Politics and YouTube: How Online Media is Making Political Waves

Alysen Smith ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Politics and YouTube
Ingrid Nilsen interviews President Barack Obama. Credit: WhiteHouse.gov

From interviews with the president to involvement in political debates, YouTube and YouTube stars have become increasingly more involved in the political landscape, bringing a younger generation with them.

Propaganda is a source of heavily influence in every election, and the 2016 presidential election is no exception. But as technology progresses, propaganda is forced to evolve with it. Television commercials, digital signs and banners, computerized graphics and social media campaigns have become increasingly prevalent across the political landscape in the United States, their presence dominating every form of media as the election looms closer. This phenomenon places much responsibility on one of the most prominent platforms for such media: YouTube.

In an era formed by the digital revolution, which has transformed information into an easily accessible commodity by way of handheld devices and the use of the internet, gathering political information has become virtually effortless. Largely due to the popularity of social media, propaganda has been modernized and adapted to suit broad demographics and to reach every corner of the world. YouTube, the most-used video sharing website in the world, hosts thousands of scarcely censored and politically charged video clips which are then shared on other social media platforms, spreading their message at a rapid pace.

Politics and YouTube
Clip from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver discussing presidential candidate Donald Trump received over 2.9 million views on YouTube. Credit: HBO 

The YouTube Effect is a term defined by foreignpolicy.com as “the phenomenon whereby video clips, often produced by individuals acting on their own, are rapidly disseminated throughout the world thanks to video-sharing websites such as YouTube.” This highly feasible and relevant concept illustrates how political propaganda has been revolutionized and tailored to consumers in the media age, ensuring that it spreads as vastly as social media use does. Luckily, YouTube has taken action in favor of ensuring that the most widespread videos resulting from this effect are also amongst the most well-informed clips going viral.

As a result of the ease of sharing videos on YouTube, which then spread to other social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, viewers begin to form opinions about presidential candidates based solely on the material provided by such videos. A montage of every progressive statement that Bernie Sanders has made within the last year may persuade viewers to “Feel the Bern” in the same way that a montage of every extremist statement that Donald Trump has made may inspire vehement anti-Trump sentiments.

Because these videos are capable of single-handedly inspiring opinions and generating points of view, YouTube has begun to combat misleading or out-of-context video clips which are usually uploaded independently to promote biased ideas. At the beginning of this year, YouTube orchestrated its second presidential interview hosted by three popular YouTube stars who collectively boast more than 12.1 million subscribers. Posted on Jan. 15, 2016, “The YouTube Interview with President Obama”  has been viewed nearly 1.7 million times; meanwhile, last year’s video has over three million views.

Politics and YouTube
First YouTube sponsored interview with the president. Credit: YouTube

These videos were created to target the younger, more digitally inclined viewers who comprise much of the stars’ follower base. Similar to these interviews with President Obama, other strides are being made by YouTube to keep this young viewership knowledgeable about current events and politics. In January, both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates fielded questions from YouTubers during their final pre-primary debates. The influence of these well-known YouTube stars’ participation in intellectual political dialogue is incredibly important when considering the significance of YouTube videos as predominant propaganda forms.

The far-reaching nature of YouTube videos has overtaken that of mainstream media in the digital age. As social media emerges as the primary source of news and current events information for many young people, televised news programs and newspapers are becoming obsolete. In 2012, millennials made up one-fifth of the electorate, and they’re projected to make up one-third of the electorate by 2020. Given that millennials also constitute a large proportion of viral video views and shares, this illustrates an undeniable influence of YouTube videos on the reception of current events and politics among a younger demographic.

Politics and YouTube
Candidates in the 2008 presidential election answer citizen submitted video questions in cosponsored YouTube/CNN debate. Credit: AP Photo

In addition to the sheer availability of YouTube videos on nearly every prominent social media platform, it’s important to consider the sources of such influential video clips. Trackers—people who follow around the opposing party’s candidates with a camera in hopes of filming them saying or doing something detrimental—are able to freely and independently upload footage to YouTube. This provides an opportunity for those filming to selectively share video clips meant to sway viewer opinions and promote their points of view.

Because of the virtual omnipresence of cameras in many forms, from smartphone cameras to professional camcorders and everything in between, filming a politician’s inappropriate statement or behavior out of context is startlingly simple. As a result, viewing such a statement or behavior without additional information is also simple—and highly likely. Thus, viewers’ ability to organically form opinions surrounding politics and especially with regard to presidential candidates, is inhibited by The YouTube Effect.

Politics and YouTube
Video of Ted Cruz’s young daughter rejecting a goodbye kiss spreads rapidly online.
Credit: BBC Newsnight

YouTube as a company, however, is striving to ensure that high-quality, well-informed videos are taking precedent over other potentially misinformed or exaggerated videos. By enlisting popular YouTube stars to conduct political interviews and interact with the political landscape, the company increases the likelihood that these high-quality videos will be shared more frequently than misleading clips posted by lesser-known YouTubers. Additionally, YouTube-sponsored political debates are hosted as a way for the video sharing site to take advantage of its reach in a positive way.

Owed to the widespread quality of YouTube videos and their popularity with millennials, political engagement on YouTube is capable of heavily manipulating the opinions and decisions of young voters. Given that increasingly more young people are registering to vote each year, wanting their voices to be heard and to have a say in political elections, the impact of YouTube on US politics is undeniably influential.

A more politically involved youth is a prospect worth getting excited over and it’s becoming a reality with each new election. Social media is a means of gaining political insight with unprecedented ease, and for this reason YouTube’s efforts to provide well-made, informative and largely impartial videos amongst a sea of independently uploaded clips—which are often biased or misleading—are admirable and essential in progressing towards a diverse and informed electorate.


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