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Controlling the MessageNew Media in American Political Campaigns$

Victoria A. "Farrar-Myers and Justin S. Vaughn

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9781479886357

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: September 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479886357.001.0001

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The Competition to Control Campaign Messages on YouTube

The Competition to Control Campaign Messages on YouTube

Chapter:
(p.74) 4 The Competition to Control Campaign Messages on YouTube
Source:
Controlling the Message
Author(s):

Robert J. Klotz

Publisher:
NYU Press
DOI:10.18574/nyu/9781479886357.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on the efforts of political candidates to control the campaign message via online videos on YouTube. To understand how video messages are controlled using new media, the YouTube presence of congressional and presidential candidates in the 2012 election is analyzed. The chapter first provides an overview of the competition among candidates, political parties, and interest groups to control the message sent to voters during election campaigns before discussing how effective candidates were at controlling their video messages in the 2012 election. It shows that elite communicators are able to maintain a privileged position but face more competition on YouTube than on broadcast television, especially from ordinary citizens who are able to make substantive contributions to political messages.

Keywords:   political candidates, online videos, YouTube, video messages, new media, election campaigns, broadcast television, political messages

On November 6, 2012, President Obama, instead of trying to control his own message, envisioned himself as the remixer. He was prompted by a New Hampshire radio host asking about Psy’s “Gangnam Style” dance. President Obama explained, “I think I can do that move, but I’m not sure that the inauguration ball is the appropriate time to break that out” (WZID 2012). It is a sign that politicians are becoming more comfortable with diminished control of their video message when, on Election Day, the president would wonder about how to adapt an Internet meme. Being able to laugh at yourself is one option for dealing with the new video environment.

Politicians do not have a lot of attractive options for confronting the challenges of controlling their message in an online video environment such as YouTube. The best option is probably to win the competition to shape their video presence. If established political participants can produce compelling content, their videos will be watched, and they will maintain a measure of control over their online video presence. Alternatively, ordinary citizens are so numerous and empowered by democratized video technology that they can conceivably drown out the message of established political participants. These two potential outcomes are supported by competing academic theories about whether the political application of new technology will fit a mobilization thesis in which the political establishment is undermined by newly empowered participants or a normalization thesis in which established political participants retain the ability to “package and control” their message (Gainous and Wagner 2011, 138). To understand video message control in the new media, this study systematically analyzes the YouTube presence of congressional and presidential candidates in the 2012 election.

The Competition to Control the Campaign Message

One critical aspect of election campaigns is the competition to control the message that is sent to voters. Candidates, political parties, and interest groups are advocates who fight to have their message heard. The traditional news media add their own frames of campaign coverage. Citizens may be eager to contribute (p.75) their own messages. The medium through which participants communicate can affect who wins the competition to have their preferred message heard.

Candidates, political parties, interest groups, and the traditional news media have a good thing going in the broadcast world. These established political participants benefit from scarce spectrum that limits most video communication to media owners and those who purchase expensive advertising time. Citizens are largely excluded from video communication in this environment. They generally cannot afford advertising time. The news media tend to favor elite sources (Bennett et al. 2004) and to omit citizens from campaign stories except as part of a public opinion poll.

The big winner in broadcasting is the traditional news media. The journalists employed by television stations choose their own frames for campaign stories. Over time, the exercise of interpretive journalism has reduced candidate speech to sound bites of about eight seconds, and the vast majority of newscast speaking is now done by journalists (Grabe and Bucy 2009). If candidates, groups, and parties want to speak in an unmediated way on television, they must generally buy advertising time from stations that reap large windfalls in political campaigns.

Candidates also do well in the broadcast world. Although they are losing screen time to journalists, news coverage can boost valuable name recognition. Candidates experience some success in priming the news media to cover issues on which they would like to be judged (Iyengar and Kinder 1987). Candidates can also be players in the paid media. Under the law, candidates pay the lowest advertising rate and can often raise the money to buy time.

Political parties and interest groups also benefit from the broadcast environment. They can spend unlimited amounts distributing their own message independent from candidates. Television stations are happy to sell them time since they can charge these entities a higher rate than candidates. In some instances, parties and groups have so much money that they can drown out the message of candidates.

