Source : Toronto Star
It's had an impact in the U.S. and is bound to play a key role in the next federal election
Canada currently has the opportunity to observe our neighbour, the last remaining superpower, come to terms with the political impact of a volatile new medium. YouTube carries worldwide implications for the political process, and we should embrace the opportunity to learn from the U.S.'s experiences with this experiment in media and politics before our own federal election.
Begun in February 2005 by three young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, YouTube's potential influence on culture and public opinion is difficult to exaggerate. In August of 2006, YouTube had roughly 500,000 registered users and was hosting more than 6 million videos. At the beginning of this year, almost 79 million users watched more than 3 billion videos in the month of January alone.
To put this in perspective, the Toronto Star's weekly readership last year was about 2.9 million (including online), The Wall Street Journal has a daily circulation of approximately 2 million (print and online), and CNN's most watched show, Larry King Live, has an audience of slightly more than 1 million.
Success on YouTube may soon be a major factor in shaping public opinion, with the power to make or break a celebrity, politician or idea. Case in point: featuring a shapely model cavorting around New York City, I Got a Crush ... On Obama is a music video by Obama Girl espousing presidential hopeful Barack Obama as her choice for office and apparent love interest. A YouTube search for "Obama" brings this video up first, which has been watched an astounding 7.5 million times. Compare this to Obama's own endorsed campaign videos, where the nearest contender in popularity is a speech he gave with just more than 3.5 million views.
What might be the effect of this kind of endorsement, given the low youth voter turnout in the U.S. (42 per cent for ages 18-24 in 2004)? Is it possible that mass appreciation for I Got a Crush will translate into political support for Obama? Politicians are beginning to understand the power of this new medium, as evidenced by the number of U.S. candidates who have made videos specifically for the YouTube audience.
By the time of the next Canadian federal election, YouTube is likely to form an integral part of a well-organized campaign. It may be difficult to tell the difference between amateur videos and ones quietly funded by the campaign itself. One can only imagine the effect a vixen from Winnipeg would have on Canada's own miserable youth voter turnout (22 per cent of first-time voters 18-24 in 2004), if she were to proclaim her fondness for Stéphane Dion, perhaps while wearing a skin-tight parka and only ankle-high snow boots.
How will we react when the inevitable unflattering footage of our own politicians surfaces? Will we react as we did when then-prime minister Jean Chrétien was struck in the face with a cream pie by a protester? In typical Canadian fashion, newspapers reported on the event with a degree of levity, some headlining the story Pie Minister. While this incident made front-page news at the time, it did not indelibly affix itself to Chrétien's image in the way that John Edwards's "hair video" recently did in the U.S.
A search for John Edwards results in 16,100 videos, and his own official campaign "channel," where there are 375 videos with almost 784,000 views among them. This pales in comparison to the attention given to a single video entitled John Edwards Feeling Pretty, with more than 1,142,000 views. Featuring Edwards and an assistant fixing his hair with copious amounts of spray and much fawning over his image in a small circular mirror, it is this video that appears first with a search of his name.
In contrast, a search for Jean Chrétien in YouTube results in 193 videos, mostly of speeches and interviews. A video of the pie incident has received fewer than 20,000 views, and doesn't even show up on the first page of results.
While many will regard this kind of content as mere idle distraction, it is for the motivated observer that YouTube affords the greatest power, providing thousands of interviews, speeches and broadcasts to sift through. Users who want to make a difference in the minds of others can use the simple video editing tools that come with most new computers to produce thoughtful (or not) political statements of their own.
The Truth About Stéphane Dion is a video by a user named "pesoliv," responding to the Not A Leader Conservative attack ad released in January 2007. In it, pesoliv has organized footage from a Jan. 12, 2006 news conference and outlines Dion's accomplishments. Another video, by "agwnblog" using Global National footage, is self-described as "Stéphane Dion takes a childish potshot at Stephen Harper, making fun of his weight, only moments after saying personal attacks are not his `style.'"
Not only has YouTube given the public a powerful new tool to assess political double-talk, it has thrust these linguistic discrepancies into full view.
Take Hillary Clinton's embarrassing claim of running from sniper fire while touring Bosnia in 1996. CBS video from that trip shows her walking cheerily with her entourage, stopping to hug a young girl and posing for photos. Or the Iowa student who revealed she had been told by Clinton staff members to ask a softball question about climate change at a public forum, as her original question about energy policy would be too difficult.
While incidents like these may have previously gone unnoticed, YouTube now allows them to be analyzed by millions of eyes and turned into phenomena that may very well have an impact on global politics.
Canada's next federal election may not have videos of comparable popularity to those of I Got a Crush or Clinton's factual embellishments, but we should be conscious of the rapid changes taking place and recognize that YouTube represents a seismic shift in the information landscape.
Like the "magic mirror" from fairy tales, YouTube's capacity to show us anything we desire is just as powerful, and we need to recognize that power in order to avoid being mesmerized or manipulated by it. In memory of Dalton Camp
Fraser MacLean is the recipient of the 2008 Dalton Camp award
, presented to writers of original essays on the link between democratic values and the quality of media in Canada.
MacLean, 22, a native of Langley, B.C., is a graduate of the Art Institute of Vancouver (Recording Arts) and currently is a student at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C.
A passion for travel has led him across Canada, and to the U.S., Australia, Thailand, Cambodia and Scotland.
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting announced the creation of the award in December 2002 to honour the memory of the late Dalton Camp, a distinguished commentator on Canadian public affairs, who died earlier that year. Camp was a regular columnist for the Star.
© Toronto Star
Related: Learn more about the Dalton Camp Award