Press Start to Play: AOC’s stream could be a slippery slope for politicians on Twitch

If you had told me two weeks ago that U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would be one of the top streams on Twitch, I wouldn’t believe you. And yet here we are.

The representative had a peak of 435,000 viewers, making her one of the all-time most-watched streams on the platform. But should she and other politicians be allowed to stream? 

For those of you who don’t know, Ocasio-Cortez hosted a stream last Tuesday where she played Among Us with fellow Rep. Ilhan Omar and other major Twitch streamers. She quickly amassed a large audience, with 325,000 concurrent viewers. 

2020 really is insane.

That is not to say that I dislike Ocasio-Cortez or Omar. After all, I did watch the stream in its entirety. But something about politicians streaming video games just feels … wrong. 

The same can be said about political institutions as a whole. A while back, the U.S. Army announced its official esports team, and the internet was quick to ridicule them. Maybe the fact that the team tweets out cute anime girl GIFs and says “UwU” has something to do with it. 

In general, the criticism against the Army centered around how the military branch can trick young people into enlisting by going onto Twitch. Of course, it was never a secret that the esports team was made to recruit more people. But since a lot of children who haven’t developed the ability to read between the lines watch Twitch, many felt that this tactic was particularly nefarious — leading to politicians drafting an amendment to a bill that would stop the Army from using funds to maintain its Twitch operations. 

The proposition failed, but what matters is that a particular democratic representative created it. Of course, I am talking about Ocasio-Cortez.

To her credit, using your “opponent’s” tactics is very common in the field of politics. There are also various nuances to consider. She is only a representative, whereas the Army is an entire public institution that directly targets citizens to join its operation. But we can use this example to understand why politicians streaming can potentially be a bad thing.

If politicians continue streaming video games and acting like normal Twitch streamers, there is the risk of sending political messages to people who are still too young to understand the complexity behind them.

I can see the potential criticisms already: “If they’re so young, they shouldn’t be on Twitch in the first place,” “People are smarter than you think” and “You’re exaggerating!” Since these are very reasonable, let’s break them down.

First, the minimum age requirement to join Twitch is 13 years old. This means that you can access most of the platform’s content before reaching adulthood. In terms of whether or not they should, it is up to each individual to decide. The fact of the matter is that children have increasing access to the internet at younger ages, and since a lot of gaming content is centered on Twitch, it is only natural that they have sought it out.

Second, while I am certain that many of us are smart enough to discern when we are being fed a political message, we cannot let our confidence be our downfall. If anything, the issues with fake news show that we may not be as savvy as we think. So, if we as adults still struggle to discern the truth, what makes us think that children will fare better? 

Finally, I can see why people would say I am exaggerating. Like I said before, I watched the entirety of Ocasio-Cortez’s stream, and most of her political messages were a simple “go vote.” But this is bigger than Ocasio-Cortez or her stream. If we don’t think about these issues while they are still small, they will grow, and by the time we realize their damage it’ll be too late.

The platform has no internal checks. Nothing stops children from engaging in political streams, even if the politician or institution did not want them there. 

Let’s take Ocasio-Cortez’s stream as an example. With her insane numbers, a good portion of the viewers were likely children. Add that to the other streamers she was playing with, many of whom are popular in the gaming community, and kids are more likely to engage. So even if she did not share a particularly loaded political statement, simply being on Twitch and interacting with popular streamers serves to normalize her platform in the children’s minds, thus making them more inclined to listen to her when the time to be politically engaged comes. 

If more politicians and political institutions take this route, they might push their political agenda more blatantly and portray themselves as celebrities, taking populism to a whole different level. Worst of all, they’d be persuading one of the most vulnerable demographics to follow them, guaranteeing long-lasting support through underhanded means. 

I am aware that I sound like an old man. And to be honest, nothing would make me happier than being wrong. I hope that politicians use Twitch with reason, understanding how they might influence people who are too young to think for themselves. 

But taking into consideration the history of politicians’ co-opting new forms of media, from late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the radio and President Donald Trump with Twitter, I find that unlikely. After all, one of the jobs of a politician is to harness support, but it is up to us to recognize potential pitfalls and make necessary changes. 

Maybe this would involve minor solutions, such as teaching kids to consume media critically or increasing the age requirement on Twitch while asking for an official ID. Or maybe it would involve more drastic measures, such as banning any sort of political institution from the platform entirely. 

I am not sure which route to take, but I know that if we don’t make any decisions soon, we might end up with issues that we can no longer fix. 

Guilherme Guerreiro is a sophomore writing about esports. His column, “Press Start to Play,” runs every other Wednesday.