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First responders fight burning trains after a train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que., early July 6, 2013. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)
First responders fight burning trains after a train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que., early July 6, 2013. (HANDOUT/REUTERS)

What we watched: 14 viral videos that shaped the news in 2013 Add to ...

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Rob Ford’s stunning admission

YouTube views: 264,692

After five months of denying the existence of one video, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford stepped from a city hall elevator right into the frame of another one – and this time the footage would be seen by millions of people around the world.

Just after noon on Nov. 5, Mr. Ford admitted, “Yes, I have smoked crack cocaine ... probably in one of my drunken stupors.”

The frank comment came on a day that began with his brother, Doug Ford, demanding the resignation of the city’s police chief, Bill Blair. A few days earlier, Mr. Blair had had reported both the discovery of a tape that appeared to show the mayor smoking crack and his own “disappointment” with it.

At lunchtime, when the mayor arrived at city hall, reporters wanted to know why it was his brother – not him – speaking to the press. And why he had refused a request to talk to police.

Usually Mr. Ford would walk by reporters, ignoring questions. This time, he turned, faced the cameras, no aides at his side or security guards to push media away, and took part in a three-minute scrum that included an invitation to ask him, one more time, the question he had been asked back in May when news of the video first broke.

That question – and Mr. Ford’s answer – made Toronto’s city hall the focus of international attention (and late-night comedy routines), and set the stage for a political drama that is still unfolding.

For reporters like me, who had followed Mr. Ford for more than two years, it was something more – a rare, even surreal, instance in which he seemed willing to talk candidly about his problems with substance abuse, problems that we had struggled to document in the face of his continued denials. “After some of the stuff you guys have seen me ... the state I’ve been in ... It’s a problem,” he said.

Then a reporter who does not usually cover the mayor shouted out: “Are you on crack now?” And the moment was gone. Elizabeth Church

REUTERS

Lac-Mégantic’s harrowing inferno

YouTube views: 1,980,864

‘All of downtown is on fire.”

With these words, a man breathlessly describes his shaky video footage of the inferno caused by the derailment of a train carrying crude oil past the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. Bright orange flames billow upward on the screen and the wail of fire trucks can be heard in the distance. And then the low crackling of the blaze is punctuated by a massive explosion that shoots a mushroom cloud of flames and smoke into the night sky.

Forty-seven people were killed and several downtown blocks destroyed that night in July. Oil that did not burn immediately leached into the soil and nearby lake, creating an environmental disaster that could take years to clean up.

The tragedy trained a spotlight on the rapid increase in the transportation of oil by rail, raising serious questions about the adequacy of regulations that deal with the safety of moving dangerous goods through Canadian cities and towns.

It also renewed concerns that crude oil from the Bakken formation, which covers North Dakota and parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, may be more volatile than had been believed. Investigators from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada have said the oil burned in a way that was uncharacteristic of typical crude.

Nearly six months after the accident, investigators continue to look at the causes of the accident. No charges have been laid. – Kim Mackrael

AP

Commander Chris channels Commander Tom

YouTube views: 19,588,805

It had been planned for months, even before Chris Hadfield launched his landmark mission in command of the International Space Station. After all, you don’t just spontaneously release a fully realized video of yourself covering David Bowie’s Space Oddity on guitar, in zero gravity. What Mr. Hadfield and his collaborators (his son, Evan, and musicians Emm Gryner and Paul Buckmaster) could not have envisioned half a year before the video hit the Internet was how popular it would be, with 19 million-plus views on YouTube and counting.

During the intervening months, he garnered more than a million Twitter followers as he tweeted messages and photos about life – from space. He video-chatted with William Shatner – from space. Musically, he also collaborated with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies and a Toronto school glee club – from space! Having made a rather drab scientific mission the coolest thing since the moon landing, he has turned himself into an astronaut rock star. Space Oddity turned out to be the perfect coda to his success. With the blessing of Ziggy Stardust himself, he tweaked the bleak lyrics: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing left to do.” Back on Earth, however, his newfound fame has left the space man plenty to do. – Cliff Lee

Eric Thayer/REUTERS

Girl gone wild (right on cue)

YouTube views: 11,925,098

Avid followers – and detractors – of Miley Cyrus must have been miffed at the collective shock over her Internet-busting performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.

She hadn’t ditched her long, innocent locks for a sexier pixie cut, doffed reasonable clothing for flesh-coloured bodysuits and shed her Disney persona for one that twerks all of a sudden – the transformation some call the death of Hannah Montana was already months in the making.

