Blurring the truth with a little help from YouTube (SBP – 27th May 2007)

An article of mine in this week’s Media & Marketing section of The Sunday Business Post:

The popularity of online video sites has blurred the line between television and the internet, but the increasing use of the medium by large organisations and political parties may also blur the line between facts and propaganda.

Sites such as YouTube.com allow anyone with an internet connection to upload and share video content. These sites normally contain homemade clips and video diaries.

However, the lack of broadcasting restrictions on internet output means the sites have become the medium through which organisations such as the Church of Scientology and the US Army have tried to promote their messages and control their images in ways that the traditional media would never allow.

‘‘It depends on what your definition of propaganda is,” said Simon McGarr of VoteTube.org, a site which encourages people to upload their own politically themed videos.’ ‘Most people would assume that it involves some level of deception.”

This year’s general election was the first to benefit from the input of the ‘YouTube Generation’, with many political parties, candidates and activists uploading videos ranging from the serious to the conspiratorial to the humorous.

Most official videos, however, stayed within the realm of the party political broadcast, and it was only the homemade clips that took things further. However, McGarr doesn’t believe they qualify as propaganda either.

‘‘There has been a lot of outright advocacy, but the people behind them were happy to nail their colours to the mast,” he said.’ ‘It would be different if they pretended to be neutral when they were not.”

McGarr said that the Progressive Democrats’ leaflet on Green Party policies and Fianna Fail’s newspaper advert on Fine Gael’s tax proposals were closer to propaganda than anything seen online and that ironically the internet may have helped show them up as such.

‘‘Where before John Gormley might have gone and tried to write an angry opinion piece in a newspaper, he knew that this time he could interrupt a PD photo-call and say his piece in front of the cameras,” McGarr said, referring to the infamous ‘Rumble in Ranelagh’.

‘‘The footage was online within minutes, with RTE.ie putting it up unedited and people transferring it to YouTube shortly afterwards.”

YouTube also became a battleground of a different sort earlier this month when the Church of Scientology attempted to discredit a BBC documentary about it.

Just hours before the airing of the Panorama investigation by John Sweeney entitled ‘Scientology and Me’, the organisation leaked footage of a seemingly rabid Sweeney shouting uncontrollably at Scientology spokesperson Tommy Davis. The user name ‘blackpanorama’ was used and a number of other clips were also released online.

Just like Michael McDowell’s attempt to misrepresent the Green Party, however, the attempt to discredit the documentary backfired somewhat with over six million people tuning in to watch the show.

The figure was a record for the recently relaunched Panorama programme and, with well over a million views of the YouTube clip, there is no doubt that the leak had something to do with that.

The US Army has also begun to manage its image on YouTube with the setting-up of a dedicated channel for promotional videos. What makes it more suspicious, however, is the ban that has now been put in place on soldiers themselves.

‘‘They’re now telling soldiers they cannot put videos up online when they could before,” said McGarr.’ ‘That gives the impression that there’s something they want to distort or deceive on.”

In general, though, McGarr believes that, while YouTube allows for greater bias, it also allows for a wider response and rebuttal.’ ‘Propaganda is quite crude and it only usually lasts for a short time,” he said.’

‘This election was probably the last one where misinformation could be in the public domain for 24 hours before it was shown to be false.”

Dublin South West: ‘Change-mode’ confuses Rabbitte (SBP – 27th May 2007)

My article as part of the Sunday Business Post‘s Election 2007 coverage:

It was over before it began in Dublin South West, with outgoing Sinn Fein TD Sean Crowe conceding defeat before the first count.

In a result that reflected the national trend, Sinn Fe¤ in bore the brunt of the Fine Gael jump, rather than Fianna Fail as expected.

‘‘We were out of the loop in relation to auction politics and I think that’s a good thing,” said Crowe, referring to the decision by Sinn Fe¤ in not to offer tax-cuts as part of its manifesto.

‘‘Maybe some of our own supporters didn’t relish the thought of us going into government with Fianna Fail.”

Crowe’s exit this election makes it the second time that the constituency’s outgoing poll topper crashed out in the proceeding election.

Labour leader Pat Rabbitte managed to increase his personal vote by 2,000, although the reduction of the Labour ticket from two in 2002 to one this year meant the overall vote percentage for the party remained static.

Despite his own improved performance, Rabbitte was in a sombre mood in light of the party’s poor polling nationally.

‘‘It’s been an extraordinary election and it’s an extraordinary result for Fianna Fail,” he said. ‘‘The Irish people seemed to be in change-mode until the last week of the campaign, when they changed their minds. I’m not sure why.”

Rabbitte said despite the lacklustre result for the party, any question over his leadership ‘‘doesn’t arise’’ and it would take much analysis to decipher why the Irish electorate voted as they did. Former junior minister Conor Lenihan topped the poll and said it was a fantastic result for the party who had feared the loss of one of their TDs.

‘‘We were really pinned to our collar to bring back two seats here and, to be honest, we expected that Brian Hayes would knock out one of our two seats,” he said. ‘‘We had a very careful vote management strategy and that really paid off for us.”

