An analysis comparing the use of YouTube by two very different political movements shows how useful and flexible this social media channel can be as a means of communication, both to a broad public and more targeted audiences.

YouTube Becoming a Useful Tool for Political Communication

Quite apart from recent activism directly linked to the use of the new information and communication technologies and freedom of information, more traditional political activism, focusing on major issues in society, has now seized hold of YouTube and other social media. With changes in people’s habits, especially the amount of time spent on a daily basis watching videos on the Internet, YouTube, the largest video-sharing site, has become not just a recreational tool but an excellent communication tool as well. As the video-sharing site is free and the audience huge, it is perhaps not surprising to find political movements infiltrating the platform. However, results have been mixed. A recent study by a group of academics in the Communication field, entitled ‘The Rules of Engagement: Comparing Two Social Protest Movements on YouTube’, concludes that even though YouTube is free and open to everyone to use, there are nevertheless certain basic rules that should be followed, depending on the desired result and the target audience, if you want to achieve maximum impact.

Two movements, two very different approaches

The study is based on a comparative analysis of how two different movements were represented on YouTube: the campaign in favour of ‘Proposition 8’ (a citizens’ drive for an anti-same-sex marriage law) in California; and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) general social protest movement. The videos posted by the two sets of campaigners were on average the same length, but the two movements followed differing routes, with OWS posting videos of rallies and live-filmed events, while Proposition 8 built its approach on the basis of a more structured message, also using rallies but with scripted monologues to explain what was going on. In fact the researchers point out that scripted videos uploaded by both movements elicited higher levels of engagement from the Internet audience, both in terms of viewing numbers and comments posted. In the same vein, despite the fact that YouTube was originally conceived as a site for sharing mainly amateur video, when it comes to communicating a message it is the professionally-produced videos with focused content that achieve more impact than clips which merely covers an event.

Activism on social media: no standard yet

“As YouTube matures, and additional social networking tools evolve, it is interesting to note how these tools may be used by individual citizens as well as political activists to advance their goals,” underlined Brenda K. Wiederhold, Editor-in-Chief of the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking, which published the study. The report clearly indicates that activism on social media is far from being a unitary phenomenon. These media have a natural fluidity, which enables activists to take a specific approach to a given objective. The authors highlight a number of characteristics, including video quality and content-editing, which seem to be basic prerequisites for making an impact, but the fact that such disparate movements as Proposition 8 and OWS can use YouTube as a vehicle indicates that one cannot yet define any standard for such communication.  While both commercial and political communications experts are now becoming more familiar with social media, it is still difficult to analyse and quantify their impact and effectiveness, stress the report’s authors.

By Quentin Capelle