Although established participants enjoy a privileged position in the broadcasting world, there is a theory that the Internet can dramatically alter the competitive balance for video message producers. Specifically, the technical and financial barriers that prevent nontraditional players from an active role in video messages disappear online. At one time, producing and distributing video was prohibitively expensive. Now it is possible with a low-end camera and Internet access. Citizens may have an advantage in a world in which “professional and big budget equals a sales push [while] indie and raw equals honest” (Fernando 2009, 11). Citizens may also benefit from being better able to relate to other citizens. Wael Ghonim (2012, 86) describes the appeal of setting his Egyptian prodemocracy message to music: “I had never edited a video before, but … after three or four hours of work, the video was ready. … [Viewers] found the (p.76) fusion of images, lyrics, and music inspiring and moving, … [unlike] the regular practice of lawyers and human rights defenders, who used facts and statistics to garner support.”

Further, these technological changes theoretically can alter the formats of campaign communication. Although brief ads are encouraged by broadcast-spectrum scarcity, YouTube imposes few constraints. Communicators can experiment with varied formats to convey their message. At minimum, communication can be extended beyond the 30-second increments that are insufficient for developing arguments about leadership and policy goals. Writing in Wired, Clive Thompson (2009, 40) explains that YouTube will prompt new ways to communicate: “We’re developing a new language of video—forms that let us say different things and maybe even think in different ways.”

Overall, the theory suggests that technological change can undermine the control that established political participants have over the video message that they communicate during campaigns. Ordinary citizens can use democratized video production and distribution to convey their own campaign messages in unconventional formats. In the words of Aaron McKain (2012, 4), “Every John and Jane Q. Public [is] a nascent H. L. Mencken or Daily Show contributor, armed with a cheap laptop that comes standard with more AV production equipment than the Beatles had to record Abbey Road, and with an internet connection that lets them disseminate information as far and wide as any major media corporation.”

Indeed, scholars have theorized the lack of control as a fundamental feature of YouTube politics. Vassia Gueorguieva (2008, 295), for example, argues that the online video environment “weaken[s] the level of control that campaigns have over the candidate’s image and message since anybody, both supporters and opponents, can post a video.” For McKain (2012, 44, 63), loss of control in digital media is driven by the combination of interactive and archival capabilities: “What the materiality of digital media really strips away from us is the ability to self-narrate, to perform, to tell our stories in the order that we see fit. … Digital media multiplies our ‘selves’ that are living, forever, in The Archive while simultaneously, thanks to the inherent interactivity of digital media, eradicating our control (political, existential) over them.”

A number of hypotheses are easily deduced from this theory. If the theory is supported, citizens would be expected to account for a large percentage of the prominent videos in political campaigns. The citizen category will benefit from the large numbers of citizens and their ability to relate to the citizen audience. On the other hand, established participants would be expected to produce fewer videos that resonate with viewers. This seems especially true for traditional media organizations that lose their gatekeeping role over spectrum space on YouTube. Finally, the 30-second advertisement would be expected to lose its prominent position in defining the video presence of candidates. Without the constraints of broadcasting space and predetermined 30-second intervals, communication (p.77) is expected to take a variety of formats to appeal to audience members who have diverse interests. In short, established participants are expected to have less control over their campaign video messages on YouTube.

An extreme version of the loss of control would be a kind of Gangnam Style politics. Around Election Day 2012, the Psy video “Gangnam Style” surpassed a Justin Bieber video to become the most viewed YouTube video in history with about 1 billion views. The South Korean district celebrated in the video is described by Psy as remaining “calm” during the day and “going insane” at night (“Interview” 2012). Applying the distinction to the types of campaign videos on YouTube, it could be that candidates lose control of the calm, cautious video messages that they produce during the day as people go insane at night remixing video and fundamentally undermining candidates’ messages.