Eighty per cent of Lenihan’s surplus went to running-mate Charlie O’Connor, who was all but guaranteed re-election after the first count but was forced to wait for five further counts until it was formally confirmed.

On Newstalk at 8:45 tonight

Heading over to Newstalk for a special election edition of Lay of The Land on Taste. It’ll probably consist mainly of a post-mortem of the general election but I won’t be alone in the discussion and that should make it all the more interesting.

Tune in at around 8:45 – you can do so online, on the radio, on your fancy digital TV or your even fancier DAB system.

Blame being leveled at the media

There’s a bizarre bit of finger-pointing going on towards the Irish media for its failure to “reflect” the public opinion on Fianna Fail which is now obvious in light of their electoral success.

The thing that’s off-putting about this idea is the automatic acceptance built into it that the media does and should pander to what’s popular rather than present the facts.

There is no doubt that the numerous polls over the past few months got it badly wrong. This is partly because of the last minute swing that began to show itself in the final week of campaign and it is – as Braz points out in a comment here – partly because of the irrelevance of a FPTP poll question on a PR-STV election.

However some people, including Eoghan Harris who showed more than enough of his true colours on The Last Word this morning (.wma link), seem to believe that if the public are in support of a certain person or party the media should reflect that and keep its mouth shut.

The media (bar the letters page) is not a voice-box for public opinion. If a politician is exceedingly popular that should not stop the media from asking legitimate questions of them. Indeed, if the public at large doesn’t even care about the issue and isn’t itself bothered with the questions that doesn’t make it any less legitimate and should not be justification for shelving things of democratic importance.

It should never be the case that the media gauges public opinion, sees it swinging to the right or left and then begins to produce copy to appeal to that audience. It happens, of course, but it shouldn’t and pundits and politicians shouldn’t be demanding that it does.

Harris’ admittance that the Sunday Independent attacked Bertie Ahern until it “got what it wanted” shows up everything that is wrong with that newspaper and with certain sections of the media too. It was happy to go into attack mode until a price was paid but no-one should have been raising real questions about Ahern when it was obvious that people liked him. How dare they.

He basically admitted to using his paper’s influence to inform policy rather than people. It was used as a blunt weapon for its middle-class readership and staff. It was never about finding the facts, disseminating them and letting the reader decide. It was all about forcing an issue of, on a political scale, minor importance down the throats of Fianna Fail to achieve a pay-off.

Campaigning journalism isn’t an evil in the right hands – just read about Harold Evans’ work in The Sunday Times. But Harris wasn’t striving for the greater good, his campaign was nothing other than self-serving and at no point does his “campaign” constitute as journalistic or important.

There is a fair question for the public to ask of The Irish Times and others who wrote about revelations over Ahern’s finances. Was there an ulterior motive behind the articles? Was it an orchestrated attempt to damage Fianna Fail? I don’t think there’s any real evidence to suggest that there was such a motive or it was a planned-out attack, but the media should be held to account just as much as politicians.

But to suggest that the media shouldn’t have been asking questions of Ahern because the public didn’t want them to is just baffling.

Covering the count in Dublin South West

Things are likely to be a bit quiet here between now and Sunday as I’m about to head off to cover the Dublin South West count in Tallaght for The Sunday Business Post.

Depending on how things go there’s every chance of it running on into Saturday but we’ll have to wait and see I guess.

Not sure what kind of internet access I’m going to have at the centre but any blogging I do do will probably be on IrishElection.com. I’ll be making a few calls over MySay to their count page either way with whatever information I have to offer from the ground.

It looks like a higher turnout than before and no-one is daring call it just yet – looks like it’s going to be an exciting 24-48 hours.

Discussion on Rock The Vote available for download

The Last Word podcast for this evening’s show is now available and I’ve cut out the discussion between Paddy Cosgrave (from Rock The Vote) and myself – all six minutes is available for it to download here (right click, save etc.).

In the excitement of the discussion the six minutes went by quite quickly, but there you go. I feel happy enough with what I said and I think I got to justify my personal opinion well enough.

One thing that I didn’t get a chance to do was in response to Paddy’s final comment – that myself being politically aware puts me outside their target audience and that they’re looking for “trashy celeb mag” readers. From the get-go I disagree with the implication that those interested in the vapid world of celebrity are incapable of digesting actual information from the world of politics. Secondly, if the celebrity-gossip junkie is the target audience of Rock The Vote, perhaps they can explain why they took out a full page advert in (and were supported/sponsored by) The Irish Times, one of the few newspapers in Ireland that doesn’t partake in celebrity “news” and which is anything but a magnet for the politically ignorant.

Going on The Last Word to talk about Rock The Vote

I’ll be taking part in a discussion on The Last Word at 18:15 this evening in relation to Rock The Vote, on the back of my previous comments about it.

I’m not sure who else will feature on the debate, but I can only imagine someone from the campaign itself will be there to defend their actions.

Should be an enjoyable bit of banter and hopefully I’ll be able to make my point that young people need to be properly engaged if they’re ever to become politically active.