This, however, was The Moment, when everyone noticed. She had already twerked her way through the single We Can’t Stop to mild fanfare. Then, enter Robin Thicke. The opening thumps of Blurred Lines were inescapable this summer, as were the debates over its misogynistic lyrics and R-rated video; the pair had everyone’s attention immediately.

The lowlights: the foam finger Ms. Cyrus donned, rubbed and proffered in suggestive positions; Mr. Thicke’s lazy personification of a predatory older man, and her twerk-grinding on him as he sang, “the way you grab me, must wanna get nasty.”

MTV did not circulate a clip that everyone could see, but people still managed to find a way to watch the performance through bootleg versions on YouTube.

By making everyone gawk, Ms. Cyrus’s management team had done it. They had hitched their star’s wagon to the most controversial song of the year, and now Miley, well, she can’t stop.

– Cliff Lee

INSTAGRAM

Saint Mary’s sexist revival

YouTube views: 1,216,941

In a province already grieving the death of teenager Rehtaeh Parsons and confronting bullying and sexual violence, the sexist chant by Saint Mary’s University students hit very hard.

Once again Nova Scotia was painted as a province badly in need of sensitivity training as SMU students and their leaders were video-taped at a frosh-week event last fall, chanting about underage and non-consensual sex.

The video went viral, provoking much soul-searching in the university community. Two student leaders stepped down amid the scandal; university president Colin Dodds said the administration was “blind-sided” and the incident made him “feel sick to his stomach.”

Dr. Dodds, who has worked to enhance the school’s international reputation (nearly 30 per cent of its 6,400 full-time students are from outside Canada), immediately struck a “president’s council” asking its members to study ways to change the culture of sexist behaviour on campus.

On Dec. 19, the council issued a report with 20 recommendations, including hiring more female faculty and putting women into leadership roles, addressing drug and alcohol problems by establishing alcohol-free spaces, and conducting an anonymous survey every year to track school culture, with results to be made public.

The chair of the council, Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay, is hoping these measures will make a difference: “I am absolutely confident we can significantly reduce” sexist behaviour on campus, he says, although “it’s hard for me to say confidently we’d absolutely eliminate it.” – Jane Taber 

YOUTUBE

The boy who made an atrocity real

YouTube views: 1,484,941

The moment the five-year-old boy pointed, I was drawn in. He was lying on his back on the white tile floor of a hospital outside Damascus, his red, short-sleeved shirt pulled up, leaving his midriff bare. He was motionless, except that, every few seconds, his left arm jerked upward uncontrollably. His small hand stayed mostly closed, but his index finger pointed right at me.

That video was one of a dozen taken by Syrian health-care workers to prove that a sarin gas attack had taken place in a residential neighbourhood on Aug. 21. It was obtained by U.S. intelligence, and shown to President Barack Obama and members of Congress. The videos revealed Syrians convulsing, gasping for breath, foaming at the mouth, their pupils the size of pins – all symptoms of a chemical attack, and cause for Mr. Obama to take action.

A year earlier, the U.S. President had declared the use of chemical weapons in Syria would mean crossing a “red line” that would change his approach to the war, implying the U.S. would resort to force against the perpetrator. Congress, however, was not inclined to approve military action. That’s when Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped forward and proposed the weapons be placed under international control. Mr. Obama quickly agreed.

Ironically, the plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons requires the assistance of the Bashar al-Assad regime, thus cementing in power the very people who used the gas in the first place.

– Patrick Martin

A dying doctor’s plea for dignity

YouTube views: 77,087

As he was dying of a malignant brain tumour, microbiologist Dr. Donald Low, 68, made a video that kick-started a conversation most of us try to avoid: How do we want to die?

He wasn’t the first to call for a change in the law against medically assisted suicide, but he was among the most compelling, especially for people who remembered him as the infectious disease expert with the authoritative voice and calming presence during the SARS crisis a decade ago. Here was a doctor speaking as a patient, proof that like most of us they fear a death that is prolonged, painful and dehumanizing. “Why make people suffer for no reason when there is an alternative?,” he asked on camera in a quavering voice, his body slumped, his hands clasped and a piece of tape holding open his left eyelid.

The video, which was released eight days after Dr. Low died on Sept. 18, packed an emotional wallop which reverberated through dinner parties, retirement homes and even a conclave of provincial health ministers meeting in Toronto. “People deserve the best possible death we can provide,” Ontario’s Deb Matthews asserted after watching the video, which she said put a human face on the issue.

Nobody understands the video’s power more than Dr. Low’s widow, Maureen Taylor, a former health-care reporter who has retrained as a physician assistant. “I’ve never had [such] in-depth discussions before with doctors and patients,” she said, citing the letters and emails she has received from people wanting to share their experiences and their hopes. “I knew Don’s power as a communicator and his reputation, so I knew this [the video] was one thing he could leave.” But she is also enough of a pragmatist to realize that “it is way too early to say it changed anything on the political landscape.”

