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[BackChannel] Beyond Media Spectacles: Debates as Conversations

BY Mike Mathieu | Wednesday, May 16 2012

techPresident's Backchannel series is an ongoing conversation between practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics. Mike Mathieu is a founder of or investor in many civic and political tech startups, including Walk Score, Upworthy, NationalField, and CountMore.org. He is also a founding board member of New Media Ventures, a political tech angel network.

Like George Carlin’s classic joke on Saturday Night Live about jumbo shrimp, we all know that “political debate” has become an oxymoron. Debates are not authentic — just overly scripted media spectacles for broadcasting canned talking points in sound bite-sized chunks to passive media consumers.

In Washington State, we’re working to change that by building a culture of civic engagement around election debates and rethinking the very structure and process of these vital events. While many people have wondered whether the Internet and distributed communications can play a leading role in radically transforming political debates, we take our primary inspiration for revitalizing debates from the Seattle Channel’s award-winning Seattle Speaks series and the BBC’s popular Question Time TV program in which technology plays an important but supporting role. We are reimagining debates as conversations that use several structural innovations to encourage meaningful dialogue between candidates and citizens and between citizens themselves.

As part of Seattle’s Next Fifty celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair, a citizens' committee that I co-chair is organizing a gubernatorial debate in October called “Debate 2.0.” We identified six ways in which traditional election debates were not like normal conversations, and then we designed signature structural features to bridge that gap. By making the debate more of a conversation we will increase civic engagement.

Feature: The audience is an active part of the event

In Debate 1.0, the candidates and the moderator are typically on stage with the moderator facing the candidates, back to the audience. There’s a clear separation of the-debate-on-stage and the audience.

Our feature for counteracting this is moderator-as-facilitator. As opposed to having a conversation with the candidates, the role of our moderator will be to facilitate a conversation between the candidates and the audiences (and vice versa). Metaphorically, the moderator will be between the candidates and the audience, connecting them.

Online interactive event technology (One to the World) plays an important role. We will have a large “in-studio” audience of 450, and the debate will be broadcast on TV (Q13 FOX) and online to voters across the state. Both audiences will be integral participants in the conversation, using SMS-based polling and Twitter.

Our TV partner materialized through a fortuitous connection: Q13 FOX's moderator for the debate will be Emmy Award-winning political analyst C.R. Douglas, who previously hosted Seattle Speaks at the Seattle Channel. C.R.'s experience coupled with the value of innovation at Q13 made them a welcome media partner for Debate 2.0.

Participatory democracy is perhaps hardest on the campaigns, which are used to exercising more control. By accepting our invitation they gain the opportunity to reach a younger, more engaged audience. Plus, skipping a high profile Next Fifty event, supported by civic groups from both sides of the aisle, would have been a big slap in the face to Seattle.

Feature: The audience determines the topics discussed and specific questions asked

In Debate 1.0, the topics candidates will be asked about are agreed to ahead of time with debate organizers, as is the time sequence of answers and rebuttals. Questions serve as cues for candidates to deliver their scripted and rehearsed talking points, like actors saying their lines.

Our feature for shifting this dynamic is audience-determined topics & questions. We will determine the broad scope of possible topics by the weight of voter discussion held before the debate. To this end, we are exploring using Personal Democracy Media’s 10Questions.com voter questions and candidate answers platform in the months leading up to the debate.

At the beginning of the debate, the in-venue and online audience will vote on the top three or four of those topics that they want to discuss. At the same time, program staff will curate questions, selecting from those submitted by studio audience members on their way into the venue and the best questions posed in the build-up activities. The questions the program staff selects from the topics the audience chooses will be the ones asked. If a person in the venue has their question chosen, they will ask it when prompted by the facilitator.

Feature: Candidates get non-verbal cues from the audience

In a normal conversation, we communicate a lot to each other non-verbally, e.g., with body language, by becoming distracted, etc. This feedback is as important as the actual words we say. However, in Debate 1.0, that feedback loop is missing.