Early scholarship about online video suggested that traditional players did fairly well in keeping control of their video messages on YouTube. Studying the 2008 campaign, Travis Ridout, Erika Fowler, and John Branstetter (2010) found that candidates accounted for 93% of video advertisements. Examining 113 of the most viewed campaign 2008 videos, Ivan Dylko et al. (2012, 844) characterized only 11% as “amateur videos” in an environment dominated by elite videos: “Even in what may be argued to be the most democratic information outlet—a user-generated video-sharing website—elites undeniably dominate in terms of proportion of the sources featured in the popular YouTube videos.” On the basis of the finding that citizen videos peaked during the 2008 election and fell off sharply afterward, Albert May (2010, 509) concluded that his research “supports the argument that it is the old content providers, not the new user-generated YouTubers, who are playing the larger role in attracting audiences in the new medium.” Jin Kim (2012, 54, 65) invoked the phrase “institutionalization of YouTube” to describe the producers and format of video: “The dominant portion of videos on online video sites comes from mainstream media, and users borrow not only content to consume but also specific formats in order to produce their clips.”

The question is whether the balance changed during 2012, which was a break-out year for YouTube in the election campaign. For the first time, online videos were part of how the average American voter experienced the campaign. Pew Internet (2012) found that 55% of registered voters watched a campaign-related video online. Further, a majority (52%) of registered voters reported having been recommended an online video. The numbers were similar for Republicans and Democrats. The importance of YouTube use by the electorate is magnified by data that show YouTube use in the 2012 election was positively related to offline participation (Zhang, Seltzer, and Bichard 2013).

Given the increasing importance of YouTube in campaigns, the competition to control online video messages is intensifying. Candidates and established participants are trying harder to produce videos, knowing that a majority of the (p.78) electorate is viewing campaign videos. Citizens continue to benefit from technological advances that simplify video production and editing. The YouTube landscape in 2012 may have been very different from earlier elections, in which YouTube political videos were seen by a minority of the electorate. Who controlled the online video message of candidates in the 2012 election?

New Media Methodology and Online Video

Research on the online video environment benefits from having one widely recognized playing field in YouTube. Founded in 2005 by former PayPal employees with the motto “Broadcast Yourself,” YouTube is now the third-most-popular destination on the web, behind only its parent company, Google, and Facebook (Alexa 2014). Of course, some video producers would prefer people to watch videos on their own website. Even so, they do not want to neglect a platform as visible as YouTube. Thus, those who want to communicate about political campaigns will compete to distribute their video message on YouTube.

Further, this widely recognized playing field is one on which communicators compete on largely the same terms. Users follow a similar process to upload videos under similar specifications. At the time of the 2012 election, all users could upload videos up to 15 minutes in length. YouTube makes some exceptions for longer videos from preferred video producers, such as major media outlets.

Another tremendous opportunity for YouTube research is that digital technology generates usage metrics. It is never easy to tell how many views a television or print ad receives. Online, however, it is much easier to count views. Scholars in a range of disciplines have coalesced around the “most viewed” metric. Dylko et al. (2012) defend the “most viewed” methodology as consistent with studies that show people seldom get past the first page of search results. In a study of nursing imagery, Jacinta Kelly, Gerard Fealy, and Roger Watson (2012, 1807) analyze the “ten most viewed” YouTube videos on the grounds that they “constituted an ongoing public discourse.”

On the other hand, the most serious challenges to new media research are mitigated on YouTube. The ease of anonymity is a regular challenge for Internet content research. Yet the incentives to claim credit for video production by building a YouTube channel brand are strong and limit anonymous videos. The challenge of evanescence is minimized on YouTube since uploaded videos are not constantly edited like a website. Indeed, videos are only occasionally taken down, and controversial videos are often preserved elsewhere. Another major challenge of new media content analysis is that people receive different targeted content, especially ads, on the basis of their previous online behavior. By employing privacy settings, putting objective criteria into the YouTube search engine, and excluding sponsored videos, researchers can minimize the impact of targeting.

(p.79) Research Design

In order to test theories about the online video environment and to understand how effective candidates were at controlling their video messages in the 2012 election, it is important to avoid the idiosyncrasies of any particular contest. By examining different candidates and different types of campaigns, confidence is increased that any observed phenomena result from the underlying new media technology. Similarly, a combination of high-profile and low-profile races will secure a broader view of the relationship between online video and message control.

