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Politicians and YouTube: Professor Scott Church Talks About How the Platform Still Pursues Entertainment, Even When it Gets Political


Scott Church presented on media and politics to the National Communications Association.

Since the beginning of the 2016 United States presidential campaign, many people have been examining how presidential candidates and, now the president himself, interact with social media. Twitter has been the focus of this conversation, but the candidates used other social media platforms in unique ways as well. BYU communications professor Scott Church realized that there was the potential for new, interesting research to be done on the candidates’ interactions with YouTube. He reached out to professors Pamela Brubaker and Jessica Zurcher and the faculty members researched and wrote a paper on the topic.

“I wrote my master’s thesis on a similar topic about this ‘new invention,’ YouTube, back in 2007,” Church said. “I was looking at how presidential candidates presented themselves on the website for an audience. Back then, people thought of YouTube as being for the people, by the people, but you also have these presidential candidates hopping on board.”

During the course of his past research, Church found that videos posted on candidates’ YouTube accounts generally fit into two camps: heroic narrative videos and attack videos. Building off past research, Church and his co-authors were able to recognize new trends and approaches politicians employ when using YouTube.

Using these parameters, the professors built a coding sheet and began looking at the top four candidates in each party. Specifically, they watched the first three videos each candidate posted and the three most popular videos they posted.

“The first three videos they post are crucial,” Church said. “That’s where they can say ‘Hey, everyone, this is the image I want to portray.’”

After watching the videos and recording the data, the professors found that the most popular videos were attack videos.

“Our big statistical find here was that videos with criticism of other candidates got more views than videos without criticism of other candidates,” Church said. “That’s supported by our statistical analysis. It was significant. For whatever reason, the ones that had more attacks attracted the most viewers.”

These attacks varied in their approach and their attitude. Some videos featured aggressive diatribes targeting other candidates. Other videos channelled the comedic side of YouTube to attack their opponents.

“Rubio uploaded a glorious rant in a presser that he did where he just attacked Trump ruthlessly,” Church said. “Cruz did a lot of parodies, like ‘It Feels Good to Be a Clinton,’ which is a parody of the movie Office Space. With satires, Kasich actually had one called ‘Make Tyranny Great Again.’ Those seem kind of unique to YouTube. Since they’re on YouTube, that seems to add a certain unique tone to the content.”

The researchers found that the attack ads posted on the candidates’ official YouTube channels were generally aimed at candidates within the attackers’ party. “Almost nine out of ten attack statements came from Republicans, and half of those were just from Rubio to Trump,” Church said. Kasich also attacked Trump in a number of his official YouTube videos.

In general, Church said the study found that, “YouTube seems to be biased towards entertainment. Even its official political messages tend to be highly entertaining and the ones that are considered the most entertaining are the ones where they criticize each other.”

Studies like these show that as politicians and other important social and political influences continue to engage more with social media platforms, the communications field increases in social and professional value. “In the age of social media, communications is more important than ever before,” Church said. “In a world full of noise and messages everywhere, communications has become one of those scholarly areas that are the most important right now. Understanding communication is a good way to understand what everything means, not just how it’s happening.”

Photo taken by Jonathan Hardy