To compensate for this, we created audience check, a feature we’re particularly excited about. This feature will give the in-venue audience a collective “gesture” that will allow it to interrupt the conversation, e.g., to give feedback to a candidate that they’re not answering the question or to tell the facilitator that they don’t want to go onto the next question yet. To help initiate an audience check, an individual audience member will raise their hand and display a special token. To prevent individuals and factions from disrupting the event, each audience member will have one token towards an audience check, and five people not seated next to each other must use them at the same time to invoke an audience check.

We considered using real-time feedback but decided against it for two reasons. We wanted to keep voters in the conversation, as opposed to focused on their smart phone or feedback device, and we wanted a mechanism that was richer and more natural than a simple aggregate thumbs-up / thumbs-down indication.

Feature: The audience talks, and candidates listen

Normal conversations are, well, conversations — two-way, give-and-take, back-and-forth. Some liken participating in a good conversation to dancing with a partner. But in Debate 1.0, only candidates really talk, effectively giving rehearsed speeches in bite-sized pieces. The audience mostly listens passively; occasionally a few get to ask a question.

Our feature to bring the audience into the conversation is listening points, an intentional play on “talking points.” In “listening points,” “points” are points in time. The facilitator will have the ability to ask for and review feedback from the in-venue and TV & online audiences.

Feedback from the in-venue audience will come naturally. The facilitator can ask questions along the lines of “What do you think?” Audience members can raise their hands, if they want to respond. If chosen by the facilitator, they can make comments or suggest follow up questions (which will be up to the facilitator to accept or not).

Technology will play an important role in expanding this feedback loop. Comments and questions from the TV & online audiences around the state will come via SMS and Twitter, will be filtered, curated, and aggregated by program staff backstage, and then displayed to the candidates, facilitator, and audiences, when the facilitator asks for them to be shared. Moreover, in-venue audience members can also make comments and ask questions using SMS and Twitter.

Listening points will serve as the basis for additional discussion.

Feature: Candidates ask the audience questions

Traditional debates are also asymmetric and not like normal conversations, in the sense that candidates only get asked questions — they don’t ask either the audience or the other candidates questions.

Consequently, we designed a candidate asks feature. Using it, candidates will be able to ask in-the-moment multiple choice questions of the in-venue, TV and online audiences, together or separately, via polls. They will also be able to ask questions that people can answer free-form. In both cases, people will respond via SMS. The results will be collected in our online interactive system, where they will be monitored by program staff backstage and displayed to the candidates, facilitator, and audiences when the facilitator asks for them to be shared.

We are still working out the mechanics, e.g., how many questions candidates get, so that candidates have to be disciplined invoking this. Conceptually though, think of football coaches having a limited number of instant-replay challenges or professional tennis players having a limited number of line call challenges.

Feature: Discussion is not scripted

Debate 1.0 events are scripted. Not only are the questions pre-determined, but the time slots allotted for answers are short and fixed and the sequences of talking — question, initial response, rebuttal, etc. — are choreographed. Natural conversations aren’t scripted in this way.

Our feature for making the debate more impromptu is quality-driven discussions. The facilitator will orchestrate the discussion, deciding in-the-moment how to guide it, what features (audience check, listening points, candidate asks) to invoke when, and when to move on to the next question. The facilitator will strike a balance between driving the conversation forward, so that a few “must have” topics are covered, and slowing the pace down, so that the discussions are meaningful. A skilled and experienced live-on-TV-facilitator, which we have, is critical to making this work.

There’s not much we can do if the candidates revert to talking points. Ultimately, we’re not against talking points. We’re for conversation. Our hope is that by carefully designing the structure of the event, using technology judiciously, and arranging the physical space to support a true conversation, we will take a significant step towards building a culture where people don’t think of themselves as good citizens just because they listened to both attack ads before they went to vote.

These are just our thoughts though. Oct. 6, when we'll hold this debate, is still a long way away. We welcome your feedback and suggestions, especially lessons you’ve learned from other events. We’d love your help making this program even better.

With Alec Ramsay. This article was submitted on behalf of the The Seattle Center Next 50 Debate 2.0 Committee.