Hunter Avallone feeds on quarrels about politics with strangers on Twitch and YouTube. He was taken aback last August when a person sent him a strange message about it Vaccine-19 vaccines.
“Once someone takes it, they lose their soul,” said David Argenti, who grew up in the Canadian Bible belt, Avallone in a message he shared with his streaming audience. “Nothing led me to believe the opposite.”
For more than half an hour, the two argued back and forth in a debate that was as biblical as it was scientific. Avallone dropped the facts and discussed the meaning of the biblical passages presented to him by Argenti. The debate ended amicably, and a week later Argenti was vaccinated.
These discussion streamers manage to convert people like Argenti using logic, humor and compassion to make connections with people who hold extreme views. Debaters like Avallone spend hours each day discussing politics and current affairs, often pulling their viewers to the brink of disinformation. They have become an informal part of the alliance of fact verifiers and researchers fighting to promote the facts about COVID-19, electoral security and Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Debate streams have seen a sharp rise in viewing hours on Twitch and YouTube since the beginning of the pandemic, with political topics attracting a growing fan base. The Politics category at Twitch tripled viewership year-on-year from May 2021 to May 2022, and more than 1.7 million hours were viewed, according to Jason Krebs, business director of tools at StreamElements.
These streamers made quarrels and policy debates their livelihoods. They make money from ads, subscriptions and donations from their viewers, which can range from a few dollars to more than $ 100.
Fight against misinformation where it spreads
Disinformation was identified by American surgeon Vivek Murthy and Food and Drug Administration commissioner Robert Califf as a threat to American health. One analysis found that more than 300,000 deaths from COVID could have been prevented by vaccination, a common target for misinformation.
Argenti’s extremist view of COVID vaccines – which have proven themselves safe and effective – came from his religious background. He was 22 years old at the time of the debate and lived in the biblical belt of Canada in southern Ontario. His family and social circle are part of a Christian sect that loudly opposed the limitations of COVID and held large personal services during the height of the pandemic. When the vaccines were introduced, their views on the shot were extreme.
Argenti had little doubt about the allegations he had made. He said his parents urged him not to get vaccinated and shared with him documents and videos that he now calls propaganda.
After the debate, he said that he realized that the vaccine was not only “safe and effective, but that it was a spiritual good to take it, that it was necessary to take it.” He added that he felt a “spiritual duty” to be vaccinated to protect others on the basis of scientific evidence.
Despite efforts by Twitch and YouTube to stop the flow of misinformation on their platforms, debate streamers have no people to argue with. Both sites are still full of people who spread misinformation, share it conspiracy theory and false claims to their fan bases.
Swapping sides with Hunter
Avallon’s success in reaching the audience may stem from his own conversion from a conservative firefighter to a progressive sympathizer. He began shooting videos based on the script more than six years ago and was considered a young, conservative YouTube star. He created content full of right-wing discussions and regularly bombarded progressive topics such as systematic racism and gender equality. In 2019, he began to ask where he stood politically.
“I was confronted with a lot of data and information as well as arguments I had not heard before,” Avallone said. “And all this, along with the things that happen in my personal life that put me in a situation where I rethink my beliefs.”
In the end, Avallone completely changed his political mindset and began broadcasting live rather than publishing written videos. He said he enjoyed meeting the audience and the free flow of conversations. At the end of 2020, he began a lively discussion of politics on YouTube and Twitch, when political polarization culminated in the United States.
Avallone said he analyzes his performances and invents various rhetorical approaches. In his debate over COVID vaccines with Argenti last year, he used his understanding of the Bible to confront the belief that the vaccine was made by the devil.
“I still believe that the approach I took there was probably the best, because if you believe that the vaccine is a sign of the beast, it doesn’t really match the Bible text,” Avallone said. He said it made no sense for something that was considered by Satan, as Argenti believed at the time, to be used to heal people.
While shocked by Argenti’s strange argument, Avallone did not resort to ad hominem and insults. Instead, he met Argenti halfway to answer the questions thoughtfully and seriously.
Avallone said he received messages from people who said that his debates and videos had changed their views on conspiracy theories or diverted them from far-right conservatism. He said it was encouraging and satisfying to change people’s minds.
