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YouTubing the Election | The Nation

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YouTubing the Election

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In America's first YouTube election, it turns out the voters were mainly in charge--not the campaigns or news organizations.

Research for this report was provided by Sarah Arnold.

About the Author

Ari Melber
Ari Melber
Ari Melber is The Nation's Net movement correspondent, covering politics, law, public policy and new media,...

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The Nation analyzed the top YouTube videos about both presidential nominees during the general election, starting in May after the parties' primaries were settled, and found that the most-viewed videos were made by citizens and independent groups.

Out of the top twenty videos focusing on Obama, only one was produced by his campaign, an advertisement contrasting his economic credentials with John McCain's. Three other Obama videos came from McCain's headquarters, as viewers flocked to see sensational attack ads slamming the Democratic nominee as the latest celebrity. Most of the top videos, however, were created by ordinary people who were simply excited about politics or pop culture.

The most-viewed Obama video was a simple critique, "Dear Mr. Obama," featuring Iraq War veteran Joe Cook challenging Obama on foreign policy. With help from a small Christian film company, the video first spread through organic viral networks, then drew attention from larger hubs like RushLimbaugh.com. It ultimately drew over 12.5 million views, far outpacing well-funded online video efforts by the campaigns and media organizations. Another top hit criticized a controversial clip from Fox News in which a guest joked about killing Obama, uploaded by an activist who blogs at DailyKos. Other crowd-pleasers are more irreverent.

"Barack Roll," created by an Australian blogger in August, mashes up clips of Obama dancing with Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." The song often accompanies "Rick Rolls," a popular web prank that draws in viewers with a fake title. Another hit mentioning Obama, "5 Friends Uncensored," taps the star power of Leonardo DiCaprio and Sarah Silverman in an irony-drenched public service announcement for voting. In total, six of the top twenty Obama videos were made by citizens, and another ten were produced by independent groups.

Meanwhile, none of the top twenty YouTube videos about McCain were produced by his campaign. In fact, only one top McCain video came from his rival: Keating Economics, the documentary-style attack that Obama's aides launched as an online exclusive to rebut attacks about Bill Ayers. Nine McCain hits were made by citizens and ten came from outside groups, which ranged from the conservative Naked Emperor News website to the progressive Brave New Films, a new media organization run by director Robert Greenwald. He produced one of the most-viewed McCain videos, "McCain's YouTube Problem Just Became a Nightmare," which aggressively truth-squaded McCain with recordings of his past statements. McCain also got "Rick Rolled," in a mashup that features Obama taking over the Republican Convention as he calmly recites lyrics from, naturally, Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up."

Other McCain hits simply repurposed bad broadcast news. Sarah Palin appears in clips from her interview with Katie Couric and parodies from Saturday Night Live, while other YouTubers uploaded shots of the Republican nominee taking heat on CNN and Late Night with David Letterman. Some popular videos also featured McCain commentary that originated online. LisaNova, the screen name for an edgy comedienne who creates a range of pop culture videos on YouTube, scored a hit with an online parody imagining Sarah Palin as the real boss of the GOP ticket. With 2.3 million views, it was the most popular political video on her channel, though it still trailed "Sloppy Drunk LisaNova."

While some of the general election's biggest viral hits are drawn from pop culture and the ingenuity of political civilians, the presidential campaigns have still tapped YouTube for more orchestrated outreach. Over the course of this twenty-two-month campaign, Obama amassed a whopping 96 million views on his official channel. Those numbers are partly driven by famous viral hits, like his Philadelphia address on race, which drew over five million views online--far exceeding the audience during its live broadcast on cable news. The Obama campaign has consistently engaged voters, however, with hundreds of locally targeted videos. They range from Jay-Z briefing Michigan residents on the state's voting laws to a strategy session with the North Carolina state director to peppy clips of fish merchants backing Obama in the bright blue city of Seattle.

Obama's new-media team, led by 27-year-old Joe Rospars, a former Internet strategist for Howard Dean, uploaded more than 1,800 YouTube videos by the campaign's end. That includes a marked spike in the final week before the election, when the campaign began posting roughly ten videos a day and saw its daily traffic peak at 2 million daily views. Over the entire campaign, Obama's channel also drew 116,000 subscribers, a huge base for driving viral hits. During the election homestretch, in fact, Obama had the second most viewed channel on all of YouTube, besting video juggernauts like BritneyTV and the sexy HotForWords channel.

McCain's YouTube channel drew 28,000 subscribers, by contrast, and 25 million views. His new-media operation was less aggressive, uploading only 330 videos by election day. The content was often traditional and sometimes negative, such as simply repurposing TV attack ads for viewers online. It turns out that even high traffic for those videos was not necessarily helpful to McCain's candidacy. Some of his most popular videos about Obama, such as the celeb ads, sank McCain's YouTube user-generated ratings.

"McCain's attack ads, while they make waves on YouTube, are backfiring when you look at how people are actually reacting," explains David Burch, who tracks trends for TubeMogul. Burch told The Nation that McCain's negative fall ad campaign led viewers to "down-rate his videos to record lows."

So do all these videos turn into votes? Quite possibly. According to the early indicators, young people are registering and voting at unusually high rates.

New-media content has clearly helped activate and sustain interest among young people. Take one rough barometer: visitors to the campaigns' channels skew sharply towards young people of voting age. While 30 percent of YouTube's viewers are between 15 and 19, according to TubeMogul, only about 10 percent of visitors to the campaign channels are in that cohort. People between 25 and 40, however, are dramatically overrepresented on both candidates' channels. Thirtysomethings make up only about 9 percent of YouTube's overall traffic, but they account for an impressive 20 percent of visitors to the campaign channels.

Ultimately, the diverse blend of independent, homegrown videos, lighthearted mashups and exclusive campaign clips made YouTube center stage for young viewers this season. All told, YouTube videos mentioning one of the presidential nominees drew over 2 billion views. Young people are watching, talking back and voting.

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