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.”

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