Presidential Debates On Twitch Highlight New Generation Of Politics

by Elizabeth Haas Edersheim and Lee Igel

Twitch viewers of the debates between United States President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden were more engaged in the substance of the matter than those following along through CNN, FOX News, and the New York Times. Despite the headlines in traditional news sources, the big news is that fans of esports and gaming are engaging in the 2020 election in a new way and at a new level. If elected officials are truly serious about focusing on the next generation and its impact on the future, why aren’t they paying attention to where that group is now?

More than 73 million people tuned in to television broadcasts of the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden. More than 63 million tuned in for the second round. While many observers were weighing in on the television numbers and viewer reactions, they missed out on the over one-million viewers on live-streaming platforms such as Twitch.

Research conducted for the Mayors ESports Network highlighted a fundamental difference in the conversations and exchanges taking place during the debate among audiences across CNN, FOX News, the New York Times, and Twitch. The research, led by teams from New York University and Shenandoah University, analyzed 1,000 comments posted on each of the outlets’ sites. The differences between them–and, especially, the “mainstream” CNN, FOX News, and the New York Times and the “newstream” Twitch–are clear.

The first thing has to do with what viewers were interested in about the debate. On CNN, FOX News, and the New York Times, the discussion was about the quality, or lack thereof, of the debate and who was perceived to be winning. On Twitch, viewers were concerned about how engaging the debate was–that is, what the candidates were saying. In both debates, Twitch viewers expressed an openness to listening in a markedly different way than the viewers on any of the traditional stations.

The next thing is that a quarter of the users across all channels and platforms were disappointed in the first debate. More of the viewers on CNN, FOX News, and The New York Times showed levels of anger in the first debate and were supportive of the candidate in the second debate.  Twitch viewers, however, weren’t expressing anger or a similar emotion. They were surprised by what was being said by the candidates and supportive of what the candidates are proposing to do should they win election to the White House.  It resembled an audience that cares about tomorrow and wants facts.

There was also a real difference in the content and tone of support. On the CNN, FOX News, and New York Times channels, supportive comments were primarily for and about a preferred candidate. Meanwhile, on Twitch, support comments were primarily for and about primarily the idea being discussed on the debate stage.

For example, when healthcare alternatives were being discussed, the bulk of comments on CNN and The New York Times were supportive of Biden, while comments of FOX News were supportive of Trump. On Twitch, the comments were about the realities and prospects for healthcare plans, such as what kinds of options would be available and who would be covered.

The final thing is to take notice of: the reference points used. Commentators on CNN, FOX News, and The New York Times were trying to prove a point about a candidate or policy matter. On Twitch, commenters were posting links and screenshots of studies from reputable medical journals in an effort to learn with each other. As one member of the Conference of Mayors research team noted about what was happening on Twitch channels, “the sheer amount of information that was put out was more substantial than any other platform.”

As the debates went on, the Twitch audiences were fact-checking at a rate almost two times more, used negative references and name-calling much less, and referenced memes in conversation much more than audiences on CNN, FOX News, or The New York Times. To be sure, the language being used in comments on Twitch was decidedly more vulgar. But it showed up in a way that is a norm on the platform, in a manner that doesn’t take away from–and, to an extent, enhances–the content.

Twitch is often thought of by most people as an island where esports and gaming fanatics find entertainment. But it is actually a much larger community that seeks out engagement. Interestingly, on Twitch, the politics-related conversation is about us, while on traditional channels the conversation is about us versus them.

As the 2020 campaigns make the stretch run to Election Day, there is increasing excitement about efforts aimed at getting Millennials and Gen Z to turn out for the vote. Campaigns interested in attracting voters would do well to pay attention to where what they call “the future” are now and the ways they are engaging.

Elizabeth Haas Edersheim is an adjunct professor and Lee Igel is a professor at New York University’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport. They lead an NYU initiative with the United States Conference of Mayors Professional Sports Alliance that produces new knowledge on sports in cities.