The politics of the United States are constantly expanding into new strategies and battlegrounds. The 1960s saw the advent of televised political advertisements and debates; in 2008 and 2016, observers credited effective use of social media for the victorious presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Today, a new form of political media is taking shape on Twitch.tv.
Created in 2011, Twitch is the largest live-streaming platform on the web, home to more than 140 million monthly users around the globe. The Amazon-owned platform regularly pulls in more concurrent viewers than traditional media giants such as MSNBC and CNN. For most of its nine-year history, video gaming content has been the king of Twitch—but during the latter months of 2019, something started to change. With the lead-up to the Democratic primaries in full swing, Twitch users began to gather in communities of like-minded individuals to watch the debates and stay up-to-date on the latest news surrounding the candidates.
The Left has built an impressive presence on the internet, from our thousands of comrades on Twitter, to the many TikTok leftists working together to troll the president, to “BreadTube,” the YouTube collective producing innovative new forms of leftist media. Our ability to organize online often surpasses that of our liberal and conservative counterparts—a strength exemplified by the strong presence of the Left on Twitch.tv.
A prominent member of the growing Twitch Left is longtime political activist and DSA member Michael Beyer, also known as “MikeFromPA.” Beyer has been actively involved in politics for the better part of a decade, running for the Pennsylvania state legislature in 2014 and temporarily working as a content producer for The Majority Report, a leftist podcast. In August 2019, Beyer decided to start his own Twitch channel. He averaged 100 concurrent viewers during his first broadcast, and his following has only grown from there.
As political content has grown in popularity on Twitch, some have begun to question why the Left is predominant in this space. Why aren’t there any popular conservative streamers? Beyer believes that the interactive social dynamics of Twitch create the perfect breeding ground for the egalitarian ethos of the Left: “Leftism is inherently a communal belief system, and one where authenticity and interaction with one another is what has made it grow.”
A prominent feature of Twitch is the active live chat, which allows community members to simultaneously converse with their fellow viewers and the streamer. “People can interact with me and ask me in real time, like, ‘hey, Mike, you talked about X? What did you mean by that?’” Beyer says.
The absence of conservative voices on the platform is not for a lack of trying; so far, most conservatives who’ve tried to find a receptive audience on Twitch have simply failed. The few right-wing figures who do rise in popularity on the platform risk being banned for espousing their more bigoted views. One might think that Twitch’s predominately young, white, and male audience would be more receptive to right-wing rhetoric—but in Beyer’s experience, this has not been the case. “I get this all the time: that so many people that felt uncomfortable on Twitch before they came to my community or Hasan [Piker]’s community found that they could be a part of the community without worrying about like, ‘oh, you know, am I going to get harassed because I’m a trans person or a woman or a person of color,’” Beyer says. “If you want the most diverse places on Twitch, they’re going to be my streaming community and Hasan’s community. Absolutely. Without a doubt, way more women, way more people of all different ages.”
Today, Beyer is one of the largest political content producers on Twitch, averaging 3,000-4,000 viewers per stream, and he isn’t alone. Last November, the most popular streamer on the platform was Hasan “HasanAbi” Piker, another democratic socialist. Piker, Beyer, and dozens of other leftist creators have gained sizable followings on Twitch, and their audiences continue to grow by the day.
Recently, Twitch has become an active platform for both political organizing and direct action. In October, DSA-endorsed congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made her debut on the platform with a ‘Get Out to Vote’ broadcast that became the fourth-largest single-person livestream in the history of Twitch. Viewership of the stream peaked at 435,000 viewers, according to the analytics tracking site SullyGnome. During this broadcast, she played the popular social deduction game “Among Us,” joined by fellow congresswoman Ilhan Omar and some of the largest creators on Twitch. (The game Among Us takes place on a futuristic spaceship, where crewmates (players) must work together to figure out which of them are Impostors before it’s too late.) Despite being new to the game, Ocasio-Cortez held her own against these gaming veterans, even securing a few wins. She followed this record-breaking debut with a second charity livestream, featuring Canadian Parliamentarian Jagmeet Singh, that raised over $200,000 for local food pantries, eviction defense legal aid, and community support organizations.
Ocasio-Cortez’s first appearance on Twitch occurred a year earlier, when she called in to talk with progressive content creator Harris “Hbomberguy” Brewis during a 57-hour livestream event that raised over $347,000 for the trans advocacy group Mermaids.
With this kind of success, Beyer sees Twitch as untrodden ground for political campaigning. “Games are intensely political; the medium itself is intensely political. There is no avoiding politics,” the streamer says. “And, you know, this platform—the cat’s out of the bag, Pandora’s box is open, every other metaphor that you want… young people are engaged. Socialist politics is extremely popular among young people, and figures like AOC, with their media literacy and their online literacy, are going to be using platforms like this to build power.”
Will Twitch hold an active role in the next campaign cycle? Will the Left be able to utilize this platform not only for electoral politics, but for direct action too?
Ocasio-Cortez and Brewis have proven that Twitch can be a powerful political tool. Beyer and Piker have proven that there is a desire for livestreamed leftist content. Future candidates and activists would be well advised to mobilize this newfound audience.