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Illustration featuring the US Govt building, the US flag and the logo for the Twitch streaming platform Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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On Twitch, talking about politics can be taboo

Why streamers tend to avoid certain topics

No matter whose Twitch stream you’re on, there are a few unwritten rules that you can reliably expect to be enforced. You shouldn’t spam in the chat. You shouldn’t advertise someone else’s stream. You should be nice. You should speak the same language as everyone else. And, more often than not: You shouldn’t bring up politics.

Streamers’ attitudes on politics varies from entertainer to entertainer, but typically, the bigger the Twitch streamer, the more likely it is that they’ll shy away from anything that could be considered controversial.

“Money is a powerful thing,” Twitch streamer dmbrandon told Polygon, in an attempt to explain the phenomenon. What he means is that, in his view, Twitch streamers would rather keep mum on divisive topics out of fear of potentially losing subscribers, and therefore money, in the same way that Taylor Swift was, for a long time, notoriously silent on anything that could set off the conservative portion of her fandom.

In his Twitch profile, dmbrandon calls himself outspoken — which might explain why in early August, the personality shared a divisive tweet where he asked streamers to stop saying that they “don’t talk about politics.”

“Grow the fuck up, get educated, and help your viewer base understand what the fuck is going on,” dmbrandon said. “If you can’t do that, it’s STRICTLY because you care more about money than human lives.”

Appropriately, summit1g, one of the most popular streamers on the platform, jokingly responded by posting a GIF of comedian Dave Chapelle clutching money. For some, talking about politics is tantamount to putting your livelihood in danger. Most streamers won’t phrase it like this, though. Instead, avoiding politics is presented as a supposedly inclusive measure.

“I welcome people of all beliefs, practices, lifestyles, and opinions in my stream,” said MissHenleyTV, a full-time streamer on Mixer. “Not worth it to me to have anyone feel excluded or unwelcome.”

Twitch Twitch

While Twitch primarily exists for entertainment, like playing video games in front of an audience, these broadcasts are unfolding in a particularly tumultuous time in history. In America, we’re coming up on an election year with a president that seems keen on punishing brown people. The Amazon is burning, xenophobia and right-wing movements are on the rise around the world, and somehow we’ve somehow found ourselves once again dealing with nazis. And maybe the world is ending within the next 50 years?

For some streamers who see themselves as role models for their viewers, not talking about politics seems irresponsible. After all, more people get their news from social media, of which Twitch is a part, than they do traditional newspapers. And since Twitch streams often use personal bedrooms as a backdrop, viewers feel a close relationship with their broadcaster of choice. Fans, in short, trust Twitch streamers and often use them to seek out guidance for everything from relationship troubles to depression, at times treating the viewer-streamer relationship as a digital type of therapy.

Trihex, a speedrunner on Twitch, tells Polygon that he began realizing “how awful” the political climate in the U.S. was after the end of Jon Stewart’s run on The Daily Show in 2015. So, he started using his platform to talk about issues that mattered to him.

“I started it as a moral obligation that made me feel good about doing the right thing,” Trihex said over Twitter messages.

“My brand on my stream is very genuine,” he said. “I always want to be myself, and I think my audience can detect if I were ever being fraudulent. So if I’m passionate about Bernie Sanders running for US Presidency, I can’t help but show that.”

While Trihex is one of Twitch’s biggest streamers — his face is a popular emote that can be seen all around the site — he is somewhat of an anomaly.

“It’s often a risk, and with the huge variable of reaction, might not be inviting for most Twitch broadcasters,” he said. In his experience, though, streams dedicated to political topics garner viewership that is “quite healthy.”

“Many [are] curious within Twitch’s ecosystem who want to be involved, but are hoping for a guiding hand,” he said.

Twitch and YouTube icons overlay a game controller Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

But most Twitch personalities tend to avoid the subject, no matter what form it might take. The reasons can vary widely. One oft-cited rationale is that streamers know that the world is a giant trash fire right now.

“I have a lot of strong beliefs when it comes to politics, but I tend to keep them away from my stream,” said Stapecape, a small streamer on Twitch. “My stream is my time to decompress from the world and escape for a bit.” He clarified that he won’t avoid the subject if it comes up naturally, but Staples often won’t go out of his way to pursue topics like, say, religion. Other topics, like mental illness, come more naturally to Stapecape — so it depends on thing in question.

One of the top responses to dmbrandon’s politics tweet saw Clintus, a streamer who broadcasts daily, agreeing that people should educate themselves on what’s going on in the world — he just doesn’t think Twitch is the right place to do so.

“Politics, like religion, is a belief system and divides people that ultimately ends in arguments and name calling,” Clintus wrote. “There are places to have those discussions. My chat ain’t it.”

Similarly, another tweet response with over a thousand likes suggested that perhaps getting education from “people who play video games all day” isn’t the best idea. Based on my conversation with streamers, many believe that Twitch chat isn’t always capable of handling nuanced political conversations.

GreenDumpling, a Twitch streamer who hosts a talk show about current events, told Polygon that he “absolutely avoid[s] talking about politics” because “people aren’t able to have a healthy discussion without resorting to yelling and abuse.” In his experience, political and religious chatter can cause people to “lose friendship.”