Thus, this study examines the online video messages related to candidates in three campaign types in the 2012 election. First, candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination are studied. The presidential nomination contest has proved a fruitful place to examine technological advances in politics (e.g., Gueorguieva 2008), in part because the visibility of the campaign attracts interest from the public and innovative campaign professionals. Second, the two major-party presidential candidates in the general election are included. Scholarship confirms that both the Obama and Romney campaigns used YouTube to convey major themes, and their videos exhibited the “smooth professionalism” of established political participants (Trosky 2013, 144). Third, all U.S. Senate races in the 2012 general election are considered. U.S. Senate campaigns are ideal for study as they provide tremendous diversity of competitiveness and geography in a politically relevant population of a manageable size that allows for systematic analysis.

Presidential nomination videos were selected in a straightforward way. Candidates were identified based on participation in the October 11, 2011, debate that constituted the final field of announced candidates (i.e., Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum). Each candidate’s name was input into the advanced search function of YouTube to identify the “most viewed” videos. Videos in which either the first or last name of the candidate is referenced in the title were identified as part of the YouTube presence of the candidate. This objective way to distinguish the subject of the video was necessary to eliminate large numbers of search results that have nothing to do with the candidate (since candidate names are used to attract videos unrelated to the candidate). All videos with the candidate name in the title did relate to the candidate, which shows that compliance with YouTube’s community guidelines against “misleading” characterization is high with respect to misleading titles that are easy to detect and the target of enforcement efforts. Campaign proximity was ensured by eliminating videos more than a year old. Conducting the study on January 3, 2012, was designed to capture the YouTube environment left by months of intense competition at the precise moment when Republicans started voting in the Iowa caucuses. (p.80) Excluding repeats of the same video clip, the ten most viewed videos associated with each of the eight candidates are included in the study (n = 80).

The pool of presidential videos in the general election was obtained in a similar manner. The names of the two major-party candidates (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney) were input into the YouTube search engine to identify the “most viewed” videos. Again, videos must have appeared within a year and included the first or last name of the candidate in the title to ensure proximity to the 2012 campaign. The study captured the YouTube environment on the weekend before the November 6, 2012, election, after months of campaigning and with early voting ongoing and regular voting just hours away. Excluding repeats of the same video clip, the 25 most viewed videos associated with both candidates are included in the study (n = 50).

The methodological goal for the Senate videos was to identify the single video for each candidate that won the competition for most viewers. Thus, the name of each of the 66 major-party candidates (and that of Maine independent Angus King, who held a large lead in the polls throughout the campaign) was placed in the YouTube search engine to identify the “most viewed” video. To be included, the video must have been uploaded in the past year, and the name of the candidate actually must be mentioned in the video. This procedure eliminated a few videos in which uploaders employed the dubious strategy of using a prominent senator’s name as a keyword to attract traffic even if the video had nothing to do with the senator. The study captured the YouTube environment on the weekend before the November 6, 2012, election. The single most viewed video associated with each of the 67 candidates is included in the study (n = 67).

Thus, the research design is consistent across all candidate types. The methodological goal was to identify the pool of 50–80 videos that won the competition for being the most viewed videos associated with candidates in that race. The number of videos per candidate varies to produce a similar aggregate population for each campaign type (10 × 8 = 80 primary presidential election videos; 25 × 2 = 50 general presidential election videos; 1 × 67 = 67 Senate general election videos). Usage metrics objectively identify the pool of videos that won the most viewers.

Videos were first coded for the type of producer. Classification was determined by who produced the video, not who uploaded the video. Thus, a regular citizen who uploaded PBS debate footage is not credited as the producer, since PBS produced the video and what is important is who produced the video, not whose YouTube channel gets credit. If, however, the PBS footage is modified in a meaningful way, the citizen becomes the producer of a new remixed video. In the unusual cases in which the producer’s identity is an anonymous handle, an investigation was conducted to determine if the person’s identity was available elsewhere online. If contrary evidence was not found, video producers presenting themselves as ordinary citizens were considered to be ordinary citizens.

