How YouTube Makes – and Breaks – Political Careers
An official photo of former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. appears on the screen, backed by a rhythmic soundtrack that recalls Sly and the Family Stone. “Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr. thinks he’s suitable to represent the values of Tennessee,” the voiceover begins.
Then the Internet clip takes an unsavory turn: “But while he may act pure as driven snow, this boyish young hustler has dark passions, even attending a hardcore pornography party where girls stripped practically naked to be leered at by Harold Ford, Jr. and his virile posse of bachelor thugs.” A slideshow of sanitized pornography involving black men and white women radiates from the politician’s portrait.
“Is this an example for Tennessee’s children?” the ominous male voice asks. A banner at the bottom of the screen states that the video was “paid for by the Republican National Committee.”
It was parody, of course (credited to the political satire site whitehouse.org). Yet many believe the clip played a pivotal role in preventing Ford from becoming the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction.
This was one of 60,000 digital videos added each day to YouTube.com, the free, wildly popular Web site where anyone can post video clips. YouTube is bound to be a force in the 2008 presidential campaign, too.
Most YouTube videos are homebrewed productions for entertainment or humor – live music, pet tricks, commercials, video diaries and dancing of all kinds – but the hotly-contested 2006 midterm election brought forth a surge of reposted political advertisements and unscripted footage that help shift the outcome in some key contests, Washington Post national politics editor John Harris said.
“The power of YouTube is two-fold,” Harris wrote in an e-mail. “In the first instance, the videos can command a considerable audience on their own. Beyond that, the most noteworthy videos will end up driving mainstream media coverage.”
But while YouTube’s political content gives the site a role as a campaign agenda-setter and manipulator, as the Ford “thug” parody shows, the free-for-all, transient nature of the website also offers an effective loophole for campaigns to skirt the control such content would meet in the mainstream media.
“YouTube seems to me like a highly democratizing force — it allows average citizens to affect the debate, occasionally in quite consequential ways, and puts items into the national conversation,” Harris wrote. “Perhaps it might be regulated, but it would still be hard to enforce.”
Ford was also attacked by a real RNC TV ad that showed the same scantily-clad white woman winking and asking Ford to call her. The ad was quickly retracted, after it drew charges of race-baiting and playing on fears of interracial relationships in Tennessee. On YouTube, though, a version lives to this day.
Disclaimer requirements for campaign ads only apply to ads that appear on broadcast channels, Federal Elections Commission spokesman Bob Biersack said. The rules for activity on the Internet don’t cover unpaid content, even if they are the original broadcast advertisements posted by the campaigns themselves, he said.
“There are no requirements for disclaimers for material placed, without a fee, on the Internet,” Biersack said. “There has to be a violation of the law.”
A similarly debilitating clip damaged the campaign of ex-Sen. George Allen, R-Va., whose once-comfortable lead over Democratic challenger Jim Webb turned into a razor-thin loss after an amateur taped him calling an Asian critic “macaca” — an obscure racial slur — at a public rally.
Michael Skipakevich, an 18-year-old Republican who ran a losing campaign for the California District 8 Senate seat, said YouTube is nonetheless an important asset to the modern campaign.
“Candidates who run for public office in 2008 [and] ignore YouTube by not having a presence there will run the risk of upsetting the digitally-savvy Internet user and potential voter,” Skipakevich said. “Unlike newspapers, who release the news once or twice a day in print form, the World Wide Web news portals provide up-to-the-minute breaking or developing news stories from around the world. They are all just a click away.”
Skipakevich said YouTube helped his cash-strapped campaign distribute ads and win a June 2006 primary.
“Twenty-first century campaigns are really media or communications campaigns,” Skipakevich said. “The more a candidate gets out into the media, the press, or the public, the better chance he or she will have in the campaign. Ask yourself: Where do people get their news? How do they really make their decision on how they will vote?”