She has that right. As federal health minister Rona Ambrose said back in October, the provinces are welcome to talk all they want – and even to introduce end-of-life legislation, as Quebec has done – but the Harper government has no intention of decriminalizing assisted suicide.

– Sandra Martin

FRANK GUNN/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Blue Jay who soared

YouTube views: 939,438

Japanese middle infielder Munenori Kawasaki enchanted fans and became a clubhouse favourite during fill-in duty for the Toronto Blue Jays. While he didn’t stay all year, he provided some upbeat moments during the team’s otherwise frustrating season – such as an exuberant post-game interview one Sunday afternoon in May that went viral.

Mr. Kawasaki had hit a rare game-winning double in the ninth, scoring second baseman Mark DeRosa to seal an improbable 6-5 comeback win over the Baltimore Orioles. Sportsnet’s Arash Madani got a live interview with Mr. DeRosa, who spontaneously pulled an overjoyed Mr. Kawasaki into the spotlight instead.

Mr. Kawasaki, who speaks little English, grabbed the microphone and hollered: “My name is Munenori Kawasaki, I come from Japan. I am Japanese!”

As a crowd of Jays fans cheered, Mr. Kawasaki then read from a notebook: “My teammates gave me an opportunity, so I wanted to do something about it.” Teammates then hit him with a celebratory pie and a shower of Gatorade.

“Those walk-off interviews can be incredibly bland, but Kawasaki was like a volcano of a cult hero about to erupt, and he gave a lousy team a victory and absolutely exploded in euphoria,” Mr. Madani recalls. “We had never seen anyone like him.” – Rachel Brady

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

A stellar debut, by George

YouTube views: 1,480,124

He’s a future king in a line of monarchs that stretches back hundreds of years, but his birth was announced in a very modern way – via Twitter and YouTube.

By any standard, the arrival of Prince George Alexander Louis, at 4:24 p.m. on July 22, was historic and modern at the same time. His parents, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are global celebrities and media-savvy in a way rarely seen in a royal household. Days after crowds of onlookers and media from around the world had gathered in front of St. Mary’s Hospital in anticipation, word of the arrival – he weighed in at 8 pounds and 6 ounces – went out via Twitter and e-mail from Kensington Palace. Then came the more traditional method: a written announcement posted on an easel outside Buckingham Palace.

News of the birth prompted a 62-gun salute and a host of global tributes, from flashing coloured lights at Niagara Falls to renaming a corner of a zoo in Australia.

The Prince had already been causing trouble for months, sending his mother to hospital in December with fierce morning sickness (a nurse committed suicide after falling prey to a hoax by two Australian radio personalities). He later drove his family (and people betgting of when he would appear) by being past his due date that even his normally taciturn grandmother urged him to hurry up so she could start her annual holiday.

When baby George finally emerged from the hospital in his mother’s arms, there was singing, dancing and wall-to-wall television coverage. Since then, he has been seen in public only on a few occasions, but has already done something else remarkable: drive public support for the monarchy to its highest level in decades.

– Paul Waldie

George Burns/REUTERS

Oprah hears an icon’s confession

YouTube views: 1,228,304

“Yes or no? Did you ever take banned substances to enhance your cycling performance?”

“Yes.”

With that simple word, cyclist Lance Armstrong began an extraordinary confession, aired over two nights on The Oprah Winfrey Network.

Mr. Armstrong’s candid interview with Her Oprahness was his first since he’d been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles. New allegations were surfacing daily about the complex doping scheme run by his teams. His allies were testifying, sponsors were jumping ship, and cycling leaders were denouncing him.

After years of denials then, this was, finally, a moment to come clean.

Still, Mr. Armstrong was light on details. He admitted to bullying teammates, sophisticated doping practices and lying – even to his family. He apologized to some people he had browbeaten. But he insisted he didn’t view what he was doing at the time as cheating, and that he never felt bad. He questioned why cyclists who had engaged in similar doping practices were given short-term bans while he was being ousted for life.

He also made it clear he wanted to compete again.

Clips of the broadcast spurred raging debates on social media about his level of contrition, his judgment and what to make of his tears and his body language.

After watching Mr. Armstrong trade his bike seat for the hotseat, many viewers came away that night feeling conflicted. The man had overcome cancer and raised millions to fight the disease while tallying a super-human number of victories in a sport riddled with blood-doping. Now was the greatest cyclist in history really a tyrant and a cheat instead? He showed a degree of shame and remorse, but it seemed like too little and too late for him to be completely forgiven.

