The Dark Side of YouTube Politics

March 30, 2010
By | 4 Comments

The 2006 and 2008 election cycles suggested a new day was dawning for citizen engagement with politics via Internet-circulated video. In 2006, Senator George Allen was caught on video spewing racial hatred to his rural Virginia constituents. When this “Macaca” video was posted to YouTube, the seeds to Allen’s downfall were planted. In 2008, an array of citizen videos concerning the campaign appeared on YouTube, many that were highly creative. They injected the language of irony and satire into the realm of what had become, in the television era, banal political speech dominated by focus-group tested messages crafted by professional spin doctors. What is more, YouTube served as an archive where citizens could search and retrieve these messages at will. It seemed that citizen-generated video might invigorate the electorate and give a new charge to democratic participation.

But as with most new technological advances, there is a looming dark side. And in this instance, it seems that Michael Moore’s chickens have come home to roost. The political right is increasingly using Moore’s guerilla video tactics of confronting public figures and recording their responses for public display. As with Michael Moore, the goal has little to do with conversation, discussion, or debate, and more to do with public embarrassment and the advancement of one’s own thesis. It is a form of street theatre. It is also typically a full-frontal assault on truth.

Bill O’Reilly’s producers have been doing this for well over a year. Anti-Acorn advocates were successful at it. Now we see a Republican entrepreneur and right-wing functionary named Jason Mattera doing the same. He runs his own website, and uses these guerilla video confrontations with numerous Democratic political figures to promote himself and his book Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation (published through Simon & Schuster, no less) via YouTube and other sites.

The latest video making the rounds is Mattera’s confrontation with Senator Al Franken about the health care bill, including a supposed section that allots $7 billion for jungle gyms. The provision, of course, says nothing of the sort, but instead says that (as Media Matters reports in its “fact checking” of Mattera) “entities receiving grants may use them toward activities such as ‘creating healthier school environments, including increasing healthy food options, physical activity opportunities, promotion of healthy lifestyle…and activities to prevent chronic diseases.’”

The dark side of all this, it seems to me, is how little truth matters when it comes to visual rhetoric. Mattera has constructed what elsewhere I have called a “believable fiction” or what Farhad Manjoo calls “true enough.” It may not say jungle gyms explicitly, but that is what it means, so it might as well say jungle gyms, Mattera asserts. Stephen Colbert, of course, calls this “truthiness.” Whatever we call it, it is a clear example of how truth really doesn’t matter in such videos—it is the performance of truthiness that triumphs. The Democrats in the videos are made to look stupid, arrogant, or elitist, while Mattera comes across as the brave citizen “speaking truth to power” or doing the job an investigative reporter would do if the media weren’t so liberal.

Given that the political right has demonstrated a willingness to believe almost anything (i.e., death panels, fake birth certificates claims, Obama as the anti-Christ), we should probably pause to reflect on the potential damages that will arise in the days and years ahead from this conjunction of supposed indexical “proof” with a certain section of the electorate’s will to truthiness. Visual rhetoric, as manifest in political videos such as this, is revisiting the dark side. Let’s look for a new hope in the foreseeable future.


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4 Responses to “ The Dark Side of YouTube Politics ”

  1. Derek Kompare on March 30, 2010 at 2:12 PM

    The key phrase here is “the political right has demonstrated a willingness to believe almost anything”. This alone represents an insurmountable event horizon, at least as far as a good chunk (though far, far from a majority) of the American public is concerned. Until the political and cultural environment evolves past this moment, any of these iterations of “truthiness” must be regarded critically. I’d argue that’s the case with progressive media as well, i.e., we shouldn’t let our politics (no matter how passionately we may feel them) trump our critical tools.

    Getting past this moment will only come, I feel, after the last vestiges of the “news business” (vs. “journalism”) as we’ve known them for the past century or so are taken down. Guerilla “gotcha” videos still rely on long-established TV news representational codes. Those codes are exactly the problem, and the longer we continue to accept them as normative (or worse, “natural”), the longer we’ll be stuck with them.

  2. Tim Anderson on March 30, 2010 at 2:23 PM

    A question: I have often wondered if these “questionings” really should be framed as PR events ala Bernays, i.e. another utilization of third parties to promote a specific clients agenda. I wonder what you think about that given that PR eschews “Truth” for specific dialogic reframings. This was one of the items that the Franken, of all people, chose to engage in with the development of Air America. It’s also something that Lakoff seems to be proposing. In this case, the last year has been the re-strengthening of the right as “victims” to mobilize resentment. Thus, these interviews have nothing to do with the truth, but rather have a visual agenda of associating the right with an “underdog status”.

  3. Matt Sienkiewicz on April 1, 2010 at 7:49 AM

    I’m most struck by the ways in watch the Michael Moore style and the immediacy of Youtube would seem to privilege a certain type of political thinker who looks quite different than the more formal image of the past. The cardinal virtues of a political candidate in that media environment seem to be perpetual self-awareness and improvisational thinking. Yeah, this was always part of the world of debates and press conferences but those things tend not to erupt in the grocery line because someone pulls an Iphone. In any case it has the potential to seriously upset the balance of thinking well and thinking fast that is built into traditional notions of a good leader.

    One my favorite Scandinavian comedians (what, you don’t have that list ready to go for a first date? No wonder you have time for blogs…) wrote that you have “White House Potential” if 95% of your decisions are “correct.” Part of the joke is that he means 95% of every decision, no matter how trivial. He was joking, but was also probably right.

  4. Jeffrey Jones on April 1, 2010 at 9:27 AM

    That’s an interesting way to think of it, Matt, for I haven’t really considered that the person being attacked may need to be prepared–probably with humor, which shows how bad Franken “performed” here–to react in a way to defuse the attack. Indeed, I think humor is probably the ONLY way to kill the performance (if you will).

    With that said, why I wrote this post is to question whether (as per Derek’s comments above) the conventions are so well established in viewers’ heads (think 60 Minutes conditioning) that these videos establish winners and losers from the outset, that is, are somewhat “predetermined” by the style itself. And the reason, of course, is the audience for whom this will be meaningful.