Communication Currents

As Seen on YouTube

December 1, 2009

The recent debate over health care and government spending in the United States has been accompanied with a shift in communication practices. From protests at town halls to tea parties in the streets, citizens now create political messages for a new mediated form of deliberation - a YouTube democracy. Here, sound bites have been bolstered with sensationalism; arguments and debate replaced with screaming and gotcha handycam citizen journalism. But what are the consequences of video blogging dominating the airwaves? What happens to democratic deliberation when it is made for YouTube?

Protesters and video bloggers alike recognize the power of YouTube. If Andy Warhol extolled the 15 minutes of fame, today's YouTube political activists know that three minutes is plenty. On the ground, protesters are acutely aware of how digital images, video, and audio are disseminated. For instance,this YouTube video features the liberal video blogger, “bloggerinterrupted,” at a Cleveland Tea Party protest. In this case, those individuals who are interviewed by “bloggerinterrupted” take video or photographs of him as he asks questions, as if to make their own digital copy of the event. Elsewhere, a tea party gathering is recorded by another YouTuber, focusing on one vocal protester. Throughout the video, the protester holds his own handycam as the video blogger asks him questions.

Looking further, YouTube channels dedicated to political commentary, such as the Young Turks, comment on how outrageous such town hall debates have become, reporting on them by replaying the video captured by other YouTubers. Finally, those very same YouTube videos are replayed on 24-hour news networks, lending legitimacy to their importance in the debate. It would seem, then, that protesters and media conglomerates alike are keenly aware of the power of YouTube in characterizing political issues. In total, these YouTube protest videos become remarkably powerful evidence for the happenings of protest.

Looking to these examples, the question becomes: How does YouTube characterize political issues? Videos that highlight the recent political protests against President Obama underscore the ugly side of politics and dissent. Discussions of the merits of health care reform or the stimulus package are replaced with screaming matches or near-violent exchanges. Much effort is made in characterizing opponents in the debate via depictions of out-of-control protestors or homemade signs. Ad hominem attacks upon people, not arguments about ideas, fly across the streets and stream across the Internet. The videos that gain traction on YouTube are those that tend to be sensational or over-the-top. For example, in my quick search of “tea party protest” on YouTube, the videos that have the most views are of protesters drowning out a CNN reporter with shouts of “Tell the truth!” from a seemingly angry crowd, or a video blogger asking questions of tea party supporters who argue that Obama is the anti-Christ. In a similar search for “health care protest,” the most viewed video is one of a woman yelling at a town hall meeting held by U.S. Representative Mike Castle (R-DE) about whether President Obama was born in the United States or not. Another video shows U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) struggling to finish a sentence in response to a question from an audience member. These are the videos that are attracting viewership and rising to the top of YouTube ranks with hundreds of thousands of views.

News organizations have begun to report on made-for-YouTube moments in media. The New York Times reported on protests against U.S. Representative Frank Kratovil (D-MD), noting that “video clips [of the event] played endlessly on the Internet and cable television.” In government, the sensationalist turn has reached Capitol Hill. The infamous shout of “You lie!” by U.S. Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) became the 15-second sound bite of President Obama's nearly hour long speech to a Joint Session of Congress. More recently, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) characterized the Republican Health Care plan while addressing the U.S. House of Representatives as “If you get sick, die quickly,” also gaining attention on YouTube screens.

These communication behaviors become self-fulfilling, especially in Web 2.0 environments supported by user-generated content. The debate has turned ugly; but ugly makes it on television. Ugly makes it to the top of the YouTube charts. Ugly goes viral.

Of course, this is not to say that YouTube is only used for this purpose. To be fair, YouTube, or its parent company Google, do not actively promote or necessarily seek out videos that are a mockery of democracy. YouTube, in this case, is merely the medium. However, as Marshall McLuhan famously remarked, “The medium is the message.” YouTube is a user-generated domain, featuring what is believed to be important by the masses, not Google. The medium of YouTube carries a message of sensationalism, poor argumentation, and spectacle; all of which are overlaid with a sense of authenticity through an ethos of “having been there with my handycam.” Its form tells us that these messages are not only real, but they are important, as per the thousands or millions of views they have received.

Messages such as these, therefore, become self-serving in the Web 2.0 environment. By conducting a simple search on YouTube for “government spending” or “tea party” and sorting by view count, those videos that receive the highest viewership regarding the protest of health care reform or government spending are those that feature the outrageous claims of angry citizens or sensational comments from politicians. Furthermore, news outlets seek out YouTube sensations or made-for-YouTube moments, and give credence to YouTube's legitimacy as a newsworthy source in the debate. In this clip, CNN commentator Don Lemon opens a debate between columnist David Sirota and Chair of the Republican Party in Florida Jim Greer using a clip from one of the protests. Lemon then calls for “No yelling, no pushing, no screaming” between the two guests in the discussion. Yet, the headline of the story reads: “When push comes to shove: Nation's ugly debate on health care.” In addition, throughout the discussion, clips of protests are playing in the background, including one shot featuring a sign that reads “Obama Rx Koolaid.”

The shift in media coverage to being more sensational promotes a type of communication strategy that denigrates democratic deliberation. When protest amounts to ad hominem attacks on the president, going as far as comparing him toHitler, discourses of rationality using sound argumentation are lost. This is not to say that emotion should be dismissed in the debate on government spending or health care; but when the debate is heard only through shouting, and fear is the only emotion, democracy suffers. YouTube isn't devoid of thoughtful discussion about such issues. However, discussions of the merits of health care reform or the consequences of government spending are drowned out in the Web 2.0 environment. In short, YouTube, with its entertainment focus and preference for the folly, does not supply an appropriate medium to discuss the serious issues facing the United States today.