(p.81) Classification of producer types was based on the institutional source of the video, not the background of the people involved. Established participants outside the traditional media include the candidates, political officeholders, political parties, and interest groups. Traditional news media sources originate in a traditional communications medium and continue their traditional media product while also generating Internet content. All other sources were classified as non-traditional sources. As operationalized, the term nontraditional captures only the source’s role in politics and not any personal characteristics. This is important to recognize since Matthew Hindman (2009) has shown that elite backgrounds are common among the independent bloggers and citizens who produce popular online content. Thus, sources such as universities and comedy troupes are considered nontraditional campaign sources even as they may be prestigious elite institutions in other domains.

Videos were also coded for format on the basis of their production values, length, and context. The most important distinction was between brief, television-style ads and other formats. Similar to Ridout, Fowler, and Branstetter (2010), the ad format is broadly interpreted to include edited video that endeavors to persuade the audience to vote for or against a candidate. Brief ads are shorter than one minute (65 seconds with buffer). Since categories are largely self-explanatory, elaboration is deferred to the results section.

Combined, knowing the producer and format of videos gives a good, if imperfect, sense of candidates’ ability to control their video messages. If the video presence of candidates is defined by videos that they produced, it signifies high message control. Even if candidates cannot control video production, there are a number of video formats that allow candidates to retain a measure of control, such as debates, speeches, and news interviews. Perhaps no format threatens a candidate’s message control more than an investigative news story that can undermine the candidate’s message. Candidates also have almost no control over formats such as music videos, ad parodies, and comedy skits, which can be vehicles for trenchant criticism or lighthearted entertainment.

Analysis and Results

Established campaign participants have been able to preserve their leading role in campaign video messages. The winners in the broadcast world have been able to convert that advantage into a successful presence in the “broadcast yourself” world. Nontraditional sources, however, enjoy a greater presence on YouTube than they do on broadcast television. Indeed, as depicted in figure 4.1, YouTube displays a remarkable balance between these three broad categories of communicators. Thus, there is support for the theory that technology is changing the competitive balance of video communication even though the primary role of established participants is not seriously threatened. (p.82)

The Competition to Control Campaign Messages on YouTube

Figure 4.1. Producers of most viewed YouTube videos of campaign 2012

A plurality of the most viewed YouTube videos is obtained by the nonmedia established participants. Candidates dominate this category. They exceed the combined presence of interest groups and political parties. The 2012 election campaign was marked by large independent expenditures that often exceeded candidates’ spending on television. Yet candidates were able to maintain an advantage over groups and parties in controlling their video message online. Candidates retained absolute control of one out of every six videos. Only about 5% of videos were produced by the opposing candidate. This represents an impressive ability of candidates to keep control of their YouTube presence away from the immediate opposition.

Traditional media organizations are the communicators most disadvantaged relative to their position in other media environments. Unable to preserve a privileged role as gatekeeper and ad seller, traditional media organizations (radio and television stations, print publications, wire services) are having to compete by providing content that resonates with viewers. They enjoyed some success doing this and accounted for 56 of the 197 most viewed videos during the campaign. This output trailed slightly that of nontraditional sources, including ordinary citizens.

It is also true that ordinary citizens are not all that ordinary. People coming out of nowhere to produce a viral campaign video are rare. The best example is four-year-old Abby’s tearful lamentation that she is “tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney” (Evans 2012). On the other hand, many of the ordinary citizen (p.83) video producers are celebrities in other fields. This would include videos by the musician Smooth-E and the screenwriter Joss Whedon. More common is the video from the YouTube celebrity. People who work hard to produce regular content that generates a following for their YouTube channel were able to make the list of most viewed campaign videos when they talked about a candidate. The best example is the five videos from Philip DeFranco, who has a popular channel providing earnest commentary about life and politics. Citizen videos were also distinguished by technological savvy. The slick editing of BaracksDubs and Bad Lip Reading won them multiple appearances in the pool of most viewed campaign videos.

