Hunter Avallone makes a living by arguing about politics with strangers on Twitch and YouTube. Last August, he was surprised when a person sent him a strange message about it Covid-19 vaccine.
“Once someone takes it, they lose their soul,” David Argenti, who grew up in the Canadian Bible belt, told Avallone in a message he shared with his streaming audience. “Nothing made me believe otherwise.”
For more than half an hour, the two of them argued back and forth in a debate that was as biblical as it was scientific. Avallone discarded the facts and dissected the meaning of the biblical passages presented to him by Argenti. The debate ended amicably, and a week later Argenti was vaccinated.
These debate streamers have success in transforming people, like Argentina, using logic, humor, and compassion to create connections with people who have extreme attitudes. Debaters like Avallone spend hours every day discussing politics and current events, often pulling their viewers from the brink of the abyss of misinformation. They have become an informal part of an alliance of fact-checkers and researchers struggling to promote the facts about COVID-19,, electoral security i Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Since the start of the pandemic, debate streams have increased the number of hours of viewing on Twitch and YouTube, and political topics are attracting a growing number of fans. Twitch’s Politics category tripled in viewership year-over-year from May 2021 to May 2022 with more than 1.7 million hours watched, according to Jason Krebs, Chief Business Officer for StreamElements Creator Tool Supplier.
These streamers have made the debate and the debate about politics their existence. They make money from advertisements, subscriptions and donations made by their viewers, which can range from a few dollars to more than $ 100.
Fighting misinformation where it spreads
Misinformation U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf called it a threat to Americans ’health. One analysis showed that more than 300,000 deaths from COVID could have been prevented by vaccination, which is a common target of misinformation.
Argentina’s extremist view of vaccines against COVID – which have been proven to be 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 his social circle are part of a Christian sect that loudly opposed the restrictions of COVID and held large personal services during the peak of the pandemic. When vaccines appeared, their views on vaccines were extreme.
Argenti did not doubt the claims he made. He said his parents urged him not to get vaccinated and shared with him documents and videos which he now calls propaganda.
He said after the debate that he realized that the vaccine is not only “safe and effective, but that it is spiritually good to take it, that it is necessary to take it”. He added that he feels a “spiritual obligation” to get vaccinated in order to protect others based on scientific evidence.
Despite the efforts of Twitch and YouTube to stop the flow of misinformation on their platforms, debate streamers are not short of people to argue with. Both sites are still full of people selling misinformation, sharing it conspiracy theories and false claims to their fan bases.
Replacing the side with Hunter
Avallone’s success in reaching his viewers may stem from his own conversion from a conservative fiery to a progressive sympathizer. More than six years ago, he began filming music videos based on a screenplay and was considered a young, conservative YouTube star. He created content full of right-wing speeches and regularly targeted progressive issues such as systematic racism and gender equality. In 2019, he began to reconsider where he was politically.
“I was faced with a lot of data and information, as well as arguments that I had not heard before,” Avallone said. “And all of that along with the things that are happening in my private life that have somehow brought me into a place to reevaluate my beliefs.”
Avallone eventually completely changed his political affiliations and started broadcasting live instead of releasing screenwriting videos. He said that he enjoys hanging out with the viewers, as well as the free flow of the conversation. In late 2020, he began debating politics live on YouTube and Twitch, when political polarization in the U.S. was in full swing.
Avallone said he analyzed his performances and found different rhetorical approaches. In his debate last year on vaccines against COVID with Argentina, he used his understanding of the Bible to counter the belief that the vaccine was made by the devil.
“I still believe that the approach I took there is probably the best, because if you believe that the vaccine is a feature of the beast, it doesn’t really fit into the biblical text,” Avallone said. He said there was no point in using something believed to have originated from Satan, as Argenti believed at the time, to treat people.
Although shocked by Argentina’s strange argument, Avallone did not resort to attacks and insults ad hominem. Instead, he met Argentina halfway to answer questions thoughtfully and honestly.
