer’s opinion, no matter their qualifications, critics should acknowledge that Twitch actually provides relatively honest, unedited perspectives more often than other platforms. Given American’s fixation on the “marketplace of ideas,” the notion that the best ideas will win out through logic, most would agree that viewers will quickly notice that a streamer is uneducated on the issues. The popularity of these influencers’ unqualified opinions, therefore, should die out naturally.
Gavin VanHorn is a senior double-majoring in history and philosophy, politics and law.