As shown in table 4.1, there are some notable differences by campaign type. Candidates were the only producers to secure 10% of the videos across all campaign types. It seems that the frequency of videos from ordinary citizens is partly contingent on the visibility of the race. The percentage of producers who are ordinary citizens declines from about 40% of videos in the high-profile general

Table 4.1. Producers of Top YouTube Videos Associated with 2012 Candidates

Producer

Presidential: Republican primary (#)

Presidential: general (#)

Senate (#)

Total(%)

Ordinary citizen

17

19

2

19.3

Candidate

15

5

13

16.8

National TV station

24

7

2

16.8

Interest group

3

2

18

11.7

Online news program

3

0

8

5.6

Print publication

2

8

1

5.6

Opposing candidate

4

2

4

5.1

Blog

4

1

1

3.0

Comedy troupe

2

4

0

3.0

Local TV station

0

0

5

2.5

Other politician

0

0

4

2.0

C-SPAN

2

0

1

1.5

Opposing party

1

0

2

1.5

Aggregators

2

0

0

1.0

AM/FM radio

0

0

2

1.0

White House

0

0

2

1.0

Wire service

1

1

0

1.0

App provider

0

1

0

.5

Own party

0

0

1

.5

University

0

0

1

.5

Total (n = 197)

80

50

67

100.0

(p.84) presidential race to 20% in the moderate-profile presidential primary to 3% in the Senate races that have a lower profile than the presidential contest. Interest groups reflect the opposite pattern: they account for less than 5% of the videos in high-profile presidential races but make up over one-fourth of the lower-profile Senate races.

Turning to the formats of videos winning the campaign for online viewers in 2012, the big picture is one of diversity. Unlike the dominance of brief ads, debates, and news stories on broadcast television, table 4.2 shows that many formats are resonating with viewers on YouTube. A strong plurality, however, is retained by the television-style brief ad, which accounts for over 20% of the videos. Behind brief ads, seven different formats—debates, news interviews, news commentary, music videos, long ads, speeches, and comedy skits—constitute around 10% of the videos. Numerous other formats have a few examples on the list. Free from the economic constraints of broadcasting, producers seek to utilize many different ways to communicate their message. Viewers proved

Table 4.2. Formats of Top YouTube Videos Associated with 2012 Candidates

Producer

Presidential: Republican primary (#)

Presidential: general (#)

Senate (#)

Total(%)

Brief ad (≤ 65 sec)

6

5

30

20.8

Debate

13

7

4

12.2

Music video

3

12

3

9.1

Long ad (> 65 sec)

9

3

5

8.6

News commentary

6

2

9

8.6

News interview

12

1

3

8.1

Comedy skit

10

5

0

7.6

Speech

5

4

6

7.6

On-street surprise

3

3

1

3.6

Face to camera talk

4

2

0

3.0

Ad parody

2

1

0

1.5

News story

0

0

3

1.5

Town hall meeting

3

0

0

1.5

Animated ed. film

0

2

0

1.0

Clip compilation

1

1

0

1.0

Congress hearing

1

0

1

1.0

Photo slideshow

2

0

0

1.0

Press conference

0

1

1

1.0

Child utterance

0

1

0

.5

Issue documentary

0

0

1

.5

Total (n = 197)

80

50

67

100.0

(p.85)

The Competition to Control Campaign Messages on YouTube

Figure 4.2. Most frequent producer-format types of 2012 campaign videos

receptive to messages in greater than 30-second increments, as the median video length was two minutes 25 seconds.

Combined, the results provide some support for the theory that the Internet is modifying the competitive balance and formats of video communication in campaigns. This is an important development. Yet the overall tenor of the YouTube campaign is not dramatically different from broadcast television. Established participants retain a preeminent position. Nontraditional sources have a presence greater than on broadcast television, but it mostly involves lighthearted entertainment. Traditional campaign television formats still prevail in the midst of greater overall diversity.

This mostly familiar environment might be a comfort to the modern candidate who seeks disciplined message control. The online environment is potentially threatening since it is open to a broader range of participants, and a candidate’s video image can be remixed to produce a different message. Yet the reality is that candidates’ messages are not being fundamentally undermined on YouTube. Candidates are retaining a surprising amount of control. Some aspects of campaigning that are favorable to candidates’ control, such as long ads and campaign speeches, are almost invisible on television but have a meaningful presence online.

