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Last week, George Allen, the Republican senator running for re-election in Virginia, apologised for calling one of his opponent’s campaign aides, who is Indian-American, “macaca”. The aide had been tailing Mr Allen with a video camera, hoping, no doubt, to record any undignified incidents. He posted the footage of this one on the video-archiving website, YouTube. Blogs linked to it and Mr Allen was soon embroiled in controversy. There is no consensus on opinion pages and talk shows about what macaca means. (The aide’s bizarre haircut may hold a clue.) But there is consensus about what YouTube means – an earthquake in American politics.

It is easy to see why people would make such claims. YouTube has been up and running only since last year, yet already users view 100m videos a day there and post 65,000 of their own. The company has $11.5m in venture capital to grow on. YouTube and similar sites (such as MySpace) are starting to play a role in political campaigns. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut’s Democratic senator, lost a primary election to Ned Lamont, his anti-war challenger, after the latter’s supporters used the internet to spread clips of Mr Lieberman’s gaffes, along with satirical pastiches implying Mr Lieberman was not just in agreement but in love with president George W. Bush.

If you visit YouTube itself, you will find predictions of its waxing importance hard to credit. The Washington Post aptly calls it a “video dumpster” – an unsifted pile of gross stunts, pornography, fights, flatulence, car crashes and Japanese animation. It serves many functions. In places it is the “e-” equivalent of a vanity publisher. YouTube’s first dedicated “channel”, launched this week, promotes the singing career of Paris Hilton, who shot to fame as an internet porn star. Nothing ground-breaking there – Emile Zola’s Nana was not the first account of “laundering” sexual fame into something more durable. In other places YouTube is a video file-sharing arrangement along lines pioneered by the defunct music service Napster. The site helps companies police piracy, though, and its main role may eventually be as a marketing tool for videos and movies.

Although YouTube users describe their self-filmed offerings as creative and individualistic, viewer-generated video is unlikely to be more appealing, on average, than “diner-generated food” would be in a restaurant. So a lot of the offerings have a corporate, even consumerist orientation. Some of YouTube’s most visited web pages are advertisements. The site is a meeting place for what Harold Rosenberg, the American art critic, called “the herd of independent minds”, where everyone is unique in the same way. Of course, this is a big part of what makes YouTube a political force. Like everything else on the internet, it allows similarly inclined people to find one another. That is the optimistic way of putting it. The pessimistic way is to say that the internet solves the organising problem of mobs.

Those who like this development (or want to stay on the good side of internet users) credit it with a “democratisation of information”, as Harold Wolfson, Hillary Clinton’s political adviser, did last week. The internet lets the little guy keep tabs on the big wheels. But Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism, argued persuasively in The New Yorker this month that we are still a long way from the “citizen journalism” that internet visionaries promised a decade ago. There are all kinds of sites in many different genres, writes Mr Lemann, “but none of that yet rises to the level of a journalistic culture rich enough to compete in a serious way with the old media – to function as a replacement rather than an addendum”. Although it is yet possible the internet and blogging will revolutionise news reporting, thus far the new media is mostly parasitic on the old.

At partisan websites, what information the little guy is deemed to need depends on whose ox is being gored. MoveOn.org, a leading website of the Democratic party’s left, took its name from the proposition that scrutiny of Bill Clinton’s sex life in the 1990s was an obsession that was diverting Americans from more urgent priorities. They were right, too, but “move on” is now the last thing the website wishes to do. In the Bush era, its motto might as well be “lest we forget”. Rightwing websites behave no differently. The internet, because it records missteps forever, is ideally suited to those whose grievances are of a Balkan obsessiveness.

That is why some people argue that YouTube will put an end to spontaneity in politics: who will loosen up and speak from the heart, they ask, when the slightest faux pas – the macaca business, for instance – can be rerun until it jeopardises a politician’s career? This is a weak argument. For one thing, protecting political careers is not the purpose of democracies. For another thing, the assumption that video makes people cautious is wrong.

Citizen activists have never been reliably objective, but the pseudo-objectivity of video permits a partial account to masquerade as “the” truth. Unlike writing, it has no “voice” through which bias can be detected. That is why terrorists’ most effective recruiting tool is not verbal argument but carefully edited atrocity videos.

Democratic politics is not immune to built-in biases. Think of the countless cameras that anti-globalist protesters have trained on policemen at demonstrations in the past decade. They are meant to document police brutality – but if no police brutality happens, you will never see the video. The exercise is structured so that brutality is the only police behaviour you will ever see. Similarly, fiery remarks were the only kind of remarks that the aide to Mr Allen’s opponent was interested in recording. If the camera “doesn’t lie”, then the truth it tells is at best a partial one. We can already see that this partial truth is more likely to rile people up than to calm them down.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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