4th Mar, 2007

The YouTube Campaign

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Image courtesy of Sci-Tech Today.com

Last week something happened that could change forever American political campaigns�that something is the ubiquitous, over-hyped site we all know and love as YouTube. Back in the 1960s Arlo Guthrie recorded a song, “Alice’s Restaurant,” whose the tag line was, “You can get anything you want at Alice�s Restaurant.” Well that’s YouTube.

On the last day of February, YouTube declared that it would host a voter education initiative that would utilize the resources of the Net to allow voters to see candidates “up close and personal.” The first part of this effort will feature a special site for political candidates to show case their own videos. The major 2008 presidential candidates have already signed on: Republicans Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Mitt Romney, and Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson.

As reported by ABC News, Jordan Hoffner, YouTube’s director of content partnerships, said “This is such an important election coming up that we just wanted to make sure we did everything we could in terms of helping candidates get their messages out, but also helping voters start a dialogue with those candidates on issues that really hit home at them individually.” Hoffner went on to describe future possibilities including actual online dialogues between candidates and viewers. “When users post comments or post video comments and the candidates respond in kind, that’s just going to take on a life of its own,” he said. Just what kind of life may be the crucial question in 2008.

The positive side of the YouTube campaign promises instantaneous interaction between candidates and voters. Voters across the country can talk directly to John McCain in real time, no scripts, no prescreened questions, producing a dialogue this country has not seen for a generation, at least. YouTube also should see an acceleration of the election monitoring activities that were pioneered in 2006 such as watching voting places for voter harassment and intimidation.

There seems little question YouTube is riding a wave that promises only to get bigger. The Pew Internet & American Life Project report on the 2006 campaign found that “31% of all Americans (or 46% of internet users) say they were online during the campaign season gathering information and exchanging views via email.” Even more telling, 35% of those under 35 said the Internet was their MAIN source of campaign information as compared with 18% who cited newspapers. Bloggers note: 20% of what the report termed “campaign Internet users” said they received campaign information from blogs. YouTube had to have noticed the statistic that 21% of these users viewed online campaign videos. Finally, the report found “Liberal Democrats are sometimes the most interested in online political news and information and who are the most active in pursing political activities on the internet.”

I would not be surprised to see a YouTube version of the debates arise where candidates, voters, and YouTube come together to allow for a much more freewheeling exchange than those network productions that have become so scripted by the candidates� staffs they now represent the political version of professional wrestling. By end-running the networks as well as cable and satellite, YouTube could facilitate a 21st century version of a 19th century campaign in which voters actually can interact with their candidates while they speak on virtual “stumps.”

End running the networks also holds out the faint, but plausible hope that by allowing the candidates to air free videos on the Internet, we may finally see the end of the networks–and even more, the local television stations–monopoly on political advertising. The Pew study observed, “Television’s lead [as a political news source] is slipping and the only notable growth in any political news channel since 1996 has been on the internet.” Because of the need to run thousands of media ads, it has become virtually impossible for any candidate without millions of dollars to run even for Congress, let alone the presidency.

Maybe the YouTube campaign can slow this down or put an end to it. If the Net becomes the main vehicle for interaction between candidates and voters it promises to not only open up the debate but also to cut dramatically the cost of campaigning. It also opens the door to grassroots groups who can produce “ads” of their own using the imaginations of their staff rather than the dollars of contributors.

I once termed this vision of the Internet as “infosections”–information intersections–where people can hold virtual “meet-ups,” plot common strategy, work together to create campaign materials and instant message with potential campaign workers and voters. It brings us close to the “virtual democracy” futurists have written about for decades. In 2008, we could witness the world�s first virtual campaign.

If you have taken a peak at YouTube even so far this year, you will notice that this has already begun. The most notorious example occurred in the 2006 election when a video showing Virginia Senate candidate George Allen using the word “macaca” to describe his opponent’s campaign worker appeared on YouTube. The mainline press, of course, ran the “macaca” controversy into the ground, but as always, they each had their own spin. With YouTube, you actually could view video of the incident and make your own judgment.

You can bet that campaigns and political action groups will flood YouTube with videos like that. Every campaign probably has a team working on splicing together old footage of opponents they can slip onto YouTube. This already happened in January with Mitt Romney. It began when an old video of Romney espousing moderate social positions appeared on YouTube, which prompted Romney to issue a retraction in the form of a video of his own.

As we have learned comes with every new technological advance, this utopian vision also has a dark side. YouTube, whether they like it or not, will not only see the true debates our democracy badly needs, it will also become a mud-wrestling pit that will make the negative ads you see on regular TV look tame. Any nut with a camera can become an instant PAC, airing vitriol about a candidate complete with visuals.

This leads to a more serious question that I raised in The Strange Death of Liberal America. The 2004 election saw the use of the Internet to circulate a doctored photograph supposedly showing Jane Fonda with John Kerry at an anti-Vietnam War rally. Ken Light, one of the photographers whose stolen photos comprised the image, said the digital trickery, “tells us more about the troublesome combination of Photoshop and the Internet than it does about the prospective Democratic candidate for president.” He added,

Who could have predicted that my Ethical Problems in Photography presentation would be showing young journalists how National Geographic moved one of the Egyptian pyramids to make it fit on a cover better, or the way colleges seeking a more diverse image edit African American faces into sports crowds that look too white?

When I wrote Strange Death, I predicted that doctored videos would be the next step in nasty campaigning. At that time I wrote, “Media trickery that . . . alters political photographs means Americans view reality through a distorted lens.” I went on to say:

In this world, it becomes easy for people to dismiss all sources or trust only those that share their prejudices. Economic justice can become an illusion, educational equity becomes useless except for those knowledgeable about the magician’s tricks, and voting freedom becomes as valid as throwing darts at a ballot. Figuring out whether the playing field is level becomes the equivalent of floating weightlessly in space where up and down, left and right, lose meaning.

My hope at that time was that Congress or the press would seek to regulate digital manipulation, but last Wednesday the genie flew out of the bottle and we cannot put it back. While we can hope that YouTube itself will police false or doctored videos, we cannot expect them to have the staff to handle the upcoming inundation.

Here we are on new ground, for in essence, viewers themselves will have to do the policing. Another Internet model, eBay, may provide some lessons. Using a ratings system for transactions, eBay hoped to cut down on unscrupulous sellers and deadbeat buyers. To some extent, the system has worked, but scandals concerning a few eBay vendors have cost the system some confidence.

For political campaigns, even more than eBay, time will become absolutely critical, for the longer a misleading, false or doctored video stays online, the harder it will be to negate. Every campaign will need a team of YouTube monitors to make sure this does not happen. This will cost time and money.

In the end, the responsibility to insure digital democracy works falls on all of us. A great deal rides on this upcoming campaign. It would not be too much to say democracy hangs in the balance.


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