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Commentary: YouTube: Marketplace for demagogues?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 13, 2008 - Once upon a time, there were people who earnestly believed that the Internet would usher a new era of politics, one marked by more deliberation and reasoned discourse. This would, it was hoped, lead to better political decisions by the electorate and its leaders. These advocates also believed that technology would level the playing field between corporations and everyone else when it came to democratic speech.

However, advocates of eDemocracy, or the use of information communication technologies to improve the political process, did not take into account the development of the World Wide Web. In the pre-Web days, most Internet users communicated primarily through text using email and bulletin boards.

The Web added video and audio streaming to users' capabilities, creating an environment not too different from television and radio, except for the critical ability to interact with each other online. It is the latter that marks the Internet as a truly revolutionary innovation in mass communication.

The impact of on-demand video streaming on the Internet cannot be underestimated. More people are viewing their favorite shows online instead of watching them offline. By far the largest change stemming from online video is the ability of literally anyone to upload their own video footage to the Web where millions of people can view it. Video's effect is also more visceral than text and therefore more likely to stir stronger emotions in the viewer.

The early eDemocracy advocates also did not factor in the continued dominance of well-funded entities like the Democratic and Republican parties in the new media outlets that have sprouted on the Web. Both parties have used the Web in this presidential election to more efficiently and effectively get their message out to the voters, doing an end-run around the traditional broadcast media.

The new media outlets include video-sharing websites such as YouTube as well as social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, which also allow users to upload and share their own videos.

Websites like YouTube mean that people can get their message out to the public without fear of being filtered by the big networks that comprise the mainstream media. On the other hand, it also means that offensive political speech can get out and potentially harm the body politic. True, there is form of filtering on YouTube. Users are asked to flag any content that they feel is inappropriate. A YouTube employee then views the flagged video to determine if it violates the site's terms of use. However, those guidelines do not specify objectionable content and are primarily concerned with copyright infringements.

As a defender of free speech, I face something of a dilemma regarding unfiltered political speech. On the one hand, there is the tremendous potential to contribute to the debate over candidates and issues -- provided enough people have access to the technology. Furthermore, the absence of a gatekeeper means that many different viewpoints are likely to be heard as John Stuart Mill, the 19th century English political philosopher, encouraged. Mill said that by opening up the public debate to the widest possible spectrum of ideas, society creates a "marketplace of ideas." Such a free market was just as important to democratic society as the economic free market, he believed.

On the other hand, the ease with which a single person can reach millions with the click of a mouse makes me profoundly uneasy. The fear, moreover, is not the obvious one of overt hate speech, but rather the subtle distortions of record that have a surface credibility. As these become repeated in the media or online, they begin to to take on a life of their own that makes them difficult to refute.

To take one example, Sarah Palin's claim that Barack Obama "is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."

The subtle distortion in this assertion is that Obama's criticism of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq and the economy should be understood as viewing America as "being imperfect." Less subtle is her declaration that he has close ties with '60s radical, William Ayers, and through that association becomes a U.S.-targeting terrorist himself.

The Obama camp asserts that connections between Ayers and the senator are tenuous and an objective analysis would appear to substantiate its position. The damage has been done, however, and has given rise to ugly incidents such as speakers at McCain-Palin rallies calling the Democratic presidential candidate a terrorist lover and addressing him as Barack Hussein Obama," while the inflamed audience responds with "kill him" and "traitor."

Obviously, the above example did not occur initially online. However, the spurious claim that Obama is Muslim was spread through email blasts, and the McCain campaign is currently running a web ad on the purported connection between Obama and Ayers. In it, a voice-over announces, "Obama and domestic terrorist, Bill Ayers, friends."

The larger point is that the Internet can facilitate the distribution of messages containg truths and half-truths in a way which can guarantee almost immediate impact either for good or ill.

Robert Cropf chairs the Department of Public Policy Studies at St. Louis University. 

Cropf is a professor of political science Saint Louis University.

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