Ten years ago this week, the first-ever YouTube video was uploaded. It involved a zoo. And elephants.
But it wasn’t until more than a year later that YouTube got real for politicians. On Aug. 15, 2006, the “macaca” video was uploaded to the site.
At the time, Sen. George Allen (Va.) was considered a shoo-in for a second term and a likely GOP presidential candidate — if not the front-runner — in 2008. But the video of Allen describing an Indian American tracking the senator’s campaign for his Democratic opponent as a “macaca” turned the race — and Allen’s career — on its head. He lost to Jim Webb, a defeat that effectively ended any chance he had of being president.
More than Allen’s loss, the “macaca” video became a seminal moment in politics, the origin myth of how YouTube changed campaign calculus forever.
Here’s why. Trackers — people who follow around the opposing party’s candidate(s) — are nothing new, and weren’t all that new even back in 2006. What “macaca” revealed was the power of YouTube, its capacity to facilitate the easy upload and dissemination of videos. No longer would a tracker have to peddle a videocassette of allegedly damaging footage to a local TV station in hopes of getting the broadcaster to a) look at it and b) run it in some form. YouTube made every tracker his or her own TV station, with a potentially limitless audience.
And seeing a politician doing or saying something stupid was infinitely more powerful than reading about the stupid thing they said or did. We are a visual culture; we like to SEE things to truly understand them (or to be truly offended or impressed by them.) YouTube made that possible for every American with an Internet connection or a phone.
Suddenly, every moment of a politician’s life became fair game to be recorded and shared. Avoiding a “YouTube moment” became part of the political vernacular. And politicians became a lot more guarded.
Those trends have only been accelerated by the advent of smartphones that shoot video, and applications — such as Vine and Periscope — that allow video to be spliced into bite-size portions or live-streamed.
That YouTube and its many progeny have fundamentally altered politics is beyond debate. Whether those changes are a net positive or negative for the average person’s ability to understand how their government thinks and works is more up in the air.
On the pro side is the fact that politicians, reporters and virtually everyone else who is part of this world is more known and accessible to the average person than they were a decade ago. Although that development is not solely attributable to YouTube — Twitter and other social media sites play a role, too — it’s hard to argue that giving more people the opportunity to see and hear from their elected officials is a bad thing.
YouTube also made it possible for LOTS more eyes and ears to take part in and influence the political conversation. The 2012 election, for example, turned on a video shot by a bartender that caught Republican nominee Mitt Romney deriding the “47 percent” of people who would “vote for the president no matter what.”
As a reporter, having more people with the ability to flag moments when politicians contradict themselves, act inappropriately or, on the more positive side, show a more real side of themselves is terrific.
But like everything good in life, there are some negative implications of the YouTube era, too.
The biggest one is that politicians and their staff members quickly grasped that the ease and popularity of YouTube presented them with a powerful way to end-run the media. Why sit down with, say, The Washington Post, to get a specific message out — and, in so doing, subject yourself to a bunch of questions you don’t want to answer — when you could simply record a video making the same point sans the questions and push it out to your followers? The Obama White House took — and continues to take — that insight to its logical extreme, using YouTube as a way to cut the middleman (the media) out almost entirely.
Some will argue that’s a good thing; politicians talking directly to people without the media filter is, for some people, the best-case scenario for democracy. I’d argue differently, of course. To me, having representatives of the people (us in the media) asking questions of our politicians and following up on those questions is genuinely valuable — and provides more insight into how our elected officials think than a video written, produced, filmed and disseminated by the politician’s staff.
Consider this: Would you rather read a news release or a story about the topic the release addresses? Which one do you think would better inform you about the topic?
The other problem that the YouTube era has created is that it has made politicians, an already-paranoid and insular species, almost entirely unwilling to utter even a word in public that has not been vetted (and then re-vetted) by their staffers.
The idea of John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” — the rollicking and running conversation the Republican senator had with reporters in the back of his campaign bus during the 2000 race — is unfathomable today. McCain would (and surely did) look a certain way or say something that, on video, could have been edited to make him look foolish or, even worse, offensive to some key group.
In my view, the guardedness of politicians is a bad thing for democracy. While understanding the policies that politicians support or oppose is critically important, of equal value is grasping how the people who want to represent us think. In fact, I would argue that understanding how a politician’s mind works and who they really are at their core is more important than how they feel about any specific issue
Some (most?) of this debate is besides the point. The genie isn’t going back in the bottle. What we know is that the YouTube era has drastically altered lots and lots of fundamental realities about politics. Whether those changed realities are a good thing or a bad thing depends, in large part, on what side of the lens you are looking through.