“I take it very seriously when I realize that I’ve turned another person away from conspiracies or bigoted beliefs or hyper-religious beliefs that lead to harm,” he said.
It’s hard work to change your mind
While debate can change a person’s opinion, it takes a little more than just rhetorical skills.
Michael Phillips-Anderson, a professor of communication at Monmouth University who studies political rhetoric, does not believe that replaying these debates to a wide audience would be generally effective in suddenly changing the broad minds. What is important for someone to change their mind about their attitude is to have some room for movement in their beliefs.
“One of the biggest challenges is something we call freedom of opinion,” he said. “If we are completely attached to our opinions, there can be no change. And in general, we go through life and we want other people not to be attached to their misconceptions, but it’s good for us to be attached to ours.”
This “unattachedness” helps discussants change their minds on a smaller scale, the people they discuss directly with, or viewers looking for live broadcasts for information or entertainment. Avallone had some room for movement in his earlier conservative views and said that a debate with another streamer had helped bring about change.
Ian “Vaush” Kochinski has been shooting progressive political videos and streaming for more than three years. He discussed Avallone in June 2019 and attributes partial credit for his change in politics.
Unlike Avallon, Kochinski does not spend much time researching topics or even trying to uncover the conspiracy theories he will be debating. He found that some of his opponents, who are pushing for conspiracies, know much more than what can be easily found online. He considers it important to be distinctive in debates with those who have established beliefs.
“The most effective way to convince [his debate opponent] It is time to break this illusion by making them laugh, in a way different from what they expect. “Maybe a little more jovial or friendly than they expect me to be,” he said.
For Avallon, the way to get into this room for debate is to offer an alternative narrative. He said that instead of just presenting facts that would prove Argenti wrong, he focused on arguing which was more credible.
“Do you think it’s some kind of Satan’s bad plan to deliver a vaccine that will heal people and protect people from the virus? Or do you think there’s just a current pandemic and we have the vaccine as always,” he said.
It all starts with Destiny
Steven “Destiny” Bonell is an sometimes controversial streamer that many point to as the de facto creator of the Twitch political stream. He started streaming games in 2010 on Twitch’s predecessor, Justin.tv. Bonnell was a professional player who played Starcraft II online matches, but in 2016 he began to indulge in his interest in quarrels with people and began talking about politics in his streams.
His political currents influenced both Avallone and Kochinsky, while the other was part of his community and ventured out on his own. Bonnell has also been changing his mind for years.
In 2019, the New York Times wrote about Caleb Cain, then a 26-year-old man who became critical of the alt-right movement after being a part of it for five years. One of the events that helped change Cain’s mind was the debate that Bonnell had with then-far-right activist Lauren Southern. Cain considered Bonnell the winner in their 2017 immigration debate, and it was then that his view of the alt-right began to crack, according to the Times.
Bonnell still debates, albeit on YouTube and other streaming platforms instead of Twitch. Earlier this year, he was denied access to the gaming platform for violating its community guidelines on “promoting, encouraging or facilitating discrimination or defamation of a group of people based on their protected characteristics.”
He said he still hadn’t been told exactly why he was banned, but speculated that it had to do with his history of using “fiery speech” or commenting on some online trans activists. Twitch did not respond to a request for comment.
During his debating streaming career, Bonnell changed tactics from apparently aggressive ones such as Avallone and Kochinski to try to accommodate a person halfway and slowly change his mind.
“In order to recognize that everything I’m saying is true, they will have to accept a deeply uncomfortable analysis of themselves,” Bonnell said. “That makes them a bad man. No one is bad in their own minds.”
Like Avallone, during the pandemic, he also discussed people who are against COVID-19 vaccines, and he was able to persuade some to change their attitudes.
When Argenti confronted his own views on the COVID vaccine, he said he felt anxious and scared. He knew that changing his mind on the matter would cause a rift in his social circle, but he wanted to do what he thought was right and at the same time do the best.
He said his community had told him he was going to hell and that he was obsessed, but in the end he was still glad he had been vaccinated.