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Come January, all eyes will be on Iowa and New Hampshire as voters seek to discover who will emerge as the Republican frontrunner to contend against President Barack Obama. This time around, people from all over the world will have a chance to sway the outcome, if only by posing challenging questions when YouTube (GOOG) lets its users quiz the candidates during the Jan. 12 Republican primary debate in Des Moines, the site's news and politics manager Ramya Raghavan tells me. The entire debate will stream online through its YouTube Live platform, in addition to being broadcast on TV. The stream will be accompanied by live comment feeds from YouTube and Twitter, as well as various data visualizations via Google Maps and other gadgets.
The debate is one of many initiatives planned by YouTube to cover the elections. Last week the site unveiled YouTube Town Hall, a kind of virtual debate platform that presents select members of Congress squaring off on issues that range from education to the War in Afghanistan. After each speaker explains his or her position in a one-minute video, users can select which side they support. (YouTube reveals the party affiliations of participating politicians only after users have cast their votes.) The site will invite users to propose future issues for debate.
YouTube convinced such senators as 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 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 cites as a piece of advice the site provides participating politicians.
Politicians have generally become YouTube-savvy: Raghavan tells me that 92 percent of the members of Congress now maintain YouTube channels. Most of the current presidential candidates announced their intent to run for the highest office with a YouTube video, and Representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.) even streamed his first campaign event live on the site. YouTube officially launched its live streaming platform only in April, and it has so far only been available to a few hand-picked partners. Don't be surprised to see more politics on YouTube Live. "I would love to see all candidates use the live streaming platform," says Raghavan.
The Jan. 12 debate won't constitute 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 that CNN (TWX) organized in 2007. At that time, YouTube users were challenged to record their questions on video. CNN showed a few select query videos on air and asked the candidates to respond.
The selection process wasn't without hiccups. A Republican Presidential primary debate included a video recorded by an advisor to Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign, which prompted bias claims. This time, YouTube doesn't wish to rely on 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 says.
This doesn't mean interest groups won't try to get their foot in the door and hijack the digital grass roots process. Obama's recent live Q&A at Facebook provoked countless marijuana-legalization activists to flock the site and dominate the comments section, which had been intended to gather a wider variety of questions. Raghavan says YouTube is conscious of the potential for narrow interests to flood the channel and thinks that the scale on which Google and YouTube operate should help thwart the practice known as astroturfing.
Grass roots or not, YouTube will undoubtedly be embraced by candidates and interest groups alike. In recent elections, campaigns have been using so-called trackers to follow competing politicians from event to event so they can immediately upload potentially damaging footage to YouTube. Such video coverage was put in the spotlight in 2006, when then-Senator George Allen (R-Va.) called a tracker of the competition "makaka" in an outburst thought to have cost him reelection.
"We are already seeing a lot of campaign videos," says Kevin Alloca, who has been tracking electoral phenomena as part of his work at YouTube Trends. Raghavan says she expects major political moments to make their way from YouTube into mainstream media. "Part of the excitement of YouTube is that it unfolds in real time," she says.
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