YouTube’s Impact on the 2008 Election: The Hype and the Fact

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YouTube is a little more than two years old. It's a mere toddler. But, it's now owned by an overgrown, fully-bearded nine year old. Yes, that would be Google, and that means that YouTube is ready to storm its way into the media mainstream, pampers and all.

You can be sure that GooTube has already cooked up several strategies that will lead the video unit to media domination. But, even to the untrained media observer, it's fairly clear that Google's video unit has chosen the 2008 election as an arena in which it intends to compete with other major media outfits for eyeballs.

In April, YouTube launched its political channel CitizenTube (get more info here) and, along with it, its first major line of video programming called You Choose '08. The concept here is simple and promising: Citizens ask questions to the '08 candidates, and the candidates respond. The results, however, have been largely disappointing. When you strip everything away, what you get are politicians speaking the same platitudes that we've seen for decades on TV. (See a sample reply here.) The only difference is that the video quality is worse, and they're managing to get their platitudes in front of a young demographic, which is no small feat. For better or for worse, YouTube is to the '08 election what MTV (remember Bill playing the sax?) was to the '92 election.

While neither CitizenTube nor the political campaigns are using the video platform in revolutionary ways, the millions of average users who make YouTube what it is are doing a better job of it.

Of particular interest is the way in which videos are emerging on YouTube that counter images being carefully projected by candidates and their campaigns. Here are two quick examples.

GOP candidate Mitt Romney has been predictably working to cast himself as a social conservative. Twice in recent months, he has shown up at Pat Robertson's Regent University to deliver lines like this:

"We're shocked by the evil of the Virginia Tech shooting..." "I opened my Bible shortly after I heard of the tragedy. Only a

few verses, it seems, after the Fall, we read that Adam and Eve's

oldest son killed his younger brother. From the beginning, there has

been evil in the world."

..."Pornography and violence

poison our music and movies and TV and video games. The Virginia Tech

shooter, like the Columbine shooters before him, had drunk from this

cesspool."

But then, however inconveniently, videos from Mitt Romney's past political campaigns show up on YouTube, ones which should make evangelicals think twice, and there is not much Romney can do about it. The past hurts, but it doesn't lie:

Then there is Hillary Clinton. She's got the money, the party machine is backing her, trying to wrap up the nomination with a bow. But then a damning attack ad crops up on YouTube. This pitch for Barack Obama remixes the "1984" TV ad that famously introduced Apple computers to America, and it casts Hillary as a political automaton, an image that rings true for many. (The Obama campaign denies having anything do with the video, and its creator remains unknown.)

It is with videos like these that YouTube gets politically interesting. Just as quickly as a political campaign projects an image for Romney or Clinton, your average web user can scrounge up footage that calls that image into question. A retort is always possible, which was never the case on TV. And the cost of delivering/countering a message runs next to nothing. Again a first. YouTube equalizes, and it isn't a terrain on which the rich can instantly claim victory. Just ask Romney and his over $200 million in personal wealth. What good has it done him in YouTube land?


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