Viral Ads and the New Democratic Moment

Will user-generated political ads lead to more openness, or simply bring digital mudslinging into the mainstream?

While most people use their Sunday mornings to surf the Web or read the paper, an employee for an Internet strategy firm hired by Barack Obama’s campaign decided to use his off day to launch a digital attack against Hillary Clinton, creating the now infamous viral ad that portrayed the New York senator as 2008’s equivalent to “Big Brother.”

Phil De Vellis, an employee for the Internet strategy firm Blue State Digital, admitted yesterday to posting the “Vote Different” attack ad on YouTube after being exposed by bloggers for The Huffington Post. Writing a blog entry on the Huffington Post, De Vellis proudly and unapologetically took credit for the digital controversy, declaring “I’m Phil. I did it. And I’m proud of it.”

After revealing his identity, De Vellis, a Democrat, also said that he had resigned from Blue State Digital and that he had created the ad without their knowledge and without the knowledge of Obama’s campaign.

De Vellis’ ad may be the first of many in the era of YouTube politics, but the some reporters and bloggers are already wondering about the downside of user-generated political participation. What, exactly, will happen to political campaigns if everyone has the ingenuity and technical know-how to post a video on the Internet?

Digital participation in our electoral process may lead to more openness in American politics, according to Admin of the blog, Carry on America. “We’re finally escaping from the canned candidates. Actually, the candidates still might be canned, but the overall race is becoming unscripted thanks to the internet,” said Admin. “Thanks to the internet anyone can be a pundit and anyone can make a political ad. We finally have our freedom and excitement back.”

MRM of WellingtonFund agrees. “In the current environment, the idea that a few experienced and saavy people will sit in a smoke-filled room and dream up the ad campaign for an election hasn’t gone away — but now they’ll have a lot of company in the age of YouTube,” wrote MRM. “Everyone with the technical ability and the burning desire to effect change has the chance to write their own ad script, produce the slot, and post it online for the dead tree and 24-hour-news-cycle media to repeat with relish.”

Anthony Pascale of Geek Monthly argued that these new tactics will lead to a barrage of misinformation about political candidates. “Even with ads created by the average Joe, there still is no ‘Hi I am so and so and I approved this ad,’” said Pascale. “There is no fact checking, no need for fairness of any kind. It could be that this anything goes world of independent attacks ads becomes the big thing of the next election. So say goodbye to swiftboating and say hello to ‘swiftviraling.’”

Serunj of Obama’s Blog Spot, remarked that De Vellis’ “swiftviraling” could hurt Obama, the candidate he was trying to support. “What was he thinking? Did he consider his stealthy creativity might damage Sen. Obama’s presidential campaign philosophy once it got out that he was an Obama campaign consultant?” wrote Serunj. “Many will wonder: Could anyone on Obama’s staff not have known about the ad before it was uploaded?”

Whether or not anyone on Obama’s staff knew about the ad, De Vellis’ “swiftviraling” tactic has initiated the political — and digital — mudslinging. As De Vellis wrote “This ad was not the first citizen ad, and it will not be the last. The game has changed.”

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Satta Sarmah is a CJR intern.