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Politics and parasocial relationships in the online world

Over the past decade, content creators have come to the forefront of our online world. As university students, we are part of the first wave of people who have grown up watching influencers in our most impressionable years; those younger than us have never known anything else than this digital landscape. Online content has also grown increasingly intimate. A few years ago, the advent of vlogs allowed us glimpses into the lives of online personalities but remained carefully edited and thought-out pieces of media. More recently, the popularity of social media stories and livestreaming has narrowed the perceived gap between fans and creators, by offering an even more immediate access to online celebrities’ lives.

This is at the root of what is called parasocial interaction, a term coined by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956: you may feel that you are close to someone you know of, simply because you have access to their life in a general sense. You may see them every day, through their highs and lows, and get emotionally invested in their projects and aspirations. Yet this relationship only goes in one direction: though they may appreciate you as a fan, they do not know you in the same way and have not followed your life as thoroughly. Though they are not reciprocal, parasocial relationships are not inherently unhealthy. In fact, they have existed for as long as people have had real and fictional heroes to admire. We look up to others for inspiration, morality and reassurance. Most of the time, people know that these relationships are one-sided, but their emotional attachment leads them to act as though their feelings are mutual.

Nowadays, the most prevalent expression of this attachment exists as what is called ‘stan culture’, the online, extreme form of fan clubs. In online spaces, self-styled ‘stans’ congregate and discuss their interests with an abandon only afforded by the anonymity and real-life insulation of online accounts. This comfort, mixed with the ability to immediately and directly interact with content posted online by their favorite creators, further reduces the distance one may feel with someone they only otherwise know through talk shows and magazine interviews.

Oftentimes, a feeling of entitlement develops, where people start expecting others to behave as though they are friends with similar political, moral or cultural inclinations: since this is based purely on what the creator chooses to show online, it will almost certainly lead to disappointment. When the object of their affection inevitably acts out of line with their expectations, the illusion is shattered and replaced with a feeling of betrayal, as one would experience when a friend acts contrary to one’s sense of morals. Their deeply emotional nature makes them both extremely easy to form and potentially extremely influential in a person’s life. This leads to them being exploited by all sorts of celebrities, starting by niche online celebrities up to and including household name celebrities.

The emotional implications of parasocial relationships make them a very valuable resource for people seeking to exert influence both on- and offline. This is as true for influencers as it is for political figures, be they pundits or politicians. On the Internet, left-wing political content creators, collectively known as ‘breadtubers’, preach leftist thoughts and ideas to their audiences. Due to the inherent political nature of their content, and their status as influencers, there is a strong tendency among their followers to associate their personal lives to leftist praxis. When one such breadtuber gets embroiled in controversy, many of their fans will come to their defense and believe that the influencer acted not only righteously, but in accordance with leftist principles. The languages of political discourse and stan culture get confused and devalued, and communities are left bickering over influencer drama under the guise of political discussions. In this sense, the attachment of the relationship takes precedence over political and material considerations, and the onus is put on the character of the breadtuber rather than their ideas.

The best example of this comes from the best-known content creator within the niche: Hasan Piker, also known as HasanAbi. As one of the most popular Twitch streamers, he is also one of the wealthiest. When a Twitch data leak revealed the money received by the top streamers over the past few years, he came under fire for having received upwards of $210’000 in the month of September 2021 alone, placing him as the second most-paid streamer that month, and thirteenth most-paid streamer of all time. A few months earlier, he had purchased a 2.7 million-dollar home in the West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Some argued that this accumulation of wealth and extravagant purchase was in direct contradiction with the leftist idea of wealth redistribution he often preaches. Within hours, the online discourse had shifted from the validity of such a magnitude of wealth to his personal merit in owning it, and the question most debated was whether his particular preaching of leftist praxis to a massive audience, from the comfort of his living room, justified his wealth. It should be noted that Piker never hid his earnings: he always displays his subscriber count during his streams, and his earnings can be inferred by simply multiplying that number with the price of a subscription. However, the Twitch leak stated the number plain as day, and thus shattered the illusion many were maintaining of him as a slightly above-average wealthy influencer. He had, knowingly or not, protected himself from criticism through his charisma and the parasocial relationship he entertained with his audience.

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Figure Screenshot of HasanAbi’s stream

The controvery around Piker’s wealth exemplifies the strength of parasocial interaction within niche communities, but the exact same phenomenon exists in larger political spheres. Politicians have always used charisma as a tool to gain approval. Though politics in the US have arguably always been about spectacle instead of policy, the upcoming French presidential elections seem to be heading in that direction as well. Through following internet trends, French politicians, from the minister of Transportation Jean-Baptiste Djebbari on TikTok to the president Emmanuel Macron on all platforms, cultivate the image of politicians in touch with the younger generation and their interests. The most salient example is that of Macron’s participation in a video by popular French Youtubers McFly & Carlito, which garnered more than 16 million views and 1.3 million likes. Many of the comments, while not expressing explicit support for Macron, make positive statements about his sense of humor and how down-to-earth he seems. Through carefully crafted Youtube and TikTok videos, politicians present personas specifically designed to be endearing, and with which impressionable voters may form parasocial attachments. The tools of online influence used by Instagram, Youtube and TikTok celebrities are leveraged in favor of political aspirations, in a way that is much more personal to voters than media appearances and photo ops in local businesses. Once again, the world of celebrity is used to offer sentimental incentives as opposed to material ones.

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Figure Screenshot of the McFly & Carlito video featuring Emmanuel Macron

Parasocial relationships are entirely natural to our mode of social interaction and are not something that can or should be done away with. In our increasingly connected world, where the content we consume is much closer to our personal lives, we must strive to be more aware of the way in which we relate to media personalities and understand how to separate the person from their projected image. It is also healthy to question the motives of the people we look up to and to think critically about their actions. In the end, we must remember that these are not people we know personally, and let that knowledge temper our emotions. They say you should never meet your heroes, and perhaps we ought to be more careful about selecting our heroes in the first place.

Kepler Warrington-Arroyo
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Screenshot of HasanAbi’s stream from Twitch

Screenshot of McFly & Carlito’s Youtube video