If there were a gold medal for political use of new technology, almost every web aficionado would award it to Barack Obama. But on Thursday Mr Obama provided a reminder that what has already been dubbed the “YouTube election” can also be a double-edged sword.
Launching a site called “Fight The Smears”, Mr Obama’s campaign abandoned its policy of ignoring the most lurid internet rumours about its candidate. Of these, the most recent was the widely e-mailed contention that Karl Rove, the legendary Republican operative, possessed a tape of Michelle Obama railing against “whiteys” in a race-infused speech at the church formerly run by the provocative pastor Jeremiah Wright.
In a rare loss of cool, Mr Obama last week angrily denied that there could be such a video. “If somebody has evidence that myself or Michelle or anybody has said something inappropriate, let them do it,” he said. “We have seen this before. There are dirt and lies that are circulated in e-mails.”
Other false rumours have included Mr Obama’s supposed swearing in to the Senate on the Koran, attending a radical madrassa as a child in Indonesia, being born in Kenya rather than Hawaii and having the middle name of Mohammed rather than Hussein.
The campaign on Thursday finally decided that attack was the best mode of defence. “The Obama campaign isn’t going to let dishonest smears spread across the internet unanswered,” it said in a statement. “Whenever challenged with these lies we will aggressively push back with the truth and help our supporters debunk the false rumours floating around.”
Yet for Mr Obama the net effect of the net is still heavily positive. When asked in an interview whether there was any aspect of new technology that Mr Obama had yet to exploit well, Steve Grove, the head of news and politics at YouTube, paused and then said: “Not that I can think of.”
The evidence is strong. Mr Obama’s YouTube channel has almost 1,100 videos made by his campaign staff and it is adding two or three a day. More than 50m people have watched them, compared with just 4m for John McCain’s YouTube channel, which has made 200 videos.
Joe Rospars, Mr Obama’s new media director, says the campaign sees the internet as a tool that can help organise supporters, raise money and tell the campaign’s story. On all three measures Mr Obama has comfortably outstripped both Mr McCain and Hillary Clinton, his defeated rival for the Democratic presidential nomination.
For example Mr Obama’s relatively laissez-faire approach to the internet, in which supporters have been allowed to help shape his campaign’s online content and set up their own Obama support sites, has generated a momentum of its own.
“Within 24 hours of ‘Super Tuesday’ [February 5] we saw an ‘Idaho for Obama’ website crop up – we hadn’t even thought of that,” said Mr Rospars. “In many states there was already a network established before the campaign even showed up.”
The campaign’s victories in Republican states such as Idaho helped clinch the nomination for Mr Obama.
His campaign’s internet-friendly stance also contrasts with that of Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain, both slow to pick up on its potential. For example, Mrs Clinton’s campaign tended to answer the most friendly questions that had been submitted online rather than picking the “users’ favourite” as Mr Obama has done.
“I think there was a perception among some users that the Clinton campaign was doing too much gatekeeping,” said Mr Grove. “The medium is developing so fast that your campaign has to have a lot of awareness to keep up with it.”
YouTube watchers date the beginning of the “YouTube era” to September 2006, when an Indian-origin opposition videographer caught George Allen, the Republican senator for Virginia, calling him a “macaca” – a previously obscure racial slur – that helped contribute to Mr Allen’s defeat.
Barely a week has passed without a YouTube “gotcha” moment. Some, such as the “I feel pretty” video about John Edwards, which mocked his $400 haircuts, were made by critics.
Others, such as Mr McCain singing “Bomb bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”, or Mrs Clinton singing the national anthem without hitting one correct note, took direct footage from the campaign trail.
The more light-hearted the video, the wider it spreads. The independently made “Obama girl” video has had more hits than all the candidates’ own videos combined.
“Politicians have to walk a fine line between using the internet to improve dialogue with voters and being more guarded because of the risks it poses,” says Mr Grove.
It is safe to say that singing “Bomb bomb Iran” is the wrong side of the line.
The Financial Times