Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Democracy through the Polarized Lens of the Camcorder: Argumentation and Vernacular Spectacle on YouTube in the 2008 Election

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Democracy through the Polarized Lens of the Camcorder: Argumentation and Vernacular Spectacle on YouTube in the 2008 Election

Article excerpt

Whether through its international recognition as a moment of change from the Bush administration, through the selection of Barack Obama as the first African-American president, or through the candidacy of Sarah Palin on the Republican ticket, the 2008 election will long be remembered as an important moment in US history. Alongside such momentous details lies another critical aspect of the 2008 election: its media presence. The Pew Research Center recognized that the 2008 election carried a significant increase in usage of digital outlets, and that 74% of internet users, fully 55% of the entire adult US population, went online to get news, take part in campaigns, and to share information with others through videos, blogs, and email (Smith, 2009). Campaigns were built from the ground up through blogs, iPhone applications, and social networking sites such as Facebook or YouTube. Within the campaigns, Obama supporters were more likely to utilize online sites for political organizing than his rival, John McCain (Smith, 2009), but across the board, online politicking increased.

Alongside the general use of digital media, the 2008 campaign was also recognized as being a particularly negative one, especially the tactics used by the McCain-Palin camp. Critics of the Republican ticket noted as early as September of the election cycle that McCain had taken on a distinctly negative tone (Issenberg, 2008; Pilkington, 2008). Notably, the McCain-Palin campaign was charged with inciting a mob mentality at its rallies. Indeed, in a rather infamous clip, John McCain takes a microphone away from a supporter who calls Barack Obama an "Arab" whom she can't trust. McCain backtracks, receiving boos from his audience by calling Obama a "decent family man, a citizen" (Thomas, 2008), curiously implying that Arabs cannot be either of those things. In other news clips, supporters of the GOP ticket can be heard shouting things such as "Terrorist!" and "Treason!" at political gatherings across the country ("Taking the Low Road," 2008). The coverage of these events was marked with considerable scrutiny of the McCain-Palin campaign, with many claiming that the pair was inciting a mob mentality. Overall, the nasty audiences seemed to operate as a synecdoche of McCain and his temperament in the election.

One notable location for the portrayal of the angry McCain mobs was in the video blogosphere, or vlogosphere. At the vlogging site YouTube, individuals and organizations posted videos and montages of McCain and Obama supporters from across the country. YouTube, while a normal outlet for the circulation of election news clips, campaign humor, and blogger commentary (Topcik, 2008), now contained an on-the-ground glimpse into the frontlines of liberal and conservative activism. In this essay, I examine the posting of angry mob videos on YouTube as vernacular constructions of American politicking. YouTube videographers utilize the site to assemble or visually mobilize the opposition into "idiot opponent montages" using specific rhetorical strategies; however, these constructions, as image events (DeLuca, 1999), contribute to a general political polarization already noted in digital media (Sunstein, 2007). Through a rhetorical analysis of argument as constructed in the videos, their purported ethos of authenticity, and the intertextual references between mainstream and vernacular, I contend that these videos embody a form of vernacular spectacle that contributes to polarization in political argumentation and the social alienation of citizens from each other. The videos are used to argue in ways that sensationalize election year politicking into polarized extremes. To construct the notion of vernacular spectacle, I build upon Howard's (2008) notion of dialectical vernacular in participatory media, drawing from Debord's (1994) notion of spectacle and Kellner's (2003) extension of media spectacle. To create this spectacle, vernacular videographers on YouTube draw from and support mainstream news organizations in a reciprocal relationship that bolsters both types of media and their claims about the election. …

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