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Presidential Debates 2.0: It's Not Too Late to Open Up the Process

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, September 14 2011

Next week, on September 22nd, Fox News is teaming up with Google/YouTube to present a different kind of presidential debate. Or is it?

Like the CNN/YouTube debates of 2007, Fox is working with the folks at YouTube to invite the public to submit questions to the candidates, this time by either video or text. And unlike four years ago, when those questions went into a black hole (i.e., the CNN editorial team, which selected questions to use in the debate and refused to involve the public in the process), this time the questions are all being filtered thru the Google Moderator platform, which lets users vote questions up or down. And then, Fox is going to ask the presidential candidates the public's top questions, right?

Well, no, actually, it's back to the black box. Steve Grove, YouTube's political director, who is working closely with Fox on the program, told me, "Fox News will chose questions from amongst the top-voted questions, leaning more towards video than text."

So, while we can sort of see which questions are most popular (the Moderator function that displays actual voting totals has been disabled), and thus make some better-informed judgments about the biases of Fox News, as its selection of questions becomes clear during the debate, that's all we're getting in terms of using interactive technology to enhance public participation and knowledge.

The TV show (let's not insult anyone's intelligence by calling these things real "debates") will also showcase some potentially interesting digital bells and whistles. Says Grove, "We're also likely using search trends and some data sets ... to give some depth to the issues and questions during the debate. It'll be live-streamed on YouTube, and people will be able to give feedback in real-time via Moderator." It remains to be seen exactly how that will work.

One innovation that would be very interesting if adopted by Google/YouTube would be a visible feedback loop for the viewing audience to use during and after the debate to share their judgments on whether candidates actually answered the questions asked of them, and also enabling the public to suggest and vote on follow-up questions. PdF's 10Questions.com platform is explicitly designed to do the former.

And earlier this week, the New York Time's Caucus blog had an intriguing sidebar up during the Republican debate, where readers were invited to propose follow-up questions and vote on them. It was called "Ask the Times: Fact Checks" and you can see it on the right rail of this page.

Of course, we could go much further in modernizing this process of finding out where the candidates stand on the issues if we gave up on this knee-jerk embrace of the "all-the-candidates-side-by-side-on-stage-talking-for-60-seconds-each" model of "debates." Does anyone know where the law was written that says that every network and every candidate gathering has to stick to this basic template?

PdF friend Dan Gillmor has a great op-ed piece up on The Guardian where he offers a bunch of ideas on how to improve on this archaic model. He suggests that "political candidates use the incredible tools we now have at hand – search, blogging, online video, wikis, interactive games, and virtual worlds, among other things – to create the kinds of serious conversations, with voters and each other, that we all deserve at this perilous crossroads in our history." And further:

There are any number of ways to do even better. One, especially useful in a multi-candidate race like the Republican presidential marathon, would have the candidates agreeing to lengthy, one-on-one meetings, and then put everything online. These would work best with the candidates querying each other, cutting journalists out of the loop, as long as the politicians had time to provide substantial responses, and then follow-ups. Then, the rest of us could sort through the mass of video, creating comparisons on the issues. Most voters would merely sample the videos, but some would want to go further. The best feature of this kind of debate: highlighting the shallowness of what they candidates do now.

But that's just one step. Truly using the web would mean creating a much more ambitious project. Imagine, for example, a debate that unfolds online over the course of days, or even weeks and months. While they'd include audio, video and other media, these debates would necessarily exist, for the most part, in the more traditional form of text, which is still by far the best for exploring serious issues in serious ways. Questions would be posed by candidates to each other, as well as by journalists and the public. But an answer would not be the end of that round; in fact, it would only be the beginning.

Rebuttals and further rejoinders would be the meat of these conversations. They would not be done on the fly, but would come after the candidates and their staffs had some time to consider their responses. They'd point out flaws and inaccuracies in their opponents' statements, drilling down into details where warranted. Wherever possible, people would use the internet's elemental unit – the hyperlink – to point to source material or other supporting information.

The public's role could be crucial in this system. They would help their own side come up with rebuttal arguments, offering corrections, new facts and other supporting material. Candidates could use this, or not, as they wished. Wise candidates and their staffs would encourage as much participation as possible.

These moderated events would run for days, maybe for the entire campaign season. They would not be debates in a classical sense, but would definitely be the kinds of conversations that would illuminate the public sphere.

Imagine that. Instead of this impoverished use of technology (the equivalent of using a synthesizer to play Chopsticks), we could have a glorious symphony of democracy.