Institutionalizing the ‘Macaca moment’

You’d have to be hiding under a rock not to notice the multiple ways in which the Internet has changed politics. Back when I first became politically active, I used to write direct mail pieces for candidates; that was a time when you could tailor one message for moms, one for firefighters, etc. Candidates who weren’t too scrupulous could and did use direct mail to take positions that were–shall we say– inconsistent with each other. Candidates could also make speeches to certain audiences that they wouldn’t necessarily want broadcast more widely.

The Internet has made that sort of micro-targeting virtually impossible.

The most-cited example: When George Allen was running for Senate from Virginia (yes, he’s doing that again), he stopped mid-speech to point out a young man filming the talk for his opponent. The volunteer was an American of Indian ancestry, and Allen referred to him as ‘macaca’–a term later determined to be a racist epithet in the country Allen’s mother had come from. The young volunteer uploaded the film to You Tube, and the rest, as they say, is history: the clip went viral, prompting reporters to take a closer look at Allen’s other racially-charged behaviors, Allen lost an election in which he had been heavily favored, and “macaca moment” became part of our political vocabulary.

Just as television brought the Viet Nam war into American living rooms, and arguably sparked the anti-war movement, You Tube and similar technologies give an immediacy and impact to events we might otherwise shrug off or ignore.

Now, You Tube has decided to play a more intentional role in world affairs. It has just announced a Human Rights channel. As the announcement put it:

In the case of human rights, video plays a particularly important role in illuminating what occurs when governments and individuals in power abuse their positions. We’ve seen this play out on a global stage during the Arab Spring, for example: during the height of the activity, 100,000 videos were uploaded from Egypt, a 70% increase on the preceding three months. And we’ve seen it play out in specific, local cases with issues like police brutality, discrimination, elder abuse, gender-based violence, socio-economic justice, access to basic resources, and bullying.

This is going to get interesting.