Avallone said he receives messages from people who say his debates and videos have changed their minds about conspiracy theories or distracted them from far-right conservatism. He said it was encouraging and satisfying to change people’s opinions.
“I take it very seriously that I have deterred another person from conspiring or fanatical beliefs or hyper-religious beliefs that lead to harm,” he said.
It is hard work to change your mind
Although debate can change a person’s opinion, it takes little more than rhetorical skill.
Michael Phillips-Anderson, a professor of communications at Monmouth University who researches political rhetoric, does not believe that repeating these debates to a wide audience would be generally effective for changing broad minds at once. What is important for someone to change their opinion about their attitude is that there is room for confusion in their beliefs.
“One of the biggest challenges is something we call detachment,” he said. “If we’re completely attached to our attitudes, there can be no change. And in general, we go through life, wanting other people not to be attached to their wrong attitudes, but it’s okay for us to be attached to our own.”
This “detachment” helps debate streamers change their minds on a smaller scale, those they discuss directly, or viewers looking for live streams for information or entertainment. Avallone had room to move in his earlier conservative beliefs and said the debate with another streamer helped bring about change in him.
Ian “Vaush” Kochinski has been recording progressive political videos and streaming for more than three years. He debated about Avallone in June 2019 and partly takes credit for his change in politics.
Unlike Avallone, Kochinski does not spend much time researching topics or even trying to unravel conspiracy theories he will discuss. He discovered that some of his opponents who incite conspiracies know much more than what can be easily found on the Internet. When discussing those who have stubborn beliefs, he believes it is important to be personal.
“The most effective way to convince [his debate opponent] is to break that illusion a little bit by making them laugh, in a way that is different from what they expect. Maybe a little happier or friendlier than they expect me to be, ”he said.
For Avallone, his way of reaching that space to move the debate audience is to offer an alternative narrative. He said that instead of just stating the facts to prove Argenti wrong, he focused on arguing what was more credible.
“Do you think this is somehow Satan’s evil plan to deliver a vaccine that cures humans and protects people from the virus? Or do you think it’s just a current pandemic and that we have the vaccine as always?” he said.
It all starts with Destiny
Steven “Destiny” Bonell is a sometimes controversial streamer who many point out as the de facto founder of the political Twitch stream. He started streaming games in 2010 on Twitch’s predecessor, Justin.tv. Bonnell was a professional player who played Starcraft II matches online, but in 2016, he began to indulge his interest in arguing with people and started talking about politics on his streams.
His political currents influenced both Avallone and Kochinski, with the latter being part of his community and indulging himself. Bonnell has also changed his mind for years.
The New York Times wrote in 2019 about Caleb Cain, then a 26-year-old 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 Bonnell had with then-right-wing activist Lauren Southern. Cain thought Bonnell was the winner in their 2017 immigration debate and that’s when his view of the alt-right began to crack, according to the Times.
Bonnell is still debating today, albeit on YouTube and other streaming platforms instead of Twitch. It was banned from the gaming platform earlier this year for violating its community guidelines relating to “promoting, encouraging or enabling discrimination or disparagement of a group of people based on their protected characteristics”.
He said he has not yet been told exactly why he was banned, but speculates that it has to do with his history of using “fire language” or comments he gave to some online trans activists. Twitch did not respond to a request for comment.
During his debating streaming career, Bonnell changed tactics from openly aggressive, like Avallone and Kochinski, to try to meet a person halfway and slowly change his mind.
“In order for them to admit that everything I say is true, they will have to accept a deeply unpleasant analysis of themselves,” Bonnell said. “It makes them bad guys. No one is a bad guy in their own mind.”
Like Avallone, during the pandemic, he also discussed people who oppose vaccines against COVID-19 and managed to persuade some to change their position.
When Argenti was confronted with his own beliefs about the COVID vaccine, he said he felt anxious and scared. He knew that a change of opinion on this issue would cause a rift in his social circle, but he wanted to do what he thought was right and more likely to bring the most good.
He said the community told him he was going to hell and that he was obsessed, but in the end he was still glad he got vaccinated.