The Left on Twitch Has a Toxicity Problem

Will the space be forever defined by an overabundance of shouting and screaming?

Spectacle has been a consistent feature of professional streaming on Twitch, and leftists aren’t any exception–in order to drive growth upwards, there’s a business incentive to keep fanning the flames of conflict. For a long time now, this has been fueling fissures within the community–do the ends justify the means, or is the left beholden to stick more closely to its purported ideals and refuse to give in to a misguided quest for more social capital regardless of origin?

Twitch’s own history is to account for why creators often opt for the former approach–since the platform’s roots are deeply steeped in gaming, toxicity is quite commonplace. Gamergate had already sullied the ground by normalizing heated dispute, so it wasn’t at all surprising to see Twitch’s non-gaming-related parts take on a similar confrontational tone . If it has been custom to watch Ninja scream short of losing his voice while playing Fortnite, it doesn’t take much to find existing parallels within Twitch’s political sphere. The impulse to speak over each other on mere performative terms makes it harder to parse out ideas, and it lends itself to making most political debate on the platform of very little utility.

This has partly to do with Twitch’s existing audience biases–much like YouTube, the platform has been historically dominated by men, such that short temper became standard. Succeeding on the back of traditionally-feminine sensibilities is rather the exception–Twitch has a way of conforming everyone into a pre-existing expectation of toxicity, and in the process strips outliers of any desire to swim against the current. When this mechanism of culling aberrations is upheld, it makes it almost impossible to thrive in the political streaming space without taking on some of that toxicity.

That’s not to say that Twitch’s more toxic brand of interactions doesn’t have a place on the platform–Vaush and Destiny have pioneered the art of spectacle through such methods, and some manage to maintain a healthy relationship with that dynamic without letting it seep into their own demeanor. However, when it becomes the default mode of interaction, it places an undue burden of compliance upon those who prefer to walk less of a mine-ridden road through recognition.

Politics on Twitch live on a spectrum–on one end, there’s the aforementioned toxic wing, and on the other, there’s the “wholesome” wing, where creators like Lumi Rue, Baela and Lottie Blix have found permanent refuge among communities that put positivity at the forefront of their priorities. There hasn’t been a shortage of criticism between the two sides, and it’s interesting to see audience members emulate the properties of political polarization where they stand in further opposition of each other the poorer their opinion is of the other side.

What’s more so interesting about the left’s information ecology on Twitch, is that it doesn’t mark a stark departure from the right, even when it seems like that would be instinctually unintuitive. In a bid to match the right’s success, the political left on Twitch felt compelled to do away with any pretense of empathy, alienating large swaths of mainstream leftists who could have otherwise resonated with their message. If the political left on Twitch purports itself to be on a higher moral pedestal, it often does very little to earn that reputation.

Conversely, this shouldn’t be viewed as an appeal to the politics of civility–the act of being uncivil, is often strategically frowned upon with the sole purpose of compromising the downtrodden’s ability to voice a loud claim to their rights. We’ve seen that myth rehashed through exhaustion with the Bernie Bros, and it would be disingenuous to patently deny the cogency of any critique just because it’s been passionately expressed–however, when such emphaticness is used to nullify the credibility of the opposing party, especially when their concerns are salient, that’s when it starts to become an impediment to fruitful discourse.

Things are further made worse when the prerequisites of virality are taken into account–in order to still maintain wide cultural circulation, creators are often pushed to pursue conflict against their better judgment. “Since Twitch is an entertainer platform, it seems like people are more likely to prioritize entertainment than good faith discussion,” political streamer Pxie told me. “This leads to a culture of folks trying to dunk on one another or interpret words into extremities for entertainment value.”

Similarly, Lottie Blix attested to the effectiveness of controversy in bolstering one’s profile, but cautioned against giving in to the temptation. “I’ve made a concerted effort to not get mixed up in drama, but the times when I have been dragged into the middle of some conflict between other streamers or whatever, I always see an immediate uptick in follows and viewership,” they told me. “People have recommended that I “capitalize” on that drama and there is certainly a part of me that acknowledges that it would aid in my individual success. But after 15 years of participation in leftist communities, I have had my fill of “leftist infighting”.”

What has been established through cultural inertia would be hard to dismantle, but it’s worth taking a thorough look at the incentive structures behind content creation online, and whether they’re worth satisfying at the expense of the discourse’s health. Social media was built to emphasize conflict, and the more of it we indulge, the harder it will be to break its perpetuity.

It wasn’t that long ago that BreadTube was faced with a similar reckoning–recent backlash against ContraPoints caused a community-wide schism in which all BreadTube creators were caught in the crossfire, and some do still suffer in the aftermath. If Twitch’s issues are left simmering for too long, they might one day boil over into an all-out war–in the same way that Gamergate was an unpredictable ordeal for many, a sudden chasm in the Twitch political world has the potential to completely upend the lives of streamers and viewers for the worse.

The natural state of discourse — where condescension and yelling is plentiful — on Twitch has been essentialized to such a degree, that it is hard to conceive of any other way it could happen on the platform. When it occurs on the right, it’s not as jarring given they’ve already pioneered the politics of cruelty–but when the left does it, it’s exceptionally weird since the purported goal is to at the very least be most-inclusive of a diverse movement whose goal is to make life better for everyone regardless of their political standing. Somehow, that’s not the air that leftist Twitch gives off right now, and it’s bound to make it an even more loathsome entity as it struggles to make political discourse less fraught.

Updated with a comment from Lottie Blix.