From the frontlines of the war in Iraq to the political battleground of the 2006 midterm elections, the surge of online video has changed the dynamic. In both campaigns, a piece of tape can be quickly uploaded, and seen by tens of thousands of viewers in a matter of hours.
The war in Iraq "is the YouTube war," said Ana Marie Cox, Washington editor of Time.com. "It's a war where communication is instantaneous."
Soldiers in Iraq aren't just shooting weapons, they are shooting videos. Whether mounted on vehicles or carried to gather intelligence, cameras are rolling, and tape or digital images can easily be edited and uploaded from laptop computers.
On several Web sites, including YouTube, IFilm, Liveleak.com and Military.com, GreenMarines.com, videos shot (and sometimes edited) by soldiers or their friends and family back home are being downloaded over and over. Both the soldiers and the people who monitor the Web sites say that the videos offer a raw, first-hand view of the war.
"It's not a perspective you usually get when you're watching the nightly news," said Marine Cpl. Scott Lyon, who spent seven months in Iraq stationed in Ramadi. He and many members of his platoon carried cameras when they went out on missions.
Much of what was shot shows the routine of daily life. But some of it is much more graphic, like an improvised explosive device detonating on a routine patrol. "It doesn't capture exactly what it feels like to go through that, but it's pretty close," said Lyon, who is now back home in Iowa.
"War is horrendous, and I think that it is important for us to see that," said Jeff Jarvis, of BuzzMachine.com and an associate professor at City University of New York's graduate journalism school. "The danger is that we're going to become addicted to scenes of horror, and I don't think we can bear that, but we also can't hide from it."
Some might question whether soldiers should be shooting and uploading video, but Torie Clarke, former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and one of the architects of Pentagon policy embedding reporters on the frontlines, believes it is a positive development. And she says soldiers are just doing what thousands of other people in the country are: using the Internet as a tool of expression.
"I don't think you can put the military in a separate category in that sense of how free people feel about putting themselves into the spotlight," said Clarke. "There is a need, there is a desire to tell people back home, whoever they might be and wherever they might be, 'Here's what's going on, here's what's going on in my life.'"
"It's clearly important to want to have that known what your experience is," said Cox. "It makes you feel connected to the rest of the world; it makes you feel like what you're doing has a purpose."
While many of the videos show graphic scenes of combat, some are much more lighthearted, like "Lazy Ramadi," a take-off on the popular Saturday Night Live rap video, "Lazy Sunday."
"There's a kind of loop effect here," said Cox. "Kids grow up watching MTV. They grow up with video games and violence on television. They go to Iraq. It seems like a natural thing to film it. And they film it in an almost MTV style sometimes. Some of these videos get uploaded complete with music."
There is also something else online from the soldiers and their supporters: several dozen video memorials to fallen comrades.
"Losing people while you're over there you don't get the opportunity to go through the traditional grieving process," said Lyon. "You have to keep pushing on with the mission part of the healing process for them is to make these tribute videos."
"When [people] take on these tools of TV, they can do amazing things," said Jarvis. "They're telling their stories. That's incredibly powerful. I think we're just seeing the beginning of what the people can create, now that they have the tools of creation."
As of now, the Pentagon has no specific policy on members of the U.S. military uploading video.
"It's easier to take a camera away from a journalist than it is to take a cell phone away from a soldier," said Cox, "and that cell phone is now a video camera, it's e-mail, it's everything."
"From what I've seen the military isn't saying we're going put a stop to this, or we're going to put sensors on these things," said Torie Clarke. "They know they can't."
The phenomenon isn't limited to soldiers overseas -- on the campaign trail, politicians couldn't control the Internet barrage either. One snippet of video had the power to derail a campaign, something Sen. George Allen, R-Va., learned the hard way.
A one-minute tape of him calling an opposition campaign volunteer tracking Sen. Allen a "macaca" this past August turned into the shot heard around the online world.
Allen seemed to be annoyed with the volunteer, S.R. Sidarth, a University of Virginia student and the son of Indian immigrants. "Let's give a welcome to macaca here," Sen. Allen famously said. "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."
"It means 'monkey,'" said Jessica Vanden Berg, James Webb's campaign manager. "It's a racial slur."
Hours after the appearance, Sidarth called the campaign and told Webb advisors what happened. "We knew it was offensive," she said, "but we had no idea what it would turn into."
The campaign did not put the video on YouTube until it appeared a newspaper was going to publish a story about the incident. After the clip was uploaded, it was soon viewed nearly a half million times. Allen insisted it was a made up word, a nonsense phrase, but the more he tried to explain, the worse it seemed to get.
"It moved virally," said Vanden Berg. "It moved to network news. It moved to cable. And it stayed for a really long time." To date, the clip has been viewed some 60 million times worldwide.
"In another campaign, in another year, it might have slipped underneath the radar," said Ana Marie Cox. "Journalists didn't make a decision that it was a crisis. People downloading the video off of YouTube made the decision that this was a crisis, and people decided that 'macaca' was news." Still, Allen did not apologize, and the story just kept growing.
In the end, Allen lost Virginia by 7,000 votes, and the Democrats won control of the Senate.
"I think that people are going to someday look back to the George Allen campaign as a textbook example of how not to run a campaign, especially in the day and age of the Internet," said Cox.
"You'd better be willing to admit mistakes more quickly than you might have been otherwise," said Torie Clarke. "And you better do it very, very quickly. "
John Kerry also learned this lesson in 2006. When the former presidential hopeful tried to tell a joke about the president and Iraq, he blew the punch line. The video went viral in a matter of hours. Soon after, there was criticism, even from Democrats who worried that Kerry might hurt their chances in the close election.
At first, Kerry stood his ground. But within a few days, the Massachusetts senator apologized. The tape had rocketed around the world.
"Life is on the record," said Jeff Jarvis. "It's true for everyone, but it's especially true for a politician. The Internet speeds up the speed of the mistake."
The Internet changed the political dynamic in other ways this year. For the first time, campaign ads debuted on YouTube. And the Internet became a virtual catalogue of potentially embarrassing political moments, like when Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, in a campaign appearance this past August, described terrorists as a "faceless enemy" who "drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night."
Or when New York Rep. Sue Kelly ran from a local television crew that wanted to ask her about her connection to Rep. Mark Foley. Burns and Kelly were both defeated in November. But were these online instant replays really relevant to the campaign?
"It wasn't particularly relevant," said Ana Marie Cox about the Sue Kelly video, "just kind of embarrassing. But someone caught it, and it's so easy to do, why not put it up there?"
But in this era of instantaneous online errors, spin and counter-spin, where events move at warp speed, does this mean politicians have to be perfect? Not exactly, say the experts, just a bit quicker and more flexible than they might have been before the online onslaught.
"Welcome to the NFL," said Torie Clarke. "If you don't like that environment, if you don't want to accept it, if you don't want to use it to your advantage when you can and deal with it when things go wrong, then don't get into the business. Don't do anything that puts you in the public eye. But these days the public eye includes being in this incredibly charged information environment. That's reality."