The Making of Hillary Clinton’s Most Unwanted Viral Video
Every political candidate wants their biggest moments on the campaign trail to go viral. Except for this one.
The video made the rounds Sunday, showing a weak-kneed Clinton being carried into a van near the September 11th Memorial. It wasn’t taken by the pool of journalists who usually surrounds her. Instead it was captured on a smartphone by Zdenek Gazda, who is reportedly a 50-year-old Czech immigrant and Clinton supporter. He happened to be standing nearby. According to Twitter, people have viewed his tweet more than 10 million times.
In 2016, thanks to ubiquitous video on every social media platform, it takes just a matter of minutes for a person with a smartphone to inject a massive story into the mainstream conversation.
Clinton had been diagnosed with pneumonia on Friday, her campaign later said. Pundits then pilloried her for failing to disclose the illness—and for ditching the reporters who are supposed to document such anomalies for the public interest. But the fact is: Those traditional means of disclosure, of transparency, are no longer the only option. Now people like Gazda, and you, and the rest of the smartphone, mini-supercomputer toting masses are ready to stand witness to every moment of this campaign.
“For decades the mainstream media and the political establishment fought over a narrative for the campaign and delivered that narrative for the public,” says Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. “There’s now a third player.”
When Witnesses Went Everywhere
Last time Clinton ran for president, in 2008, people’s iPhones weren’t capable of shooting video. By 2012, they could, and yet just 45 percent of Americans owned smartphones, according to Pew Research. Even those who did would have had a tougher time disseminating video like the one of Clinton yesterday, since neither Facebook nor Twitter supported native video at the time.
Today, more than 64 percent of Americans have smartphones, and video is at the heart of every social media platform. For Clinton, a candidate who has fastidiously crafted her own media narrative throughout her many decades in the public eye, this is uncharted territory.
It’s not that candidates have never been caught on camera in unflattering moments. So-called video trackers have been following candidates for years—people who sneak into rallies and fundraisers, cameras in hand, hoping to capture the opposing candidate slipping up. But deploying these teams requires strategy, resources, and most importantly, not getting caught.
In 2012, it was a private citizen who caught Mitt Romney telling a crowd at a fundraiser in May that “47 percent” of Americans are dependent on the government. But it took until September for that controversy to hit the mainstream, when the leaker finally turned the video over to Mother Jones, which published it in full. And Mother Jones might never have discovered that video at all, had it not been for Democratic video researcher James Carter bringing it to the magazine’s attention.
How the Video Spread
Compare that with Sunday’s timeline. Though the video gained real exposure on Twitter, it first appeared on Gazda’s Facebook timeline at 9:32 am ET.
Minutes later, at 9:37 am, Fox News reporter Rick Leventhal broke the news of Clinton’s ill health on Twitter, according to the social media analytics firm Sysomos. In his tweet, Levanthal cited a law enforcement source who said Clinton had experienced a “medical episode” on her way out of the memorial.
BREAKING: law enf source: Hillary Clinton just left 9/11 ceremony w/medical episode, appeared to faint on way into van, helped by security
— RickLeventhalFoxNews (@RickLeventhal) September 11, 2016
Conversation soon began building on Twitter, as Levanthal’s tweet circulated and members of Clinton’s press pool noticed her absence and speculated about her whereabouts. At 10:04 am ET, an NBC News reporter, Monica Alba, tweeted that Clinton had left the event about 30 minutes before, just around the time Gazda first posted his video to Facebook.
Hillary Clinton walked out of the 9/11 memorial about 30 minutes ago but campaign aides won’t comment on where she is now.
— Monica Alba (@albamonica) September 11, 2016
Then came word from a Clinton spokesperson that Clinton had felt “overheated.”
Clinton campaign says Hillary Clinton felt overheated so she departed to Chelsea’s apartment & is feeling much better—via pooler @albamonica
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) September 11, 2016
But it wasn’t until 11:31 am ET that the now famous video made its way to Twitter.
Hillary Clinton 9/11 NYC pic.twitter.com/q9YnsjTxss
— Zdenek Gazda (@zgazda66) September 11, 2016
Gazda didn’t have an audience of his own, but other people with bigger numbers of followers discovered the video and retweeted it. According to Sysomos, one of the first accounts to give it the biggest bump was @WHPressCorps, which has about 59,000 followers, including plenty of mainstream journalists. According to Sysomos, that handle generated 20 retweets within 27 minutes of the original Tweet.
It’s unclear when the first video appeared on YouTube, which is, after all, the original online video platform. Google didn’t reply to WIRED’s request for comment, but by 1 pm, a video from an alternative angle was uploaded to the site and has since been viewed more than 2 million times.
Google searches for “Hillary Clinton collapsing” spiked after 11 am ET.
Searches for “Hillary Clinton 9/11” also peaked around that time.
And just like that, a moment that in 2012 might have taken months to hit the mainstream was dominating the national conversation.
Power to the People
Of course, this kind of grassroots, radical transparency has at times performed a public good, for example documenting instances of police violence. Technology can democratize power and make it tougher for traditional gatekeepers, including politicians, to keep secrets.
At the same time, Mele argues this can also be dangerous. After all, the people who now have the power—which is to say, everyday Americans—don’t always have the skills to use that power the most responsibly. Where a trained journalist would seek context around a video like that one, Gazda, who did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment, captioned the original video on his Facebook, “Hillary Clinton heart attack…????”
It’s this kind of baseless speculation that campaigns most want to avoid. “What I’ve seen suggests they’re concerned about things moving too fast and adverse reactions,” Mele says. “They’re trying to tightly control the message. Too tightly.”
That message, however, is no longer theirs to control.
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