The Biggest Political Voices on Twitch Are The Washington Post and Some Dude Playing Call of Duty
In June, Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders joined Twitch, the livestream website mostly known for hosting video game content. A few months later, President Trump followed suit.
For years, Twitch has broadened its livestream offerings beyond the world of gaming, opening up avenues for streamers to broadcast IRL (in real life) and creative outlets like music and cooking. This month, it added the latest non-gaming category to the website: politics.
The addition came during the second week of presidential impeachment hearings, and after a handful of streamers had taken to broadcasting the inquiries on their channels. The most notable stream was hosted by The Washington Post, an outlet also known for its engaging and interactive Reddit and idiosyncratic TikTok account. The Post’s Twitch channel has previously streamed congressional hearings, press conferences and Q&As over the past two years.
Nearly 3,000 viewers, on average, tuned into the Post’s streams, filling the chatroom with emotes and reactions to the live testimonies. But it wasn’t just traditional media covering the hearings: the next-most-popular streamer covering the event, with an average viewership on-par with the Post’s, was Shaun “Hutch” Hutchinson, better known for playing Call of Duty.
“I co-streamed every single minute of the hearings except for one piece of testimony and that was just because I was physically exhausted,” he says. “I had been up since like 5am for the whole week and 2pm came around one day and I just couldn’t do it.”
A staple within the Call of Duty community and content creator since 2008, Hutchinson says he never shied away from sharing political opinions online but began regularly integrating his predominantly left-leaning political views into his digital content during the 2015 presidential primaries.
“I was a little surprised to learn that I had so many people that followed my channel who were Trump supporters,” he says. “It was a little alarming to me, to be honest. I just made peace with the fact that I was probably going to lose some fans.”
While Twitch’s near 15 million average daily viewers are a prime audience for politicians to capitalize on growing voter turnout among young people, navigating the community is an expectedly difficult task, even for politicians whose positions fair favorably within polarizing social media settings. One of Bernie Sanders first streams, for example, was a pre-recorded campaign event rebroadcast on his channel that sparked discontent among supporters for violating the biggest unwritten rule on Twitch: don’t stream non-live content.
The meme-laden irony that drenches Twitch-speak and culture also acts as a filter against the type of rehearsed stump speeches and talking points that are typical in politics but would fail miserably on Twitch. Hutchinson points to Trump’s ability in 2016 to tap into this type of layman’s language, but a desire for frankness isn’t exclusive to right-leaning voters.
Hutchinson says one of the biggest obstacles to political discourse on Twitch are trolls–anonymous commenters whose sole objective is to derail productive conversation through a handful of tactics like spamming a channel’s chatroom and gaslighting or baiting a streamer into a purposefully toxic argument.
One morning this week, a channel under the username “proudamerican1776” was broadcasting within the new politics category to a handful of viewers. The stream featured a dashboard with a slideshow of memes, some of which accused the likes of YouTube and Google of “deleting your freedom minute by minute”, as well as an ongoing broadcast of InfoWars, the conspiratorial website run by Alex Jones notable for spreading false reports about Sandy Hook, Pizzagate and other right wing conspiracies. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Apple have all effectively removed InfoWars and Jones from their platforms.
Over the duration of reporting this story, the channel appears to have been removed by Twitch. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether the channel was banned, nor whether InfoWars content is allowed on the platform. The following day, the Trump campaigned streamed an event from Sunrise, Florida, flooding thousands of politically-inclined viewers into the politics category of Twitch, significantly boosting the exposure to all other channels, big or small, broadcasting at the time.
In October, Sky News launched an official Twitch channel to stream live news to an emerging audience. It’ll also be hosting coverage of the U.K. general election on Twitch. “The mistake people make is that they say Twitch is a gaming community; it’s not,” Alan Strange, output editor at Sky, told IBC about the channel’s launch. “We were streaming to a community of people who are hyper-interested in news and current affairs and had plenty to say about.”
While a foray into a largely uncharted platform offers a wealth of opportunity to traditional broadcasters, missteps on social media can also prove costly. Last week, the BBC was scrutinized for editing out a section of audience laughter during a Question Time debate special featuring Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Social media videos on Facebook and Twitter highlighting the edit were viewed more than the original broadcast itself.
While news organizations wade carefully, the platforms themselves also tread into the unknown ahead of a major election year in the wake of past scandals, disinformation campaigns and fake news at large. From inside Twitch’s political scene, the community and viewership numbers only appear to be growing, with the arrival of figures like Trump and Sanders further legitimizing the community’s presence. According to the social media analytics website Social Blade, since the start of 2016, popular political streamer Steven “Destiny” Bonnell has seen a growth of over 330,000 followers, a 250% increase. Similarly, Hasan Piker, political commentator for The Young Turks, began streaming on Twitch in 2018 and has accumulated nearly 160,000 followers in the last 12 months.
Bonnell says it’s “interesting that [Twitch] is dedicating a section to politics when political conversations can get so dicey.” He admits he’s not sure the best way to handle moderation within the community. “It’s hard to tell where political content will go, but it seems to be growing and growing.”