Communication Currents

YouTube Creates a New Debate Experience

October 1, 2008
Political Communication

Since the early ‘90s the steady progression of internet technologies has increased the potential for political participation. In 2007 CNN and YouTube created the CNN-YouTube presidential candidate debates. The two debates (Democratic Debate and Republican Debate) provided a unique opportunity for the public to become engaged in national political discussion through the submission of video questions to YouTube for inclusion in two nationally broadcast debates hosted by CNN.

In June of 2007, CNN executives and YouTube founders invited the American public to participate in two events that they hoped would change the face of presidential candidate debates. The CNN-YouTube presidential candidate debates marked the first time in which candidates would answer video questions developed by the American public and submitted to YouTube in a live candidate forum on broadcast television. Hoping to tap into the vast and varied populations that use YouTube, the creators felt that the debate format would engage more viewers--and potential voters--than ever before. Invitations to participate were broadcast on CNN news shows and posted on the YouTube homepage. Participants were encouraged to submit creative and thoughtful videos containing a question that they would like presidential candidates to answer on national television. The public responded by submitting 7,916 videos for possible inclusion in the two televised debates. According to a joint press release, the creators indicated that they were hopeful that the interactive and dynamic format would be the bold step of embracing the ever-increasing role of the internet in politics.

A recent study by LaChrystal Ricke examined who submitted videos on YouTube, the types of questions asked, and the visual characteristics present. Most importantly, the study examined to what extent differences existed between the videos chosen by CNN for broadcast and the videos archived on YouTube.

Two demographic populations typically considered the hardest to politically engage, namely minorities and young individuals, were well represented in the online debates. In comparison with turnout statistics from 2004, participation in the CNN-YouTube debates was more ethnically diverse. Individuals identified as Black, Hispanic and Asian were more represented in the online video submissions than previous election turnout rates. This may indicate that the debates provided an opportunity for minority populations to communicate politically. The results are interesting for two other reasons as well. First, although there is still a significant difference in internet penetration rates between Whites and Blacks, Blacks did participate in the online debates at a higher rate than in previous elections. Second, although Hispanics also had a higher rate of participation in the online debates than in recent elections, in terms of internet penetration, the participation of this population could still be considered to be low. English-speaking Hispanics have an internet penetration rate 3% higher than that of Whites suggesting that a much larger population had access to online technologies than chose to participate in the online political debates.

As expected, younger individuals submitted more videos. Voters under the age of 44 accounted for roughly 45% of total voter turnout in 2004; for the CNN-YouTube debates, voters under the age of 40 accounted for 56% of total participants.The highly sought after 18-25 year-old young voter demographic represented over 27% of the online participants. Campaigns are consistently trying to find ways to encourage young voter participation and the level of participation in the CNN-YouTube debates suggests that the online video format is a viable method to gather opinions and encourage participation from this voter segment. Interestingly, 14% of submitters were under the age of 18 indicating that individuals not yet eligible to vote may have also seen these debates as an opportunity to engage politically.

The study found that women submitted far fewer questions (35.5% less) than men and that they participated at a rate much lower than recent voter turnout for women. In 2004, 65% of registered women voted, a rate 3% higher than registered men, so the low percentage of female participants in the online debates is intriguing. It is possible that this study confirms recent data indicating that while the digital divide between men and women has decreased, online activities still differ significantly by sex.

A majority of video posters asked open-ended questions without providing alternatives for the candidates to choose from. For example, one submitter asked, what would each of you do to help the United States and China get together to meaningfully address the pressing global issue of climate change? Questions such as these may indicate a desire to hear the candidates' opinions on issues rather than providing options for the candidates to choose from. Additionally, a majority of the questions, like the example above, were addressed to all of the candidates and not any specific candidate suggesting a desire to hear opposing view points. Finally, many videos included situational or informational introductions leading into the questions. These video posters provided background information on their topic prior to the question which provide context to the question being asked. Providing this type of information prior to the question indicates that the poster either had prior knowledge of the subject or researched the topic prior to submission.

One obvious difference in the CNN-YouTube debates was the ability to add visual context. Roughly 23% of submitters took advantage of this capability by adding effects such as music, costumes, photographs, animation, and PowerPoint-type presentations. In addition to adding special effects, some posters used the visual environment to include powerful images that helped add to the context of their video. Other submitters filmed their videos in front of backgrounds that were symbolic to their questions. For example, one video asking about governmental assistance to rebuild small-town America was recorded in front of a small-town store front. The inclusion of such background indicates that submitters planned out questions that were verbally and visually connected.

Although CNN retained editorial control over which videos were selected for the national broadcasts, the study revealed that the videos chosen for the two CNN-YouTube debates closely mirrored the online video population. Whether by design or not, the CNN selection committee chose a representative sample of submissions to include in the broadcast debates.

The CNN-YouTube presidential candidate debates opened a new channel through which national political conversation could occur. By allowing average individuals the opportunity to question presidential candidates on a national stage, the debates were successful in reaching a large number of people, including typically underrepresented populations. CNN has repeated the video question format by encouraging individuals to upload videos of questions they would ask during the vice presidential candidate debate. It is possible that channels such as these hold the key to increasing political awareness and participation throughout the American populace.