“There’s a streamer who used to mention that she is a Trump supporter and the minute she opens her mouth, she was dragged because she couldn’t explain why she voted for him,” GreenDumpling recalled. “And people were saying things like ‘Trump supporter, racist, homophobic’ in chat.”

Attitudes like these are prevalent, but the world right now is bad enough that even “no politics” defenders are starting to reconsider their stances. Grand Theft Auto role-playing Twitch streamer Nikatine, for example, used to have a strict policy against politics, but she’s not sure she’ll stick with it. At first, avoiding sensitive subjects was meant to provide viewers with “a space to heal and relax.” Nikatine also knows that broaching the subject in the past caused her streams to become the target of trolls.

“Being trans is inherently political to some people, and I’ve realized that simply by virtue of being out I’m going to get the same kind of political trolling whether or not I allow discourse,” Nikatine told Polygon over email.

Then, the shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival happened. Nikatine is a Bay Area native — and the tragedy spooked her.

“There are two scary moments with being so near a mass shooting like that: The first is calling your family and not knowing if they are alright,” Nikatine said. “The second scariest moment is the next day or two when you hear about another mass shooting and everyone forgets about the one that scared you so deeply, and you realize that everything you felt is being felt by huge swaths of people all over the country. It’s a loss of innocence, of naïveté, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

The experience was harrowing enough that “no politics” is increasingly becoming a difficult prospect for Nikatine, though she haven’t fully decided how she’ll approach it in the future.

Twitch IRL Twitch

Part of the issue that some streamers face is that video games and Twitch are considered apolitical spaces, a misconception that is often repeated by high-level gaming execs.

Game makers and fans alike will swear that, say, games where real-world gun manufacturers pay to have their brands represented in them somehow doesn’t mean anything.

“Video games have been political for a while,” said Trihex, citing things like Trump’s tariffs, which will have an impact on the video game industry, as well as ongoing hot-button issues such as diversity in games.

Confidently tackling politics requires priming your audience to accept that politics aren’t just everywhere — they are vital to making the world a better place. On some level, Twitch streamers know this, given that the platform is often used to raise money for good causes. But taming chat requires a steady hand, clear rules, fair moderation, and community buy-in, and these are things that take a lot of time and effort.

HeatheredEffect, a streamer who recently gained mainstream attention after a campaign where she pushed Twitch to allow breastfeeding on the platform, says that the only way political talk can work is if the entertainer is thoughtful about it. Given that Twitch is often a huge, on-the-fly improvisation, entertainers don’t always feel comfortable taking on something as tricky as politics. Before she tackles certain subjects, HeatheredEffect likes to read up on the topic to make sure she knows what she’s talking about.

“When I do voice my opinion on something that I feel passionately about, I make sure that I don’t insult people that don’t agree with me and I listen to their point of view,” she said. “I try to stay open minded and I respect that people have their right to their opinions even if I don’t necessarily agree with them.”

But political topics aren’t always a choice for all streamers, especially if you are a marginalized creator. Tielqt, a trans streamer on Mixer, says that politics have “a direct and tangible impact” on her, and how she’s seen by society. She doesn’t avoid the topic.

“It’s stuff I’m thinking about in real time anyway, so why suppress that for the sake of an audience?” Tielqt said. “It would feel like a lie by omission.”

Curiously, most of the streamers who told me they are willing to get political are also a part of smaller, more tight-knit communities. In Twitch streamer Michael Nunez’s opinion, it’s easier to do so when fewer eyes are watching you.

“I believe that small streamers have a blank canvas to discuss many topics at hand, but that expressiveness most definitely lessens as a streamer’s community grows,” Nunez said.

Streamers who brave political waters sometimes find that it’s not enough to want to dive into the subject — they have to be careful about how they do so. Trihex, for example, got banned after attempting to commentate over CNN’s democratic debates. As politics can involve news footage, there’s a real danger of Twitch streamers coming up against DMCA claims, which means that the streaming platform genuinely isn’t the best place to have certain forms of discussion.

Twitch emotes LUL, Kappa, and TriHard on a green-and-Twitch-purple background Ross Miller

All the same, streamers like dmbrandon are hoping to mobilize their audiences in new ways, like building a Twitch extension that helps people register to vote. Others, like Sims streamer Mira, tend to discuss politics more around election time, whether that’s on the national stage or in local ballots.

“We can’t make any changes about our situation and the political climate if we aren’t making our voices be heard,” Mira told Polygon.

Political candidates like Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, are starting to use Twitch to broadcast things like rallies and town halls — and thousands of people are showing up. So while some of Twitch’s userbase sees the space as a politics-free zone, other parts of the site are wandering into unknown territory, at least for Twitch. Spaces like YouTube and Facebook are already understood as sites that can change hearts and minds, if not influence entire elections. Twitch, which services millions of people every day, is also punching at that weight, even if the community is slow to acknowledge it.

“I’m realizing more and more that entertainment isn’t always about escapism, and some things are simply more important than that,” Nikatine said.

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