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


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


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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