YouTube lets anyone into the debate

[25 February 2008]

By Adam Jadhav

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MCT)

Hot bursts of light flashed across the Edward Jones Dome as Sen. Barack Obama walked the stage. Hundreds snapped pictures; others shot video from cell phones.

At least one man turned his back to Obama and delivered his own brief speech into a video camera in support of the Illinois Democrat. Miles Bateman, a retired Air Force master sergeant and Baptist minister from Trenton, Mo., was about to become a political commentator by posting his video on the YouTube website.

Since its founding only three years ago, YouTube has prompted thousands of people like Bateman to insert themselves into the democratic process.

Millions watch the most popular political videos, like the one featuring a bikini-clad “Obama girl.” And politicians use the site as a new tool to do something they’ve always sought to do: reach voters without the filter of the media.

Witness Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, who shocked the state’s political establishment by announcing he wasn’t seeking a second term - via YouTube video.

But as it becomes a permanent part of the political landscape, YouTube has sparked debate over its impact. Some complain that images of models prancing around in bathing suits fail to lift the national discourse.

On YouTube and elsewhere in the anything-goes world of the Internet, some argue, facts easily give way to emotion, artistic license or outright deception. Others point out that YouTube leaves out millions who can’t afford the broadband Internet access it requires.

But all agree: YouTube has become a lasting, and significant, part of the political process.

Some observers credit YouTube with fostering an evolving phenomenon they call netroots politics. Political campaigns have hurried to take advantage.

“We had to have staff watching YouTube pretty much all the time,” recalls Paul Maslin, a pollster and strategist for the now-defunct presidential campaign of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat. “You’re now at the point where every campaign is thinking about the new media when they make a move.”

The presidential candidates have their own “channels” of YouTube videos from stump speeches, television ads and interviews. Minutes after the end of a debate of the Democratic candidates Thursday night in Austin, Texas, for example, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had posted video of some of her comments.

Obama’s campaign last week had posted almost 700 videos; Clinton, D-N.Y., had almost 250; former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, just under 200; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about 170; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, about 125.

Ultimately, viewers decide what is important or interesting. Most political videos come from users simply posting raw footage. Some add titles or voice-overs. Others spout off right into the camera, as Bateman did at the Obama rally on Feb. 2 (though his voice is overwhelmed by background noise).

Eric Robert, a senior in business administration at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, posted uncut footage from the visit of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to a hotel in west St. Louis County late last month.

“I really do feel that whenever normal people get an opportunity to witness an event, it’s kind of like our duty to record it and share it with other people,” said Robert, whose previous YouTube postings were apolitical, including a Dutch child singer and someone playing a video game.

YouTube allows users to interact with each other and take part in wide-ranging debates, sharing whatever is important to them, essentially making the programming decisions.

“Anybody can create the show,” said John Palfrey, executive director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “You remix content very quickly. You can take video of Barack Obama on the campaign trail and remix it into something that has power.”

That’s exactly what music star will.i.am did in his “Yes We Can” video, where a cast of celebrities recite an Obama speech over a soul music soundtrack. The clip has been seen more than 14 million times in various posts on YouTube and will.i.am’s site.

That’s approaching the viewership for a new episode of ABC’s “Lost,” and it’s more than watch “60 Minutes” on CBS.

“It’s really historic,” said Ben Relles, the 32-year-old creator of “Obama Girl,” who got his MBA from Penn’s Wharton School of Business. “It definitely increases political interest. We get hundreds of e-mails practically every day.”

But do such videos really add anything to a democratic society?

“YouTube and other new media outlets give a whole lot more openings to citizens. And that, to me, is good,” said Pam Johnson, executive director of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. “On the other hand, it also means that the citizens may have to work a little harder because they may be getting interesting information, but there is still a step you have to go through and synthesize.”

Johnson said YouTube would become an even bigger player in politics if it teamed up with a mainstream media partner like a newspaper or television network skilled at exactly what YouTube lacks: analysis and context.

“Sometimes we just have to fill in the middle there,” said Johnson, whose institute studies ways to bring journalists closer to citizens.

Palfrey agrees that a “balanced media diet” includes mainstream media as well as new media. But he defended YouTube’s value.

“This is another medium through which people have discourse that is sometimes serious, sometimes amusing,” he said. “I think you would be hard-pressed to say the `Yes We Can’ video is not a serious and real take on issues.”

The videos aren’t just watched. YouTube encourages people to comment on what they see and to link the videos to other websites. Palfrey said that kind of sharing of a messages helps fuel political movements.

“There is so much interactivity,” said Michael Cheney, a senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “YouTube has changed politics in that way. And it’s changed it forever.”

With the good comes danger, for voters as well as candidates.

Users have few constraints in editing and posting content, meaning spin and bias abound. Web search capabilities increase the possibility that “you could be listening to only the things that you want to hear,” Palfrey acknowledged.

And political campaigns wrestle with the fear of such unbridled commentary and the ease of posting video.

“You’ve got people who can record you at the most inopportune moment and then put it out there on the Web,” said Maslin, the strategist for Richardson.

Even as YouTube brings in new, mostly younger voices, it does leave some out. Karlo Barrios Marcelo, a researcher with the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, notes that the most disengaged demographic in politics - young adults who aren’t in college - are also far less likely to have regular and high-speed Internet access.

“Almost every time that the campaigns focus on young people, usually they’re talking about the people that we don’t really need to worry about,” Marcelo said. Young people not in college “are not going to be like full-time college students who are wired and sitting in their dorm or professionals sitting at their computer in a cubicle.”

Despite the naysayers, YouTube insists that it makes politics more accessible.

“It levels the playing field for discussion,” said Aaron Ferstman, spokesman for YouTube’s politics team. “With YouTube, anybody that has an opinion can sort of vocalize it and potentially get heard by a wide audience of people.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/youtube-lets-anyone-into-the-debate/