My first reaction to Howard’s YouTube policy announcement last week was to dismiss it as exemplifying the failure of the Liberals to understand the potential of web 2.0 for political campaigning.

After all, there’s no sign that either the Libs or Labor are utilising the medium in the way that American candidates are – contrast their “address to the nation” style with Hillary and Bill’s Sopranos parody on YouTube.

The best uses of social media in the States have been those which have sought to open a conversation and do so with more than a hint of humility and self parody, allowing the viral potential of the message to come into its own.

Reflection suggests, however, that Howard is actually using social media rather cunningly – but to play the mainstream media rather than appeal directly to the “YouTube generation”.

Howard’s YouTube Devonport Hospital video created some early buzz for his visit later that day to Tasmania, and contributed to shifting media attention from the beleaguered Immigration Minister’s defence of Haneef’s visa cancellation.

More generally, Howard is using YouTube similarly to his manipulation of talkback – announce the policy, avoid the press conference and the hard questions. The youth/new media angle also reinforces his attempt to refocus his image towards that of a strong, decisive leader, and to deflect criticisms that he is aging and out of touch.

Social media is Howard’s 21st century talkback radio. He can both amplify his message and control its reporting.

This strategy enters a new dimension this week with Howard’s offer to take questions and respond with “personalised” video responses via Yahoo!7’s Answers website.

The publicity for this online version of Question Time has been via traditional rather than new media – raising the question of whether it’s really targeted to the Gen Y and Gen X voters who’ve deserted newspapers and TV current affairs en masse.

Given that there’s a broad perception that the Young Liberal and Young Labor junior apparatchiks have moved on from the traditional talkback phone trees to being alerted via email to post comments on MSM “blogs” and vote in online polls, there must be some degree of suspicion about how spontaneous the questions will really be.

There’s a clue to the actual strategy for new media in Howard’s explanation of why he hasn’t entered into a friends competition with Rudd on Myspace. Howard has claimed he “didn’t want to lend his identity to a commercial organisation”. This is bizarre.

What is Yahoo!7 if not a commercial organisation? What is talkback radio? It’s probable that the actual play here is not to prepare the ground for genuine engagement with younger voters, but to keep the online message as tightly controlled and managed as possible to affect its real target audience – the Canberra press gallery.

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