Yesterday afternoon, I sat in on a discussion at a Berkman Center conference about the role of YouTube in electoral politics. It was never explicitly stated, but the assumption (of course) is that we were discussing US politics. Was YouTube a new platform for disseminating online video? Did videos posted online matter, or was it the amplification effect provided by traditional media that made some videos relevant? Should YouTube be thought of as a medium for political discourse, or as a holding tank for media, which can be called on by bloggers and other online writers to illustrate points of view? Does online video help voters get beyond the sound-bite driven news media? (Evidence in favor of this perspective is the huge number of people who watched Obama’s speech on racism in its 37-minute entirety, or the voters who watched the entirety of Reverend Wright’s speeches and came away with a very different opinion than those who saw soundbites on news networks.)
As we argued about video and political discourse in the US, I was downloading video focused on the election that’s still happening, the Ghanaian election. There’s a remarkable amount of election-focused video available, more than I would have imagined.
This well-made video, narrated by Joseph Appiah-Dolphyne of Africanews.com, offers a view of campaign posters, rallies and street scenes in Accra, as well as interviews with several voters about their preferences and reasons for supporting candidates. (It’s also got a great shot of NDC’s posters advertising the “connection” between Obama and Atta Mills.) These vox pop interviews are quite popular – I’m very fond of this interview with a Twi-speaking NPP supporter. I can’t understand the vast majority of her reasons for supporting Nana Addo – I’m mostly just marvelling at her ability to carry on a political discussion while balancing a 20-liter bucket of water on her head. Much as random American voters move into political pundit mode when people put a camera in their faces, nearly everyone is willing to offer commentary on the prospects for the candidates in the runoff – this video from africatalks offers the analysis of Edem, who’s positioned by the interviewer as “Ghana’s Joe the Plumber“. I’m not sure I buy that – Edem speaks more clearly and coherently than Joe, and he hasn’t announced either a book deal or a country music recording career yet.
Some of my favorite videos are part of efforts to ensure that the voting process is fair and transparent. The video above shows public vote counting in Odododiodio (say THAT five times fast!) with uniformed election workers tallying the total number of ballots. While there are videos that document all aspects of the process, from registration through the actual voting, it’s also clear that the presence of a camera can be a threat to some. Some of the people waiting to register to vote in this video are arguing with police, accusing them of intimidating voters – the police, in turn, are upset that they’re being filmed. As video becomes a more common tool of election monitoring in Ghana, it will be interesting to see whether people grow more or less resistant to being filmed while voting or overseeing voting.
Of course, not all election-related videos are quite so civic-minded. There’s a good dose of slander available as well, including a wonderfully mean video that accuses current president Kufuor of being a puppet of the Bush administration by showing photos of him with the US President over a song by Fela. Not the most persuasive argument, but these musical commentaries are more about image than argument. Reggae artist Sheriff Ghale appears ready to dismiss all politicians who want his vote. “I never trust no politrician.” Guess that’s not much of an endorsement for anyone.
Watching these videos, I have two reactions. One is nostalgia – watching these videos is like getting a chance to wander around Accra, something I miss doing. The second is a much stronger sense for how the election season is actually taking place. I’m following election news quite closely, but actually seeing polling places, election monitors and posters has made the poll much more real to me.
Here’s my question – do videos like this have the same effect for people who don’t know Ghana well? I’ve been watching a lot of the videos we feature on Global Voices, trying to get a sense for when citizen video works well. We’ve got a story today about a Finnish expatriate who lives in Thailand, who joined the People’s Alliance for Democracy in occupying Suvarnabhum Airport near Bangkok. He shot several interesting videos, which I’ve watched a few times. They help give me a sense for what the protests looked like from the inside, but the videos of confrontation between PAD and police are just… confusing. I can’t really tell what’s going on and I wish there were more context on his website.
One of the biggest discoveries we’ve made at Global Voices is the importance of context in helping people understand citizen media. Ask anyone who works on the editorial side of the project and they’ll generally tell you we do three things: filter through large sets of online content and select the stuff likely to be interesting to a broad audience; translate from other languages into English; provide sufficient context to a piece of blogpost, photo or video so that it makes sense to an audience not familiar with local events or culture.
A great example of this is on the Afrigadget blog, where Erik Hersman turns a brief video of a craftsman making paraffin lamps out of used tomato tins into an extended look at the informal recycling industry in Nairobi. The video gives you a sense for the noise, and almost, the closeness and heat, of a metalworking workshop in Gikomba; the rest of the post explains how recycling workers collect scrap, sort out the most valuable pieces and sell cans to metalworkers, so they can build low-cost lamps.
In the same way that blogs exploded, putting the words of tens of millions of people on the web, forcing groups like Global Voices to learn how to curate, video is now growing in the developing world. Who’s curating video well? Who should we emulate and learn from in building collections of videos that help us visit different parts of the world?
I tend to agree with your observation that context ends up being important. I have the context for american election videos, but not for Ghanaian ones, and without your commentary I would miss a lot of their significance. Take, for example, the spanish-language pro-Obama song that was circulating during the primaries. I understood why that was significant — I knew what was happening in Texas, and the struggle that Obama was having with Latino voters — a similar video about the Ghanaian election would go right over my head without a helpful blog post. That means I’m subject to a double-editorial process for every video about a foreign subject, which means filtering out even more bias — but I think the same is true for the videos on the domestic front. It’s just that the editorializing happens every day instead of in one burst.
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