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‘Gotcha’ videos gone wild

A new wave of opposition researchers is harnessing the power of the web to upend campaigns and reshape the political conversation this election season.

James Carter, grandson of former Democratic President Jimmy Carter, always assumed that he would go into the family business, until he ruled out running for public office. But the 35-year-old graduate student may have inadvertently found his political calling earlier this year after he noticed that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was gaining ground in the Republican primaries.

On a spur, Carter decided to embark on a digital dig, starting with a broad Google search: “Newt controversy.” Several pages in, he stumbled upon an incident where Gingrich clumsily implied that Spanish was “the language of the ghetto.” To Carter’s surprise, the provocative comment had received little play in the blogosphere and talk radio circuit. So he made a beeline for the C-SPAN video archives, and found the footage from the March 31, 2007 conference for the National Federation of Republican Women, where Gingrich said, “We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and so they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.”

Image from CSPAN video of Newt Gingrich from March 2007.

Using free video editing software, Carter stitched Gingrich’s “ghetto” comment together with his subsequent mea culpa (delivered in Spanish). He then uploaded this video pastiche to his YouTube channel, and headed off to class.

Hours later, the video was discovered by enterprising political bloggers and went into heavy rotation on the cable news shows, and was even linked to by the Pulitzer Prize winning fact-checking website PolitiFact. Carter’s amateur video garnered more than 10,000 views and went on to become part of the larger political dialogue for several days.

A self-professed liberal and political junkie, Carter brings his sharp research skills and contrarian streak — he loves to prove others wrong, especially if they’re Republicans — to bear on his consuming hobby.

“The news is on in the background all day,” said Carter. “When I disagree, I yell at the TV, then go online to find supporting evidence to just make myself feel better.”

But these days, Carter is receiving more than personal validation. His independent research of GOP politicians has gone mainstream, and is frequently showcased on liberal mainstays like MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.”

Depending on whom you ask, Carter is a shrewd strategist with a partisan agenda or an Internet addict with an unhealthy interest in politics. Regardless of which side you fall on, many politicos agree that Carter represents a new breed of opposition researcher, who is harnessing the power of the web and social media platforms to upend campaigns and reshape the political conversation this election season. Working from their parents’ basements or from the comfort of their beds, these civilian operatives are on a quest for the Holy Grail: raw video footage of a candidate’s flip-flop or off-message speech.

* * *

The indisputable poster boy for this growing trend is 22-year-old Andrew Kaczynski, whom Carter calls his “hero.” While studying history as an undergraduate at St. John’s University in Queens, Kaczynski would spend his spare time watching old footage of speeches from the C-SPAN archives as well as clips on YouTube and Google Video. For Kaczynski, these pastimes, which might sound tedious to the average co-ed, qualify as “fun” thanks to his intense interest in American politics and history.

Back in October of last year, Kaczynski began to upload his digital finds to his YouTube channel. At first, his channel consisted of old political campaign commercials and quirky videos of candidates’ off-guard moments. But soon, his channel evolved into a curated playlist with more teeth. Standouts include a 2004 video of Mitt Romney lambasting then-Democratic nominee John Kerry as a flip-flopper and a grainy video from 2005 showing Newt Gingrich supporting the individual health care mandate alongside Hillary Clinton.

Kaczynski’s finds have driven news cycles and and spurred hours of talk on the cable networks. And his YouTube channel and Twitter feeds have become destination sites for political reporters. “It gets addictive after a while, you’re just like, ‘Man, I’m having an impact on the presidential race’ and then you just want to keep finding this stuff.”

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