Examining the intersection of producers and formats offers a similar story. Figure 4.2 depicts the specific producer-format combinations that accounted for the most videos winning the competition for viewers in 2012. The most common video types are familiar to television viewers. They are well-established formats from established participants. The single most common producer-format type (p.86) was the interest group brief ad, which came almost entirely from Senate races. The first video type that could not be seen on regular television was the fifth-place online program news commentary, which includes nine videos from the Young Turks. Participants in the Young Turks generally are not unknowns, and its progressive commentators historically have appeared on cable news shows. Citizens are prominent on the rest of the list but are most associated with entertainment formats.

Symbolic of the ability of candidates to retain a surprising amount of control over their message is the minimal presence of gaffes made visible by YouTube in 2012. Indeed, the major gaffes in 2012 did not originate from YouTube-aspiring trackers videotaping opponents but came from the mainstream media. Their presence on YouTube was almost an afterthought. At the presidential level, Rick Perry’s famous “Oops” inability to name the departments cut by his plan occurred in a nationally televised debate. Mitt Romney’s claim that the 47% of Americans who paid no income taxes were victims dependent on government was part of a speech leaked to Mother Jones magazine that was widely disseminated by the mainstream media and Democratic advertisements. Herman Cain’s extended gaffe in which things “twirling” in his head prevented him from articulating a coherent foreign policy occurred in front of a local newspaper’s editorial board. The three videos related to comments by Senate candidates about pregnancy resulting from rape all had strong ties to the mainstream media. One was from a national television interview (Akin-MO); one was from a locally televised debate (Mourdock-IN); and another was from a candidate talking to a group of reporters (Smith-PA). One of the 197 videos was Wall Street Journal footage of a Tina Fey speech referencing these comments: “If I have to listen to one more gray-faced man with a two-dollar haircut explain to me what rape is, I’m going to lose my mind” (WSJDigitalNetwork 2012). The best case for a tracker-captured gaffe was the video in which West Virginia Senate candidate John Raese told a friendly crowd that forcing businessmen to put up smoke-free signs was the “same thing” as Hitler requiring displays of the Star of David (Raese Flubs 2012). Raese, however, was so far behind that even though it was the most viewed video associated with him, it only had 10,000 views. Symbolic of the minimal impact of candidate gaffes is that two of the most prominent gaffe-like videos were not by candidates but by ordinary citizens who said something in support of their preferred candidate that went viral among nonsupporters. This would include an Obama supporter who asserted that President Obama had given away free telephones and a Romney supporter who told journalist Chris Matthews to “study it out” and learn that President Obama is a “communist” (MSNBC 2012).

Another aspect of candidates maintaining a surprising amount of control is how infrequently candidates’ footage is taken completely out of context in a misleading attack. User-friendly editing software means that candidates can be (p.87) remixed to say just about anything. In practice, however, candidates’ words were far more likely to be taken out of context to say nothing rather than anything. Six videos by the anonymous citizen Bad Lip Reading (2012) compiled candidates’ words into gibberish, such as Ron Paul’s ostensible claim to be “a leprechaun farmer who’s a gambler.” Five videos from a college student’s BaracksDubs channel compiled individual words spoken by President Obama into popular song lyrics. These videos may be amusing and technologically clever, but they communicate nothing about politics and do not undermine the candidate’s message.

Finally, the results provide no support for the presence of Gangnam Style politics on YouTube, in which the “calm” and controlled daytime messages of candidates are undermined as people are “going insane” at night remixing them into their own narratives. The videos winning the competition for YouTube viewers in 2012 mostly came from mainstream sources employing time-honored communication formats. Nontraditional sources largely filled a niche of adding levity to the campaign.

In fact, the five most viewed videos of the entire cycle were all music videos from nontraditional sources. These include Obama’s words assembled into “Call Me Maybe” (30.3 million views), an Obama versus Romney rap (25.5 million), Obama’s words assembled into “Sexy and I Know It” (18.6 million), “Mitt Romney Style” (8.9 million), and Obama’s words assembled into “Born This Way” (7.3 million). Three of the videos say nothing about politics as candidates simply mouth lyrics to catchy music. The two other videos were from comedy troupes that offered a modest political message by incorporating well-established perceptions of the two presidential candidates into skillful musical comedy.

