Friday, June 22, 2007

Will YouTube Add to the Presidential Election, or be a Vehicle for Propaganda?

A few weeks ago, CNN announced that when it televises the Democratic presidential debate next month it will use questions submitted by ordinary people on YouTube. The hope was that opening the process in such a way would increase interest in the candidates, alleviate public skepticism that these debates are too choreographed, and, by allowing them to participate and have a stake in the process, generally make people feel closer to the candidates. Democracy, we were told, would be improved.

But there seems to be a dark storm brewing on the horizon. Many of the candidates from both political parties have put out videos that run like TV commercials directly from their campaigns. Hillary Clinton famously put out, first, a YouTube clip asking supporters to submit a campaign song, and second, another clip with Bill and Hillary acting out a parody on the Sopranos final episode.

So will YouTube make democracy work better in this election? Let's start with the CNN debate. The skeptics must be quick to wonder just who exactly is selecting the questions which will ultimately be asked at the debate. According to the official website, "the CNN political team will choose the most creative and compelling videos". What does that mean?! CNN needs to be a lot more clear and transparent about the question-selection process, otherwise the debate will be considered by many as remaining artificially choreographed and filled with the pre-screening of people and substance. Democracy would not be improved, it would only have a false facade of being as such by using new technology to maintain the status quo.

As for the Clinton videos (as representative of all that the other candidates have also put out there), the initial hope that YouTube would provide a forum filled with a diversity of viewpoints and opinions, submitted by anybody, on presidential politics is quickly giving way to this notion of YouTube as a simple venue for politicians to make use of free advertising. In the coming months, are we inevitably going to be flooded with a relentless assault of official soundbites from each campaign? At least the cost of political TV ads was somewhat prohibitive and therefore limited how much propaganda could be produced. But with the internet being free, it appears that the sky's the limit.

This is not to say that YouTube cannot still be beneficial to the democratic process. Already, some enterprising individuals have created video parodies of the official clips posted by the candidates - and it is this type of criticism, along with videos that espouse the pros or cons on specific issue areas, which hold the true potential for YouTube as a democratizing force. Democracy, in the end, is better served by a diversity of messages being produced, rather than by political elites and their centralized messages simply having free reign.


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