What's New is Old Again: YouTube, Democracy and Presidential Debates

24debate9-600_nuncscio.jpg I'll admit it's a pretty interesting idea. Ask Americans to upload questions to YouTube, and have a bunch of Democratic presidential hopefuls respond in a debate format. But there was an undercurrent of smugness to the whole affair- a kind of self-congratulatory "look how hip and with-it we are". A message that rings a little hollow when it comes from eight well-heeled members of the political establishment.

The New York Times was also annoyed, observing that while the technology may have changed, the candidates remain largely the same. The Washington Post was more positive, saying the event allowed for a greater diversity of questions and questioners than in a typical debate. With topics ranging from gay marriage, health care, Iraq and global warming (asked by a guy dressed as a snowman), the point is well taken. The WP also coins the phrase 'The YouTube Effect',  a term destined to join the 'CNN Effect' in the pantheon of big ideas that didn't amount to much.

There are several good reasons why the 'YouTube Effect' is another empty-calorie political fad. Behind the hijinx and techno-optimism, there's a serious problem that undermines any hope of revitalizing democracy through the Internet. The problem is access. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, only 47 per cent of Americans have a broadband connection at home. The disparities also increase across demographic lines:

  • Only 31 per cent of rural Americans have broadband, compared to 52 per cent of urban individuals;
  • Only 40 per cent of African Americans have high-speed Internet, compared to 48 per cent of white individuals;
  • A whopping 70 per cent of college-educated individuals have broadband, compared to only 34 per cent of high school graduates (and 21 per cent of individuals who failed to complete high school); and
  • 76 per cent individuals with an income of over $75K use broadband internet, while only 36 per cent of low-income earners have high speed access.

Based on this data, it is clear the majority of Americans lack the technological tools to participate in a 'YouTube' democracy. Any talk of the 'inclusive' and 'participatory' political Internet is therefore premature. On a balance of probabilities, the citizens who participated in the YouTube Democratic debate were likely middle class, educated, white and urban. In other words, the individuals most politically active in the offline world anyway. The NYT was right to observe that that new debate format couldn't escape the same old candidates. But they missed the fact it also brought out the same old voters. The Internet may be a useful tool for engaging the engaged, but it is far from a silver bullet solution to the crisis of political participation in the United States.

The Internet is a stunningly effective medium for information exchange. But without widespread Internet access, all that knowledge won't revolutionize political systems (especially when YouTube owner and debate sponsor Google helps autocratic regimes censor the Internet). True, the gaps in broadband access are steadily closing. But even if the United States had totally equitable Internet access, there's no guarantee every citizen would use their computer to engage with the democratic system. There's a lot of porn on the Internet. And for every thoughtful political question on YouTube, there's 50,000 videos of somebody shooting a bottle rocket into their groin.

So, what to make of the YouTube debate? An interesting experiment, a footnote to the 2008 presidential election? Perhaps. It was certainly not a revolution in political communication, or a radical step in democratic politics. It was the same old pony, with a few new ribbons. Greater political participation depends crucially on education, adequate information, a desire to engage, and- dare I say it- the responsiveness of the political system to citizen input. These criteria are variously weak or entirely absent from the political systems of the West. The United States is everyone's favourite democratic under-achiever, but Canada and the UK aren't far behind. As citizens, we need to focus on the immense social and political task of buidling a better political culture. I can't help but think YouTube debates are little more than flashy distractions on a long and grinding road.