“Americans vote on vibes,” Twitch streamer Hasan Piker said four hours into his pre-Election Day stream Monday, reacting to a clip of a news broadcast.
It’s the kind of comment — purposefully incendiary — that has made Piker, an internet personality who livestreams a show for up to nine hours almost every day, one of the most followed of a new crop of social media stars who focus on politics, current events and social commentary. He has about 2.3 million followers on Twitch, which is owned by Amazon.
“I think politics is boring or controversial or sometimes both,” Piker said in a recent interview. “And it’s hard to make it entertaining.”
Viewership is crucial on Twitch; having engaged viewers is more important. In response to his vibes comment, the chat that accompanies his streams erupted with emotes. One comment complained about the “awful vibes here in Ohio.” It served as a segue into Piker’s discussing early voter turnout.
Thousands of viewers are tuning in to Twitch more regularly to get current events analysis — Piker’s stream Monday, for example, averaged more than 34,000 viewers. At TwitchCon last month, people gathered to see a handful of their favorite streamers speak on a panel about maintaining a politically active audience.
The news and politics genre, while growing, remains dwarfed by the gaming content that dominates Twitch. Piker and others in the space are trying to lure in audiences that don’t typically pay attention to news with their political commentary.
And while the audiences are relatively small compared with those of major TV and radio programs, many viewers are particularly engaged, sometimes watching for hours, Twitch Chief Marketing Officer Rachel Delphin said.
The interactivity is key. “The live aspect of content creation, of being a streamer, is all about this authenticity and embracing the serendipity,” Delphin said, noting that nongaming content on the platform gains more viewers every year.
She said that as a Twitch streamer, “you have to be willing to interact live, which introduces a degree of unpredictability that I think a lot of folks aren’t comfortable with.”
Some streamers, for example, choose to just banter with their viewers. Others award viewers with channel perks for participating in quizzes related to current events.
Frogan, a creator who was working on her master’s degree in public health when the coronavirus pandemic started, primarily uses her channel to dispel medical misinformation. Discouraged by the conflicting messaging around Covid safety, she “picked up a health communication certification” and started streaming about public health.
Although her goal is to address public health misinformation, Frogan draws viewers in with “react” content. In a recent stream, she live-reacted to the awkward scenes in “90 Day Fiancé.” In another Halloween-themed stream, she applied elaborate butterfly makeup.
“I want to gain the maximum amount of viewership with the reacts. And then I sneak that public health in so it kind of gets their gears turning and they’re coming back for more,” she said. “Not only for the reaction, but also the public health, because it can be boring.”
To keep her viewers engaged once she draws them in, Frogan started making quiz games. During a stream covering the public health implications of the lack of abortion access across the country, she made a PowerPoint presentation and set up a multiple-choice quiz at the end. If they answer correctly, viewers are awarded channel points, which grant them access to more exclusive content, like her live cat camera.
“People were receptive,” Frogan said. “After, I do a poll. I’m like: ‘Did you learn anything?’ And a lot of the time it’s over 90% ‘yes.’”
The engagement news and politics streamers get can be a double-edged sword. The one-sided aspect of traditional political commentary broadcasts limits viewer engagement. But the option to respond directly can detract from the messaging creators like Piker are trying to deliver.
“It’s very annoying, and something I try to combat regularly in my community, because I think it’s stupid,” Piker said of the backlash he gets in his chat and Twitter mentions. “I care about making immediate, short-term goals possible and making meaningful material changes in the short term that correspond to overarching systemic changes in the long term. And you’re never going to establish that when you’re constantly fighting.”
People are increasingly turning to social media for news. A report in September from the Pew Research Center found about half of U.S. adults get their news from social media — although a mere 1% seek it out on Twitch. U.S. adults under age 30 are “almost as likely” to trust information from social media as information from national news outlets, according to another report Pew Research published last month.
Efforts to create news analysis that’s as entertaining as it is educational is generating a dedicated following for politics streamers.
Some politicians have also tried to emulate their engagement, with mixed results.
In September, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., launched his Twitch channel, announcing on Twitter that he would bring his “America First message to a new generation of viewers.”
His debut stream kicked off with a 30-minute chat about the Jan. 6 riot and “wokeism” with former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie. It reportedly peaked at just six viewers.
In 2020, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., broke records with her “get out the vote” debut stream, which peaked at over 430,000 viewers. At the time, it was one of the most-watched streams in Twitch’s history.
Keeping viewers engaged can be challenging, which is why hosting debates against other online figures is so appealing.
“So one way that a lot of people find to make this stuff entertaining is by debating each other,” Piker said of the small community. “You’re gonna run out of issues real quick. We’re gonna start debating right-wingers, and then you’re gonna start debating Nazis, and then the platforming conversation kicks in.”
The “platforming conversation” is baked into leftist spaces all over social media, not just in the news and politics Twitch community. If large creators address fringe figures’ problematic ideologies, by either directly engaging in debates or by discussing them on their channels, are they lending their platforms to the fringe figures?
When Andrew Tate went viral for his vitriolic comments about women this year, for example, many creators were torn between debunking his talking points and ignoring him altogether to avoid further boosting his content.
Piker said he doesn’t believe debating a problematic figure will change anyone’s mind. If viewers are set on siding with one ideology over the other, trying to sway them with good-faith arguments will likely be unproductive.
But Piker does see “utility” in participating in a debate, he said, if the other participant already has a large platform.
“You do debates because maybe you have the opportunity to thoroughly dismantle your opponent’s arguments and humiliate them," he said.
Piker said he could never see mainstream outlets’ adopting the “genuine back-and-forth feedback” during live shows that Twitch allows. Even if they did, he said, he doesn’t think more traditional pundits would be able to stomach a raucous chat while they try to cover the news.