Image: Wikimedia Commons/Dimitri Rodriguez

GG no re: why Twitch streams are becoming an important election tool

In late July, a frustrated Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), annoyed at the US House of Representatives’ failure to block military recruitment on Twitch, tweeted, “Imagine trying to explain to your colleagues who are members of Congress what Twitch is.”

The idea that the United States’ Congress, where the average age is 57.8, doesn’t understand the video game streaming platform Twitch is unsurprising. In a political landscape where politicians such as Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) will ask Mark Zuckerberg, “Is Twitter the same as what you do?” or where politicians – as both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have once done – blame video game violence as a scapegoat for various social issues, is it really that unexpected? 

However, this technological ineptitude may inevitably lead to the demise of some political careers, as a failure to adequately campaign online can lead to disastrous consequences. As politicians grasp the various workings of social media and learn what not to tweet, Ocasio-Cortez has always remained one step ahead, and has now turned to Twitch for her latest political campaigning.  

At its peak, Ocasio-Cortez’s stream attracted 439,000 concurrent viewers 

After putting out a tweet asking if “Anyone want to play Among Us with me on Twitch to get out the vote?”, the New York congresswoman quickly teamed up with some of the most popular Twitch streamers, including Dr. Lupo and Pokimane, alongside her fellow ‘The Squad’ member and Democrat congresswoman, Ilhan Omar (D-MN). At its peak, the stream attracted 439,000 concurrent viewers – just under 200,000 viewers shy of Ninja’s Fortnite stream with Drake and well inside the top twenty largest streams ever.

So why did she do it? While Among Us certainly is an entertaining game, and it appears the congresswoman wholeheartedly enjoyed the experience, her intentions were beyond just having fun.

Youth turnout in American elections is famously low. According to the US Census Bureau, turnout for those between 18 and 29 in 2016 was just 46.1% compared to the national average of 61.4%. Given younger people’s propensity to vote in favour of Democrat candidates, increasing youth voter turnout and the wider voter turnout stands to benefit the Democrat Party. 

So when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez implored her viewers to get out and vote, if this message gets out to a group of Americans who might not usually vote or have never voted in an election, it could help swing elections in favour of the Democrats, alongside humanising her and quashing perceptions of elitism often held about politicians. We might not know whether Ocasio-Cortez’s stream substantially affected the most recent US election, but in a race as tight as this was, every piece of campaigning is vital.

While this may have worked for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whether the likes of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi or, turning to UK politics, Sir Keir Starmer, could pull off a Twitch stream remains to be seen, especially when we turn back to Hillary Clinton’s cringe-inducing “Pokémon GO to the polls” line from the 2016 Presidential Election.

With Ocasio-Cortez, however, it’s much more on-brand. She previously boasted of making it to Silver III in League of Legends which, despite being seen as a mid-tier ranking by the wider League community, is pretty impressive considering her role as a full-time representative.

In using these platforms for political purposes, politicians risk conflating politics with entertainment

Of course, there is a darker side to politicians finally incorporating Twitch into their political platforms. Indeed, this is an issue Ocasio-Cortez recognised herself when criticising the US Army’s attempts to recruit soldiers through their own Twitch channel.

In using these platforms for political purposes, politicians risk conflating politics with entertainment, reducing key policy debates to an even more populist, personality-based competition which, when targeting a primarily younger audience (many of which are children) could have dangerous implications for how we discuss politics.

I am, however, still a strong believer that this move is the latest way in which gaming is finally being institutionalised as a vital part of society, especially amid a global pandemic, and that this could hopefully shine a spotlight on some of the issues gaming faces that need to be addressed by legislatures. 

But we cannot escape the fact that there is, just as with any growing media platform, room for abuse. Many in the gaming community on Twitter and Reddit were enthralled by the congresswoman’s stream, partly also because they happen to share the progressive values of Ocasio-Cortez. I doubt they would feel the same if Ben Shapiro or Barron Trump started streaming Fall Guys.

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