Canadian politicos stumble towards YouTube

Canadian politicians need a crash-course in YouTubing, say several media observers.

Over half the population that looks for information about political candidates finds it primarily on the Web, according to a study by the Pew Research Centre. “People turn to the Web to find information that will impact the way they vote,” says Greg Elmer, director of the Infoscape Research Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto.

YouTube is clearly emerging as an important political channel, particularly in reaching younger demographics, he says. “If you create buzz on YouTube, the mass media is quick to pick it up and you get double exposure. People don’t watch the news or read newspapers anymore, so YouTube is an expansion of news space.”

A case in point is American presidential candidate Barack Obama’s Yes We Can video, which has been viewed by millions on YouTube. “After Super Tuesday, he raised $7.5 million in 36 hours based on many Web tactics – he’s engaging young people and even raising funds from them,” says Chris George, president of CG&A Communications, a St. Catharines, ON-based public relations firm that’s developed campaigns for Transport Canada and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD).

Even in the 2004 election, before social media existed, American politicians such as Howard Dean were using the Web in sophisticated ways to reach voters. But Canada is two elections behind, says George. “Our national leaders’ posts on YouTube are viewed by underwhelming numbers of Canadians. There’s nothing creative or innovative happening. We don’t have a Harper Girl like Obama.”

Is YouTube serious?

While YouTube may be a critical channel to reach young people, some media critics question whether it has credibility with older demographics who may perceive it as a vast repository of frivolous youthful shenanigans.

Although it’s perceived as a domain where the young rule, the majority of viewers are in fact older. A Nielsen/Netratings survey found that 55 per cent of YouTube users were between the ages of 35 to 64. “Politicians who get it know that YouTube is still viewed as an unofficial space to target the youth vote, but they use it tactically with official TV, radio and print campaigns,” says Elmer.

He points out Yes We Can is carefully crafted to reach both young and old so it can play in both traditional and online media spaces. “Yes We Can features hip-hop artists who are well-known to people under 25, but it’s also coded with black-and-white images that could easily be from the sixties that cast Obama as an historic figure and civil rights leader.”

By contrast, Canadian politicians’ ventures in YouTube space tend to miss the mark or worse, he says. A YouTube video of Michael Bryant, Ontario Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, raised many hackles. The video presents Bryant’s messages in the course of a visit to the town of Caledonia, where an occupation of disputed lands by First Nations protesters has dragged on for two years. “Opposition leaders Howard Hampton and John Tory came out with critiques, saying this is too serious an issue to take onto YouTube,” says Elmer.

In his view, the real issue is aesthetics, not the credibility of YouTube as a medium. “A lot of the content that’s uploaded has an amateur feel.” But viewers expect politicians to produce more sophisticated videos than crazy skateboarders armed with camcorders. “I was shocked by the Bryant video – he didn’t seem to use the medium effectively,” he says.

Nor are other Canadian politicians. NDP leader Carol James’ video campaign presenting her views about the Liberal throne speech in BC received media attention because it was posted on YouTube, he says. “But it was just images of her sitting behind a desk giving a speech as she would any other time.”

Beyond aesthetics, some critics have suggested Bryant used YouTube as a way to avoid hard questions, media scrums and real interactions with constituents. Elmer points out the stark contrast between the images and messages.

“Bryant spoke about how people in the community needed to come together, but there were no meetings. It’s just images of Bryant standing by himself in parking lots or in front of Tim Horton’s. I think the opposition leaders are right. This was a way for him to express concern but no conversations happened.”

Is YouTube appropriate?

Elmer draws a line between the creative use of YouTube for political campaigning during elections and the gravitas needed around official government communications on issues and policies. “All media channels should be used in politics. But people associate national television news with more serious public debate. I think it would be entirely inappropriate to have Question Period on YouTube.”

However, Gabriel Sekaly, executive director of the Toronto-based Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC), disagrees with Elmer’s view.

“I don’t see a problem so long as other media are used and they’re open to a question period so the press and public have access to ask questions,” he says. “I believe the criticisms of Bryant had to do with him using YouTube only to communicate his messages instead of many other media.”

Sekaly points out many people who want to express their views are put off by long-winded government processes. “Not everyone is going to fill a brief and go to a standing committee of legislature in Parliament to present something. Instead, people can just send a quick comment via YouTube.”

Going forward, Elmer believes YouTube will eventually fragment, just as mainstream media has, and separate online video political channels that give politicians greater control will emerge in the near future. “In the past nine months, our research at Ryerson is showing many campaigns and candidates have started to systematically disable functions that let anyone post comments on their blogs or YouTube.”

Catch-all social media spaces such as Facebook and YouTube will likely be replaced by specialized community spaces, he says. “There’s a movement to have more control over memberships, posts and functions within these networks, not just in political spaces but in other parts of the economy.”

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