Northern Voice: No politician is safe when cameras are everywhereHow citizen journalism powered by social media reframes politics, politicians, and the people involved

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I just stepped out of a superb presentation by Eddie Codel titled Using Internet Video to Change the World One Eyeball at a Time. A few of the phenomena he raised:

It's that last example that has had me preoccupied for some time, and I raised it at the session.

For the record: I'm not one of the herd that grumbles about how politicians are universally corrupt, venal thieves who can't tell the truth to save their lives. I've known too many who make enormous sacrifices because of a genuine commitment to public service.

But for a variety of reasons, politics often demands oversimplified messages and black-and-white partisan divisions. And – because of the need to build support from diverse, conflicting constituencies among the voting (and donating) public – there are perverse rewards for convenient dishonesty and punishments for telling difficult truths... especially if you think you won't get caught.

Nothing new there: politicians telling people what they want to hear is an old story. But what's new is the ability to catch them in the act. Video cameras are everywhere; many digital cameras can capture video and audio. But even more significant is the world of cell phones.

Mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous, and a large and growing number of them can record video. Those phones are a lot less intrusive than a camcorder; it would be hard to imagine a better means of capturing unguarded moments.

Like, say, a politician telling a voter something that contradicts something the politician had told a different audience the day before. An outrageous slur against an opponent. A career-ending* display of bigotry.

It's only a matter of time before a politician does something George Allen-esque in front of the watchful eye of a camera phone. And then the impact on politicians will be profound. Nearly every moment outside of their own homes (and inside, if they've done something that morning to tick off one of their kids) could find its way onto YouTube, Revver or any of a dozen other video-sharing sites... and onto the computers of thousands of their voters.

So what happens then?

I've seen commentators suggest that it means that politicians will be "on" 24/7 – and that only those who can maintain their duplicitous public façades indefinitely will succeed.

I think (or at least allow myself to hope) differently. I keep thinking of the Hollywood executive in a Wiliam Goldman book whose mind wanders during a phone call; he frantically clamps his hand over the phone's mouthpiece and hisses to Goldman, "Which lie did I tell?"

Ubiquitous video probably will reward the truly nightmarish candidates: the charming psychopaths who really do lie, well and consistently, every hour of the day. But then, the system already rewards them. It's the less accomplished liars – the ones who can't be certain they'll keep their stories straight – who will see the system of incentives and disincentives tilt a little more toward honesty and openness.

And it will be the honest candidates who see the odds starting to break a little more their way. That's my hope, anyway.

Responding during the Northern Voice session, Robert Scoble and Ian King found it naive, and it may be. (Possibly because I stated it a lot more categorically in the session. Then again, I had to squeeze it into a 30-second comment. Hmm – see incentives to oversimplify, above.) But there's a critical difference between being "on", and actually lying. If "on" (which basically means constant consciousness of the strategic and tactical implications of what you're saying and doing) is ultimately derived what you actually believe, well, there are worse things to be.

One other effect I hope this has: an adjustment of expectations. Politicians have unguarded moments. They fart, they swear, they lose their temper and they explode in exultation. But because such moments are pounced on so eagerly by opponents and media alike, politicians do their best to quash them. That leads to a vicious circle: they're extraordinary, therefore aberrant, and therefore both newsworthy and damaging.

That could change as those instants of human frailty become YouTube fodder in bulk. Get enough examples of politicians behaving like, well, people, and maybe those examples will stop being such aberrations. And maybe the unforgiving "gotcha" mentality will loosen its grip on political life.


* This may be that naive streak rearing its head.

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