In YouTube’s short life—the first video was posted to the website on April 23, 2005—it has changed how we view media, and how we vote. Five videos in particular embody how uploading has reshaped Washington.
Mitch McConnell’s Smile
Posted to YouTube before the 2014 midterms, “McConnell Working for Kentuckians” consisted of two minutes and 22 seconds of Senator Mitch McConnellwordlessly shaking hands, signing papers, and smiling vacantly. No voiceover, no “I approved this message.” The footage turned out to be an offering for super-PACs and other friendly organizations to use in their own commercials without running afoul of campaign-spending rules that forbid directly coordinating with campaigns. “They created this weird loophole through the site,” says David Karpf, assistant professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.
In 2010, another Senate candidate, Carly Fiorina of California, ran a YouTube-only attack ad featuring a creature with blood-red eyes stalking a herd of sheep. Though it made a dull point about the federal budget, the video garnered 120,000 views by the next day and New York magazine dubbed Fiorina an “internet genius.” Ensuing attempts at digital edginess have been mixed: In 2011, GOP candidate Herman Cain’s lo-fi video of his campaign manager smoking and rambling about politics drew only bewilderment.
Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner
Before this comedian’s devastating parody of the George W. Bush presidency at the 2006 dinner, more people had likely watched the “nerd prom” from a table in the Washington Hilton ballroom than on C-SPAN. But after the video was uploaded to the still-nascent YouTube—and viewed 2.7 million times in less than 48 hours—Colbert’s cutting criticism and the President’s smirks made stars of both the comic and the new medium.
Four months after Colbert’s routine, Virginia senator George Allen, campaigning for reelection, used an obscure racial slur, “macaca,” in describing an Indian-American volunteer for Allen’s opponent, who was filming the appearance. The Washington Post ran a story, but when liberal bloggers posted the video, it “created a feedback loop,” says Karpf. Allen lost his seat and an expected shot at the White House.
“Who Are You?”
In June of 2010, two young men with a camera approached Democratic representative Bob Etheridge of North Carolina on a DC sidewalk to ask, “Do you fully support the Obama agenda?” On YouTube, Etheridge was shown grappling with one of the interviewers and repeatedly demanding, “Who are you?” The young men, who told Etheridge the film was for “a project,” were later identified as Republican strategists. The incident didn’t help the besieged congressman, who lost his seat that fall.
This article appears in our April 2015 issue of Washingtonian.