Even Transparency Is Tricky In New Media Landscape

Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz digs up the latest development in the convergence of politics and the YouTube generation today, one which raises questions about the use and manipulation of user-generated content tools in the political process. Kurtz looks at a unique video posted on the Web site of Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards featuring the former Senator in an apparent, "behind-the-scenes" moment and asks:
An unscripted moment caught on a cellphone camera? Not exactly. The video of the presidential candidate chatting on his plane is on Edwards's Web site. The former senator seems unusually frank about the absurdities of political life -- or is this just carefully choreographed candor, packaged for the YouTube age?
More Kurtz:
What's striking about the "Webisode," in which Edwards chats on his plane with a freelance video crew, is that it looks like a television documentary, with quick-cut editing and a jerky handheld camera. Edwards, in a work shirt and jeans, is seen chatting with others, not looking at the camera. He says he wants to be judged "based on who I really am, not based on some plastic Ken doll . . . You're trained to be careful. You're trained to close off, if it feels sensitive, if it feels personal . . . We're conditioned to saying the same thing, we're conditioned to saying what's safe, we're conditioned to be political, and it's hard to shed all that."
Scrolling through Edwards' Web site, it appears this particular video is not currently posted (or we can't find it). But the description provided by Kurtz certainly is enough to get the picture and it's hard not to wonder where all this could lead. Remember the case of LonelyGirl15? She's the fictional character who, up until her true identity was revealed last fall, had legions of "fans" convinced she was just another "regular" person posting video logs on YouTube. Intrepid followers eventually forced out the truth – the LonelyGirl was really an actress and her story was being created by some Hollywood types.

LonelyGirl15 (and her increasingly bizarre story) continues to draw viewers (her latest is the most-viewed video right now on YouTube) even as the overall buzz has waned now that the mystery of her identity has been cleared up. In this case, it appears LonelyGirl15 fans are happy to keep coming back for the story, but will they react to politicians in the same way?

On the surface, the Edwards video sounds like a good attempt at providing some transparency, but one Democratic strategist tells Kurtz that campaigns must be careful with such efforts:

The 2008 campaign is "totally going to be on steroids this time in terms of what a candidate can do," says Joe Trippi, who masterminded Howard Dean's Internet-driven bid in 2003 and 2004. "You're going to see reality, and you're going to see savvy manipulation under the guise of something that's authentic and real." But Trippi warns against candidates' secretly scripting such moments: "If you get caught, you're dead."
LonelyGirl15 may be forgiven for the subterfuge because mystery is part of her storyline – and we all like a good story. Whether politicians can get away with much manipulation is another question. We've written extensively about the challenges politicians face in a world where everyone has a camera and their every movement and utterance can end up coming back to harm them. But it seems there is an equal danger to those who try to harness these new media tools and use them in a manipulative way.