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Hasan Piker and the New Era of Political Commentary
How live streaming is shaping public opinion and political discourse.
Unless you're on Twitch, you've probably never heard of Hasan Piker, yet he's one of the most popular streamers on the platform and the most listened to when it comes to politics. Admittedly, I've never used Twitch either, but I'm trying to catch up on the trend by eavesdropping on the conversations of my millennial cousins. It's been a while since I started watching his show recreationally – mostly on YouTube, where he posts more condensed versions of his stream, edited down to the most interesting parts – and the whole experience has made me curious about why streamers have become so popular.
Hasan Piker is a self-proclaimed socialist who reacts to politics with indignation and through the prism of mockery, which I found amusing, but also concerning in the way this type of performing has quickly emerged as a recipe for gaining a large audience and at the same time, an insidious means of influence. A typical day for someone like Hasan consists of browsing the Internet, digging up the latest scandal, and commenting on it while simultaneously being watched by thousands of people who can react instantly by leaving comments on the chat, making the overall experience addictive and laughable. In contrast to traditional media, which relies primarily on unidirectional communication channels, much of the dynamic of live streaming comes from directly interacting with the audience, creating a feedback loop that likely influences the direction of the show. In addition, much of his audience expects to see a debate lord crusading against bigotry, due to his aggressive commentary style that has come to establish his reputation as an outraged and sometimes obnoxious person. This type of content is in opposition to mainstream journalism where information is supposedly presented more thoughtfully, while the insurgence of inflammatory and reactionary content on streaming platforms is more broadly, symptomatic of a generation at odds with formalism and institutions.
That's not all though, as the online content creator industry is highly competitive, it's very difficult to thrive without offering something authentic. This is even more true for platforms like Youtube or Twitch, as users don't have to pay to view the content, making success purely a matter of preference – in the same way, an artist wouldn't necessarily have more influence by selling cheaper albums. Unlike the art industry, which can narrowly be seen as serving a purpose intended to be worshiped for its own sake, most streaming platforms have been involved in politics since content creators began disseminating information with ideological underpinning – often framed as entertainment – which undoubtedly raises concerns about their value to individuals and society as a whole.
Nonetheless, satirical infotainment is far from a novelty and is already widespread on news television with programs such as The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, or The Colbert Report. Therefore, what fundamentally differentiates an independent live streamer from these programs is the unsupervised setup they benefit from. The absence of any hierarchical organizational structure relieves them from the constraints of an imposed political agenda – except the streaming platform's content policy – which keeps at bay a wide range of forces contributing to self-censorship. These decentralized means of information are undoubtedly a double-edged sword, as they have given voice to insufferable individuals and conspiracy theorists, as well as earnest speakers and introverted nerds.
Among the plethora of podcasters and streamers dealing with a large audience, many have inevitably become absorbed by the self-image projected onto them by the masses. This phenomenon is not inherently fateful or obvious to be noticed, but it often results in a loss of credibility. In contrast, fame-resistant individuals usually possess the ability to consistently calibrate their emotional compass, regardless of the circumstances, allowing them to remain true to themselves and their audience. Unironically, Joe Rogan's extreme popularity is likely due to his genuineness, which has ultimately resulted in his podcast being watched primarily for his persona rather than for the content he delivers.
However, authenticity in itself does not necessarily lead to a worthwhile outcome, it simply means that you're standing for your values and not playing games. Unfortunately, some people are – unusually frequently – truly conspiratorial and, in some more alarming cases, genuinely gullible or stupid. It's not uncommon for a host to invite a controversial guest to their show without realizing that they have been instrumentalized to spread nefarious ideas. The lack of smart screening is even more problematic in decentralized media and underlines a lack of awareness of individual responsibility. Fortunately, many dubious celebrities approaching a large scale of influence, who have partially or completely lost their integrity, usually get their real personalities unveiled by the laissez-faire market of opinions, and despite continuing to subsist a significant portion of their audience as orbiters, this is still one of the reasons that keep me confident in the ability of this movement to self-regulate, since virtuous behaviors are naturally rewarded, it becomes a healthy incentive to attract many users looking for content that challenges their perspectives.
From my observations and respectively, my personal opinion, I'm convinced that authenticity and critical thinking are essential to produce valuable content, especially when it's politically oriented. Now that I've pondered this, what's the deal with Hasan Piker? Unsurprisingly, he possesses both of these qualities, but more than that, he's a street-smart political analyst of the digital age. While there are probably hundreds of other commentators in the same league – who are surely more civilized – for all that, he's an excellent rampart against bullshit. Among the competencies, you'd expect from a political pundit, the areas in which he excels include a clear understanding of human motives and the ability to effortlessly deconstruct nebulous rhetoric. His favorite opponents are mostly controversial right-wing ideologues, and instead of equaling them with counter-arguments, Hasan relies on anti-intellectualism by abstracting away the complexity of their discourse while exposing its underlying meaning, which is paradoxically more effective.
The experience with Hasan was instrumental in sharpening my intuition for discerning rhetorics that are overly intellectualized and intended to promote questionable ideas. In many instances in my early adult life, I'd dismiss my doubts about people who seemed vague and complex, attributing this to a preference for semantics over masking their self-serving purpose or avoiding being associated with their concealed beliefs. I'm not entirely sure about the purpose of this article, Hasan was relevantly helpful, but I'm probably biased given my subjective preferences. Generally speaking, as far as my situation is concerned, I wonder if people in STEM fields are less talented than average at detecting suspicious language and seeing through the lines, in other words, are people with strong preferences over things less proficient with the Theory of mind, or am I just part of the minority? On the other hand, when I'm forced to note how certain idolized figures that are intellectually fraudulent are still massively supported by people working in tech, Hasan Piker might be worth a try.