A hyperbolic title to be sure, but look at the news this September:
The amateurish film by “Sam Bacile,” The Innocence of Muslims, and its offensive portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad, and the United States’ refusal to censor it, has sparked violent, anti-American demonstrations and attacks across the Muslim world.
Only days later, damaging off-camera (well, he thought they were off-camera) by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a fundraiser has dramatically reshaped the 2012 election, and according to some, handed the election to Barack Obama.
Thanks to its ability to spread news and opinion quickly and widely, many had pointed to Twitter as the social media platform most likely to influence current events, but it’s been good, old video that has done it this fall. In one case, a fictional portrayal struck a very non-fictional nerve, while in the other, non-fictional footage helped to crystallize a (some would say) fictional narrative. Both are amazing illustrations of the power of video to incite human emotion. It’s also a reminder that “YouTube is the #2 search engine in the world” isn’t just a marketing statistic — YouTube is a political and social force, one with a reach as broad as any in history, arguably on par with the Pope preaching from pulpit of St. Peter’s in medieval times, a World War II radio address from Winston Churchill, or the Beatles appearing on Ed Sullivan. The key difference would seem to be me be, with YouTube and social media, we have no idea where the hit will come from. Fame can be essentially instant, production value doesn’t matter, a throwaway remark can blow up before your eyes.
Of course, you could also make the argument that obsession over a pair of YouTube videos is simply an illustration that we are losing sight of what is really important. When it comes to deciding who to vote for, were Romney’s off-the-cuff remarks more important to our decision on who to vote for than his and his running mate’s established voting records, or perhaps the informed opinions of economists and political scientists? And, there is no doubt that instead of letting a hack filmmaker drive the discussion of Arab-American relations, maybe we should be paying attention to the economic, political and cultural realities that have led to such simmering hatred and misunderstanding. Video can be a handy surrogate for the real, much more difficult stuff.
Interesting times, indeed.