The Couch Surfer: ‘Hugo Chavez’s interviews make Charlotte Church look like Letterman’

Tim Walker: ‘Obama, with world peace and puppies, had all his bases covered for positive online feedback’
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The Independent Culture

Comparing President Obama’s web communications with our own dear leader’s is a bit like watching an episode of The West Wing followed by The Thick of It. (By ‘our own dear leader’ I mean poor Gordon, who may or may not be PM by the time you read this.) One has gloss, optimism and gravitas.

The other appears cynical and improvised; it’s hilarious, yes, but in a way that makes you want to wince, or possibly put out your own eyes with the nearest biro.

Obama has a knack for linking the medium to the message. For his huge-spending presidential campaign, he harnessed social networks to make the army of Democrat volunteers across the US feel like a tiny band of carol singers.

And his speech to the Muslim world last Thursday wasn’t merely for his immediate audience at Cairo University, or any English-speaking news junkies who happened to be watching Sky at the time. It was, in fact, texted to mobile phones in four languages, translated into 13, and broadcast online via social networks like Facebook (which has 20 million users in Muslim countries), Twitter and Google’s Orkut service (big in Brazil and India, apparently).

An event page was set up at, for users worldwide to watch a live stream and chat in real time, as if they were tweeting the Apprentice final. It was a broader online effort than ever, said press secretary Robert Gibbs, even for a web-savvy White House that issues a weekly YouTube address from the Chief.

The Cairo speech is an hour long, but it makes better viewing (in any language) than five minutes of Gordon on YouTube, grinning like the cat that got the cream but then discovered that what it thought was the cream was actually the mayonnaise. Later, the White House posted selected comments on the speech from around the world. “Thanks,” wrote someone in Uruguay. “Everything is OK,” wrote someone else from Uganda. “Go Obama,” wrote an Australian.

The week’s other big Obama clip was Bo, the first family’s adorable Portuguese Water Dog, attacking a Washington cameraperson; so the President, boasting both world peace and puppies, had all the bases covered to guarantee positive online feedback.

While I’m sure the US and UK governments have some things they would rather prevent us seeing online, such as bomb-making instructions, Dick Cheney’s house or Gordon’s teeth, we should be thankful that we’re not subject to the new media tactics of certain other administrations.

Online acronym of the week was “GFW”, which stands for the Great Firewall of China. Chinese authorities turned up the censorship dial on Twitter, Flickr, Bing (Microsoft’s new search engine), Hotmail, YouTube, Blogger and so on, to block any domestic users discussing the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June – or reading any coverage from outside the country.

Though most of them don’t have Chinese versions, these sites have plenty of outward-looking Chinese users, a lot of whom use tried and trusted methods to outflank the censors. But according to Blogoscoped, a Google-watching blog, the international Chinese version of Google contained about 44,000 results for “Tiananmen massacre” on Thursday, while the domestically available returned just 11, one of which was a picture of swimmer Michael Phelps.

At least the BBC’s Beijing correspondent, James Reynolds, was allowed to say the words “Tiananmen Square”, while standing within spitting distance of the place, before he was surrounded by secret policemen carrying umbrellas. This was ostensibly to obscure his piece to camera, but perhaps it was also meant to hide a history of brutal repression beneath the veneer of charming ineptitude.

Then there’s Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez just celebrated the 10th anniversary of his television and radio show, Alo Presidente, which began in 1999 as a simple radio address and has become an hours-long weekly telethon, full of phonecalls from fawning supporters, off-the-cuff policy announcements and interviews that, I suspect, make Charlotte Church look like Letterman.

Or what about North Korea, where the single television station broadcasts for seven-and-a-half-hours per day, most of which is devoted to the glorious history of the Korean Workers’ Party and the achievements of its “big” man, Kim Jong-Il: the sort of tedious propaganda that, I suspect, makes Gordon Brown look like, erm… Barack Obama?