Conclusion

On the basis of evidence from the 2012 election, YouTube is changing the competitive balance in video messages. Although elite communicators maintain a preeminent position, they encounter more competition on YouTube than on broadcast television, especially from ordinary citizens. The conventional formats of broadcast television also find competition on YouTube. In short, YouTube is making a contribution to political campaigns by allowing diverse communicators to use varied formats to reach potential voters. Since YouTube had already become part of the way the median voter experienced the campaign in 2012, confidence is increased that these findings represent a competitive dynamic applying to future elections.

It is a competitive dynamic on YouTube that appears to favor candidates in their competition with the news media. Able to bypass the news media on YouTube, candidates are taking the opportunity to produce video communication, and some of their videos are resonating with the electorate. The most prominent clips produced by the traditional news media on YouTube are those in which (p.88) journalists have less control over the message. These are debates and news interviews in which candidates have significant control, at least after a journalist asks a question. The most viewed media-produced videos on YouTube are ones in which candidates are not reduced to sound bites that support media frames.

Interest groups appear to be a qualified loser on YouTube. Despite spending millions on television, interest groups garnered few of the most viewed YouTube presidential videos. Super PACs communicating about the presidential race clearly were hampered by lacking the social network that other campaign communicators employ to get links to their videos. On the other hand, in lower-profile Senate races, interest groups produced the most viewed video associated with a substantial number of candidates. The visibility of interest group videos in Senate races was probably still less than on television, where they accounted for nearly 30% of advertising in 2012 (Franz 2012). Unlike the television format, in which lack of disclosure typically helps groups to convey negative messages about candidates (Ridout, Franz, and Fowler 2013), the origin of YouTube videos in a social network may provide an enhanced cue about credibility.

Ordinary citizens appear to be winners on YouTube. Although they gravitated toward producing nonpolitical entertainment, citizens did make some substantive contributions to the political message. In a few videos, citizens acted as citizen-journalists who conduct candidate interviews, offer news commentary, or film campaign events. Given the personalized nature of much campaigning, it is surprising how little contribution citizens made through videos that capture one-one-one informal interaction with candidates. It seems that the advantage found in being citizen-journalists for natural-disaster stories (Pew Research Center 2012) is largely mitigated in the campaign-news context.

YouTube offers more diverse video formats than broadcast television does. The broadcast television environment for political messages is dominated by 30-second ads, which do some informing (Patterson and McClure 1976) but preclude in-depth discussion and are often misleading. People, however, have much greater appetites for political communication than what can be filled by a steady diet of 30-second ads. YouTube provides more diverse and extended campaign messages.

The increase in diversity, however, does not represent a fundamental undermining of the candidate’s message. Established political participants maintain a sizeable advantage in producing the most viewed videos. Indeed, candidates keep full control of one-sixth of the most viewed videos, and they also have substantial control over the environment that is the basis for other popular formats. Citizens mostly have been content to produce lighthearted entertainment. Investigative journalism that can dramatically change campaign narratives is essentially absent from the most viewed campaign videos. Candidates seeking to control their message have much more to fear from a watchdog press than from the low-paid people following them with handheld video cameras who (p.89) were nearly ubiquitous on the 2012 campaign trail. After all, opposition trackers capture video of speeches and interactions that are largely controlled by the candidate. The amount of digital video waste from these trackers in 2012 must be astounding.

No doubt some other digital waste from 2012 involves people creating their own Gangnam Style parodies. Of course, for a video depicting the spontaneous energy of a South Korean district, it is remarkably well choreographed. Likewise, the hallmark of the modern political campaign is the desire to control a disciplined message. On Election Day 2012, President Obama publicly joined the list of wannabe Gangnam parodists. President Obama, however, wants to keep control of his remixed Gangnam message. If he were going to “break that out,” Obama told his Election Day interviewer, it would be “privately for Michelle.” After observing her husband’s Gangnam Style dancing, Michelle confessed that she found it a “little embarrassing.” Despite the lack of encouragement, President Obama reportedly broke out a few Gangnam Style moves on Inauguration Day. Instead of the camera-filled inauguration ball, Obama saved his moves for a private inauguration after-party that did not allow filming (Boyle and Warren 2013). The struggle for control of the video message continues.

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