Want to catch a senator napping during a congressional hearing? Or letting a possible racial slur slip out at a campaign rally?
Then log on to Internet video-sharing Web sites like YouTube.com — the latest weapon in U.S. politics where a candidate’s missteps can be viewed by hundreds of thousands of people.
Political campaigns for the November 7 congressional elections have sent out mass e-mails with links to videos of opponents in unscripted, often embarrassing, situations.
Some campaigns have even dispatched young staffers known as “trackers” armed with video cameras. Their sole job is to track a rival candidate’s every move and make sure their cameras are rolling in case the politician makes a gaffe.
Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia got some unwanted publicity when at a political rally he pointed to a tracker sent by rival James Webb’s campaign and called the young man a “macaca” — an African monkey and sometimes a racial slur.
The video of Allen’s remarks to S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year-old U.S. college student, spread swiftly on the Internet, drew the attention of Democratic activists and boosted Webb’s campaign.
“If you guys had written it down, it wouldn’t have had nearly the impact,” Webb campaign spokeswoman Kristian Denny Todd told Reuters. “But what you saw with the video was, you saw his demeanor, the way he repeated it, the way he did it laughingly. That’s stuff that can’t be captured in words. People have got to see it for themselves.”
Other videos that have made the rounds include one of Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana napping during a Senate hearing to the tune of “Happy Trails.”
Internet experts call the trend of sending around unscripted video clips a “macaca” and predict new media such as YouTube will have a great impact on campaigns.
“The Internet and new technology are radically changing every part of our lives, and politics is no different,” said Phil Noble, the head of PoliticsOnline, a political Internet site. “It’s happening in a big way and it’s going to be many, many, many times bigger than it has been so far. It’s going to radically change everything.”
“Anybody with a video camera, a little bit of technology and some great creativity and energy and luck or skill can become an important player in the political process,” he added. “And that’s the power, that’s what makes it so radical.”
Carol Darr, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, said one reason the amateur videos are so popular is that they do not include traditional political rhetoric.
“You break through that clutter with something that’s real and human, and you’re going to get people’s attention,” she said. “So I think it’s going to be a huge deal.”
Darr said inexpensive video equipment is readily available and some people even use cellphones to capture videos.
Amateur video as a propaganda tool has an impact on how campaigns are managed.
“It limits the ability of candidates to go out in small groups of people to refine their message to see what works and what doesn’t,” Darr said. “Because now it’s all going to be on tape and they’re going to be accused of flip-flopping.”
Experts predict that video-sharing and “social networking” sites like MySpace.com and Facebook.com, which are just starting to be used by politicians, will play an even bigger role in the 2008 presidential election.
“If you’ve got a brain you’ve got to” use the sites, Noble said. “There are always people who ignore the technology, and if they ignore it long enough they’ll get beat.”