– Rachel Brady

BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS

Heard (at 16) around the world

YouTube views: 567,087

Few young people have ever addressed the United Nations – and none has had a UN day named in her honour at the age of 16. But Malala Yousafzai is no ordinary teenager. She not only survived being shot in the head by the Taliban while on her way to school in Pakistan last year, but has become such a global advocate for education that she has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She has also met the Queen, had her portrait placed in Britain’s National Portrait Gallery and written a best-selling autobiography, I Am Malala.

Her speech to the UN on July 12 – her 16th birthday – drew worldwide attention as she spoke about injustice, racism and religious intolerance. She invoked lessons from Jesus Christ, Mohammad, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. “Malala Day is not my day,” she said. “Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who has raised their voice for their rights.”

She added that, far from silencing her, the Taliban have made her stronger. After the shooting, “weakness fear and hopelessness died, strength power and courage was born,” she said. “Let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child one teacher one book and one pen can change the world.”

– Paul Waldie

YOUTUBE

The Harlem … what?

YouTube views: 1.4 billion-plus

Dance crazes come and go so quickly that now, in the throes of twerking, it’s all too easy to forget that last February, the youth of the world had been seized by videos of the Harlem Shake. The premise was simple: Take the first 30 seconds of Harlem Shake, the electronic song by Baauer, and film the first 15 seconds while focused on one costumed young’un dancing alone. Then the bass drops, and the video cuts to a crowd of young folks dancing wildly in strange getups for the final 15 seconds.

Harlem Shake videos were so popular that, together, they racked up more than a billion views in a little over a month (a co-worker even showed me one produced by his daughter and friends at McGill University). But as quickly as it arrived, the Harlem Shake was gone – by April, it had been declared dead.

Thus is life on the Internet, where fame is as fleeting as Andy Warhol predicted. And what about twerking, you ask? Miley Cyrus’s twerk-fuelled rise to fame has kept the craze alive past its expiry date. But rest assured, its days are numbered and an even more embarrassing trend this year will make us forget all about it.

– Cliff Lee

Mike Blake/REUTERS

Red Carpet playbook

Youtube views: 92,290

The dress is never supposed to wear you – that’s the first rule of fashion. And yet, at Oscar time, so much is riding on what an actress dons for the red carpet that the gowns on parade can eclipse the wearers – and occasionally take on lives of their own.

Take Jennifer Lawrence, who at first seemed in danger of letting her Academy Awards gown overwhelm her. A pale-pink confection designed by Raf Simons for Dior Haute Couture, it had a fitted bodice and a three-foot-wide skirt that seemed to be hiding a team of understudies. And when Ms. Lawrence ascended the stairs to the stage to accept the best actress award for her role in Silver Linings Playbook, the frock turned on her, wrapping its silky tentacles around her feet until it knocked her to her knees as a roomful of famous, freshly exfoliated faces (not to mention 40 million television viewers) looked on.

But in her post-acceptance interview, watched on YouTube by millions more viewers, Ms. Lawrence charmingly regained the upper hand. “Was that on purpose? Absolutely!” the newly minted A-lister quipped when quizzed about the fall. When asked what went through her mind as she tumbled, she replied, with a candour even more unexpected than her fall, “A bad word that I can’t say that starts with F.”

In that moment and with those words, the 23-year-old actress proved that she is already as steady as they come.

– Melanie Morassutti

YOUTUBE

On the wings of a Dove

YouTube views: 60,935,045

It’s hard to plan for a viral phenom, for a Doge or a grumpy cat or that What A Fox Says will grab millions of people. But as technology disrupts traditional advertising models – PVRs can fast-forward through commercials, it’s easy to ignore banner ads online – that’s often what advertisers are asked to do.

And this year, they delivered: According to Google, the second most viral video in Canada this year was an ad – Dove’s “Real Beauty Sketches,” developed by Ogilvy Brazil to show how women are much more beautiful than they think. The spot features two portraits of women: one done by a forensic artist uisng only their descriptions of themselves, the other based on their daughters’ descriptions of them. You can probably guess how the portraits turned out (the mothers were tough on themselves, their daughters’ saw not only physical loveliness but manifestations of warmth or happiness or energy).

“It was a big idea, and it was a simple idea,” says Nellie Kim, creative director at Toronto advertising agency john st. and a member of the cyber jury at the Cannes advertising festival this summer (just one of the prizes the campaign has won).

Not that everyone who clicked bought the ad’s message: Some argued that it actually reinforced beauty stereotypes, for example by implying that a woman’s self-worth is tied to her appearance. Still, they clicked.

– Susan Krashinsky

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