Tune in online or on the radio if you can.

What a day

I’m currently in the process of uploading (probably) my final interview for IrishElection.com and I have to say I’ve had a ball taking part in what was a somewhat hectic but very enjoyable day.

All in all the site has done very well to get some pretty high-profile candidates to speak to us and besides adding to the whole election process we’ve also highlighted the advantages of online media over traditional media, especially in the context of a media blackout or moratorium.

Congratulations to Cian and Damien on their hard work for the day although with the poll and count coming in between now and Saturday (and who knows, maybe even later!) it looks like the hard work has just begun.

Stay tuned to IrishElection.com for the final podcasts and for the election count coverage, which promises to be ground-breaking and extremely entertaining.

Oh and thanks to Michael for giving us a mention all the way from Canada – although I had to correct him when he said it was my site or my idea – I don’t want to take even a second’s credit for Cian and Co.’s hard work.

Moratorium-free podcasting at IrishElection.com

IrishElection.com have just posted the first in their series of candidate interview’s running all day today.

The concept behind the podcasts is to give voters one last chance to hear from the parties and give the candidates one last chance to put themselves out there on the only medium that will allow it – the internet.

Cian has interviewed Ruairi Quinn of Labour and the piece can be found here. My interview with Ciaran Cuffe of The Green Party is coming up at half 2. More will follow each half hour, so stay tuned.

Rock The Vote is an absolute failure

I’ve had more than a passing interest in politics for many years now and I’ve always believed that young people need to engage and be engaged in the larger political discourse. I believe that the main instrument of youth participation within Ireland’s political parties, the youth wing, is actually counter-intuitive and counter-productive and that young people and young voters shouldn’t be patronised into engagement – they should just be shown the relevancy and left to decide from there.

Based on that I believe that Ireland’s Rock The Vote campaign has been a complete and undeniable failure.

The campaign’s intention was to encourage young people to vote, which is very noble, but while attempting to reach that goal the organisation took the same tired route as all the political parties do when they’re pretending to be youth-friendly too.

Just like some hacked Hot Press interview in which a politician removes his tie, lists off his favourite bands and reminisces about the time he thought he saw someone smoke “the pot” in his general vicinity, Rock The Vote offers the kind of well packaged political candy-floss that looks impressive but contains nothing real.

Sure, the campaign has shown people how they can go about voting. It’s shown people who they can chose from when casting their vote. It has shown them when they’ll need to cast their vote. It has even shown them where they’ll need to do it. Unfortunately it has failed to tackle one question which when left unanswered renders all else irrelevant – “why?”

Rather than discuss the issues, inspire debate, highlight relevancy or encourage engagement Rock The Vote has given us silly hand-symbols, minor celebrities, a meaningless catchphrase and a series of humourless, apolitical skits called “Frazier Fraze”, which dedicate more time to discussions on Westlife and Boyzone than on anything of any remote substance.

The reality of youth apathy is that young people have plenty of political opinions and concerns, they simply may not look at them in that way.

Where the political importance of stamp duty, income tax, transportation policy and crime issues are all too apparent for someone with a career, home and family they can seem far more obscure to someone whom has no immediate plan beyond the length of their college course and whom just earns money to keep themselves going from week-to-week.

When the relevance of the political system is clear to them, however, they can become the most vocal and active people in the country. Just look at the reaction Noel Dempsey’s plans to re-introduce college fees in 2002, or the massive protest against the Iraq War in 2003, or ask any young person for their opinion on the US Army’s use of Shannon Airport or issues of road safety. These kinds of instances show that ignorance is not the problem, just a failure to find relevance in everything.

But the reality is that the current lack of youth participation is fine for most political parties. Having such an unaccountable minority out of the picture makes things far easier and besides, apathy of any kind isn’t a problem as long as they can get through to the ones who are going to vote.

Young people simply cannot sit and wait for politicians to come to them with appealing legislation and the failure of young people to organise any kind of effective lobby has meant that there is no need amongst politicians to take any heed of young people’s concerns. What is needed is an organisation that brings the debate to young people, shows them what effect politics has on their lives, the effect it will have on their future and that bridges the mental gap people may have between what concerns them and what they can do about it.

The problem with Rock The Vote is that it fails to engage and instead ends up patronising young people. It’s campaign assumes that young people need to have everything dumbed down in order for them to become politically aware. It assumes that some celebrity credibility is all that is needed to turn youth apathy into activism. It assumes that young people need to be told something is cool before they’ll bother themselves to do it. It assumes young people are too thick to be engaged in a real debate.

Worst of all it skips over the actual issues and gives young people nothing in terms of a real reason to vote.

To put it simply, all Rock The Vote says is “you should vote” and that’s not a message anyone should have to tolerate in isolation. For example, what would your reaction be if a politician knocked on your door and said “vote for me”? I’d bet the first thing you’d say to them is “why?” because you sure as hell wouldn’t just accept their insistence and act on it obediently.

Maybe when the next election comes around we’ll have an organisation that tries to do this and aims to engage rather than dictate – I’ll certainly be looking to organise or get involved in one if I can.