How AOC showed politicians the power of live-streaming

December 8, 2020, 10:30 PM UTC
Ocasio-Cortez played the game “Among Us“ on live-streaming site Twitch in October. Some 400,000 potential voters—most of them young—joined the party.
Ocasio-Cortez:Samuel Corum—Getty Images; Among Us: courtesy of InnerSloth

When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) went live on Twitch in late October to play the multiplayer game Among Us and talk, game, and spar with users, it marked an inflection point in our society. If you were one of the 400,000 people who tuned in, you witnessed a moment in history. AOC and Rep. Ilhan Omar’s use of Twitch, as part of a get-out-the-vote effort, not only shifted the relationship between social media and politics, it also reflected a more significant cultural trend: a broader embrace of authenticity.

Social platforms often haunt politicians. Tweets are almost inevitably threaded with criticisms and one-off remarks that spiral into toxic black holes. This only feeds the existing negativity we feel toward our government, with a 2019 survey from Pew Research Center stating that fewer than 20% of people expressed trust in the federal government. For millennials and Gen Z, many of whom do not remember an era of politics free of social media, these numbers are declining even further, fueling a perception among the young of politics as an inaccessible and antiquated system, overly scripted and out of touch with the average American. 

Social media fatigue and community loss on apps like Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat have made the possibility of connection appear even more futile. Platforms that were once fertile for conversation and engagement today feel editorialized, competitive, and combative. 

AOC and Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, didn’t use Twitch to lecture or rally; they played a popular virtual game that has taken the Internet by storm. Rather than expecting Gen Z voters to come to a political rally or campaign event and listen to them talk, AOC met them on their terms and signaled that she understood them and their community. Both congresswomen grasped how the platform fostered dialogue and utilized the benefits of live-streaming to land messages without force and ultimately build their credibility. 

In recent weeks, AOC has been vocal about the efficacy of using online platforms and campaigning tools that enable legislators to actually meet their constituents where they’re at. Openly criticizing the lack of digital and online campaign strategies in some Democratic campaigns, AOC recognized the importance of having a presence on new mediums. These platforms enable politicians to engage in dialogue, understand the reality of the people they represent, and land messaging in forums where constituents are actually listening. 

The nature of live-streaming doesn’t leave room for performative engagement, only real conversations. AOC used Twitch to open herself up to three-and-a-half hours of free-flowing dialogue where anything could be said and nothing was taken back. On Twitch, AOC validated her own argument: Only when politicians have a competent online presence—on live streams or other new social media platforms—will they understand what topics and messages are most critical to address.

Although Democrats and Republicans debate how to invest in digital platforms, the case for live-streaming and more candid forms of communication is strong for both parties. Live streams are among the few remaining platforms that don’t push curation and vanity but rather thrive on the opposite—authenticity. There is a stereotype that people use live-streaming platforms to play video games or perform for an audience in a one-directional interaction. In reality, however, live-streaming requires two-way engagement, with viewers sharing their opinions in real time back to creators. 

In the nearly four hours that AOC spent playing with fellow gamers, from novices to veterans, her viewership grew because she understood that in live-streaming, you can’t hide. To be successful and fully engage with users, streamers have to open up and be honest. Live-streaming doesn’t work if a streamer cannot effectively foster connection and forge a community. Ultimately, that is what is going to drive political engagement for younger generations.

In recent months, live-streaming has served as a legitimate source of human connection. Gen Z is the loneliest generation, and social media has only made them more alone and isolated. What live-streaming platforms like Twitch, Spoon, IGTV, and others got right is that they provide something that Gen Z needs: community. In a recent survey of users of Spoon, the platform for which I work, 60% identified as Gen Z, and of those, 95% said they had found a community on the platform. Even in infancy, the platform was already building safe spaces for people to connect by nature of being a live-streaming site.

While it’s not every day that one of the most well-known politicians takes to live-streaming to play a game, what is becoming more commonplace is the use of these platforms to reach new people and make new friends. As we see other social media platforms fade for younger generations, live streams will blossom for their ability to inspire real, authentic communities. Now politicians just have to understand the value of being present in the mediums where they are happening.

Fernando Pizarro is vice president of North America for Spoon, an audio-based live-streaming app with nearly 3 million global users.

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