How YouTube Wants to Rock the Vote

Come January, all eyes will be on Iowa and New Hampshire as voters seek to find out who will emerge as the Republican front-runner to compete with President Barack Obama. But this time around, people from all over the world will have a chance to sway the outcome, if only through challenging questions, as YouTube (s GOOG) will let its users quiz the candidates during the January 12 Republican primary debate in Des Moines, Iowa, the site’s news and politics manager Ramya Raghavan told me last week.
The site will also stream the entire debate live online through its YouTube Live platform, in addition to it being broadcast on TV. The stream will be accompanied by live comment feeds from YouTube and Twitter, as well as various data visualizations through Google Maps and other gadgets.
This debate is only one of many initiatives planed by YouTube to cover the elections. Last week, the site unveiled YouTube Town Hall, a kind of virtual debate platform that has select members of congress square off on issues ranging from education to the war in Afghanistan. Each candidate explains his position in a one-minute video, and users can then select which side they support. YouTube only reveals the party affiliations of participating politicians after users have cast their votes, and the site will let its users propose and vote on future questions.

Don't sit behind a wooden desk: Tom Udal (Dem.) is trying to appeal to YouTube's users.

YouTube convinced representatives like John McCain (R-Ariz.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to participate in the first round of Town Hall questions. In some cases, it took a little bit of gentle coaching to make sure that the videos appeal to the site’s audience. “Don’t sit behind a wooden desk with an American flag in the background,” Raghavan said was one piece of advice that the site is giving participating politicians.
But in general, politicians have become very YouTube-savvy. Raghavan told me 92 percent of the members of Congress now have their own YouTube channel. Most of the current presidential candidates announced their intent to run for the highest office with a YouTube video, and Ron Paul even streamed his first campaign event live on the site. YouTube only officially launched its live streaming platform in April, and it has so far only been available to a few hand-picked partners. However, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see more politics on YouTube Live. “I would love to see all candidates use the live streaming platform,” said Raghavan.

A tag cloud made by YouTube Trends to visualize the questions YouTube users had for President Obama on the subject of health care. Similar visualizations could accompany the YouTube-sponsored Republican primary debate in January 2012.

Speaking of the GOP’s hopefuls: The January 12 debate isn’t the first time YouTube has offered its users a chance to participate in a high-profile election event. The site contributed to two primary debates in 2007, which were organized by CNN (s twx). YouTube users were challenged to record their questions on video. CNN showed a few select videos on air and then asked the candidates to answer these questions.
The selection process wasn’t without hiccups, however. The Republican primary debate included a video recorded by an advisor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which resulted in some bias claims afterwards. This time around, YouTube doesn’t want to rely on so much editorial guidance from its media partners: PBS NewsHour and the Des Moines Register. The site will let its users vote directly on which questions to ask, Raghavan told me.
Of course, that doesn’t mean interest groups won’t try to get their foot in the door and hijack this kind of grassroots process. President Obama’s recent live Q&A at Facebook provoked countless marijuana legalization activists to flock to the site and completely take over the comment section, which was intended to gather a wide variety of questions. Raghavan said YouTube is conscious of these efforts. However, she was convinced the scale of Google and YouTube help to thwart any astro-turfing attempts.
Grassroots or not, YouTube will undoubtedly be once again embraced by candidates and interest groups alike. During previous elections, campaigns started to use so-called trackers to follow the competition around from event to event and then immediately upload any potentially damaging footage to YouTube. This kind of video coverage was put into the spotlight when then-Senator George Allen called a tracker of the competition “makaka” in 2006 — a moment credited with costing him the reelection.
“We are already seeing a lot of campaign videos,” said Kevin Alloca in our interview. Alloca has been tracking these phenomena as part of his work on YouTube Trends, and Raghavan added she fully expects major political moments to once again emerge from YouTube then find their way into mainstream media. “Part of the excitement of YouTube is that it unfolds in real time,” she said.