The YouTube Campaign

The Washington Post has an interesting article on the potential uses of web video in the 2008 elections. Obviously, one of the biggest benefits of web video is that it is relatively inexpensive. Candidates can post videos online for free, dodging the expensive ad buys on television, and political junkies can create their own videos, with one recent example being the footage of the 1994 Mitt Romney-Ted Kennedy debate, in which Romney expresses support for abortion rights and gay rights, positions members of his Republican base might find undesirable. Romney’s campaign immeditely posted a response in which he distances himself from those positions (a similar advertisement by MoveOn.org attacking John McCain’s position on the war has been making the rounds). Others have suggested that web video will provide something closer to “backstage access” to life on the campaign trail–kind of a web video version of The War Room or Journeys with George.

Of course, the potential effects of web video were dramatically illustrated by the video of George Allen using a racial epithet to describe one of his opponent’s campaign workers. The video quickly caught the attention of cable news pundits and helped put Allen’s record on race back onto the table. Similarly, footage of Rush Limbaugh mocking Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s symptoms may have helped galvanize support for Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. I think it’s reasonable to speculate that web video may even foster political participation in ways that television has discouraged.

But, at the same time, I wonder to what extent web video will give credibility to false attacks. Obviously the most famous recent example is the “swiftboating” of John Kerry’s 2004 campaign, but even the Romney video is clearly an intentional distortion of his current positions on abortion and gay rights. And Romney’s campaign is free to respond, just as Kerry campign should have responded to the Swift Boat ads. I’m a little uncomfortable with my skepticism here because I think it risks sounding undemocratic (and I’m not particuarly interested in shutting down new avenues of expression), but I have to wonder how web video’s appearance of authentic, direct communication can be manipulated, especially by the campaigns themselves.

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