“When I first heard about BreadTube, I thought it was a meme.”
Chris – going by Shark3ozero online – has been producing left-wing content on American politics for close to two years.
With a nearly 50,000-subscriber YouTube channel as well as a dedicated following on streaming platform Twitch, Chris has comfortably embedded himself within the steadily growing online left, nicknamed BreadTube by its community.
“A lot of people think BreadTube means you’re specifically anti-Capitalist,” he says. “We’re different from a lot of other commentary communities because we phrase the way we present content specifically political.”
Named after Peter Kropotkin’s book The Conquest of Bread, BreadTube encompasses a wide range of online content creators, from video essayists to debaters to gaming streamers, all containing varying degrees of leftist political sentiment.
Chris spends most of his Twitch streams viewing and discussing relevant American politics, talking about both US representatives and other significant voices with his audience.
“I really don’t want people to be completely nihilistic. .. I want [people] to be optimistic,” says Chris. “I always want to balance compassion for people with a realistic outlook.”
The effect BreadTube has had on young adults in America in the last four years is enough to make it a notable force, one that has the potential to appear in other nations, adapting to different politics and cultures.
Australia’s online political communities have already started developing on the right. Groups such as Rebel News have seen exponential growth as a result of covering and spreading conspiratorial Covid-19 rhetoric. Australia’s BreadTube equivalent may still be taking form, but its political influence may become significant if enough Australians choose to tune in.
Australian Twitch streamer Pixelsmixel, who began her streaming career gaming in 2018, has become one of Australia’s most notable BreadTube-aligned streamers, though it’s still a small group.
“I started doing this thing on Tuesdays where we’d do TED Talks and politics resources. It started becoming my favourite day and my community’s as well,” she said. “I had multiple friends in the politics scene I’d made through gaming … come the American election in 2020, my political coverage amped up.”
With nearly 44,000 followers, Pixel is a potential catalyst for Australian leftist content, and shows what a localised BreadTube could look like.
“I try and do local coverage because I think it’s important to be able to view the bigger picture,” she said. “I kind of focus in on Australian politics because that’s what I know, that’s my lived experience.”
BreadTube’s rise came in response to the proliferation of alt-right sentiments and rhetoric online. Donald Trump’s use of digital media during his 2016 election campaign mobilised a relatively large section of the apolitical online community via fear-mongering and validation.
Chris said it’s a community he and other American leftists have been trying to de-escalate ever since.
“[Conservatives] care a lot less about policy and a lot more about culture … a lot of leadership saw they were losing the culture,” he said. “That’s a big way for them to win – you don’t have to have policy anymore, you can be a reactionary.”
Combined with social media algorithms, individuals online have been radicalised through seemingly innocuous alt-right rabbit holes. Content supporting extreme ideologies appears as users engage with moderate political media, implicitly pushing them towards these values.
Alexander Mitchell Lee, a PhD Candidate at ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy, says the BreadTube activists essentially “hijack YouTube’s algorithm by getting recommended to viewers who consume far-right content”.
“Having popular voices that are tuned into internet culture – and which aim to respond to extremist content using the same tone of voice – could be invaluable in turning the tide of far-right radicalisation.”
Chris has seen his fair share of alt-right radicals, even debating with them live on his streams.
“The nihilistic mentality spills over into actual genuine hatred, and you saw that with a lot of [online conservatives] moving from ‘what this queer person said today’ to ‘here’s why we need a white ethnostate’,” he says.
Content creators aim to find a way to balance engagement with political discourse.
“When [someone] knows so much about politics it feels disconnected. Even [US comedian and political commentator] Stephen Colbert feels disconnected from your average person,” Chris said.
I guess a guy with a camera sitting at his computer desk is a little bit closer to what a normal person would be.
Pixel spends portions of her streams reading local and international news and analysing it with her audience.
“I think that’s what scares people away from political discourse – it’s all too hard, all too dry. We’d rather just play video games and not face existential dread every day,” she said. “What I try to do is give people the tools they need in order to consume that sort of content.”
Early US BreadTubers such as Contrapoints and Destiny produced very different content – socio-political video essays and debate streams respectively – but the objective was always to pick apart radical rhetoric in a way that was easy for a viewer to comprehend. Chris says this is essential to useful political discussion.
“A lot of people stepped up and said, ‘I’ll debate you’.
This is when we learned a lot of these [people] are literally five questions away from their political ideology crumbling into a mess.
During this time, Australia’s media landscape has developed a stronger right-wing presence. Sky News has launched a free-to-air channel in eastern regional Australia, while independent journalist group Rebel News have used the recent anti-lockdown protests to establish a radical fanbase.
Pixel has been following these groups for some time.
“Rebel News, Sky News are very clever in that they make everything seem very scary and suggest they have the answers … they’re doing so to create discord in our semi-functioning democracy,” she said.
“I think it’s important to talk about progressive policy because we’re not doing enough to deal with the things coming our way in the next 20 to 30 years. It’ll be a very interesting time to see what sort of policies and what sort of government will come out of that.”
While Pixel may not have the reach of NewsCorp, the platform of Twitch offers an intimate communication between streamer and audience, allowing for real-time discussion.
“If I told [people] I’ve got 400 people watching me every night talk about news and politics, they’d be like ‘that’s kind of small’…these 400 people really engage and care about progressive politics,” she said.
“I’ve got people [who are] part of the mining unions in WA in my chat, there’s people who’ve worked in government. They’re there but it’s very hard to make the crossover.”
The online left today has established itself as an engaging community, even beyond politics. Twitch streamer Hasan Piker has one of the largest communities in BreadTube, accumulating almost 90 million views since beginning in 2018.
During his live coverage of the January 6 Capitol Riots, Hasan had over 231,000 concurrent viewers, according to Twitch statistics site Stream Charts.
Chris believes that having the community spread into less political places is ultimately good for politics.
“[Hasan] has a bunch of random people that know who he is, he has a lot of crossover with a lot of other content creators who are pretty normal and don’t talk about politics much,” he said. “Breaking into that commentary community is the next frontier.”
For the future of progressive online Australian figures such as Pixel to look robust, finding an audience now is more important than ever.
“I’d like to hope that come the next election there’ll be change, but people have very short memories and our media landscape is particularly biased,” she said. “Newscorp owns so much of the print media … I think it’s all very nefarious.”
Whether focused on American or Australian politics, the objective of the online left is the same as any other political group: get people involved.
For Chris, this is what will steer BreadTube’s future internationally.
“What we’re doing isn’t just something to make money online – I view myself as a real political actor. Even though I’m different to a hardcore political analyst, when it comes to getting people active and involved in politics, I don’t think I’m any different.”