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A Twitter Debate for Republicans Seeking Their Presidential Nomination: How Does That Work?

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, June 28 2011

Organizing a Twitter debate for Republican candidates is harder than it might seem.

The technology the easy part — it's the rules that are difficult to write.

On July 20, the Tea Party group TheTeaParty.net will host an all-Twitter debate between six "major" candidates for the Republican nomination to seek the presidency, the organization's media director, Dustin Stockton, told me yesterday. They're doing it, he said, in part because they were approached by people who had the platform to host it: Andrew Hemingway, an online politics consultant, and Adam Green, a developer who builds solutions based on the Twitter API. Their 2012Twit.com website already tracks and sorts tweets related to Republican candidates for president.

Platform in place — settled. Candidates — confirmed, Stockton says, although he won't say which ones. The debate will appear at a website that's configured to display tweets from the participants in one column, and tweets from the crowd reading along at home in another. A moderation team will decide which tweets from the crowd are integrated into the "official" stream, and is already collecting advance submissions for questions.

But, wait. A substantive conversation about the Hard Choices Facing America, 140 characters at a time? How does that work?

More than 140 characters at a time, Stockton tells me — the rules allow for more than one tweet per answer.

But even a small handful of tweets might not be enough for opening statements, that perennial chance for a candidate to explain him or herself, and, of course, begin to flout time limits. Solution: Opening and closing statements can come with links to online videos, not to exceed three minutes in length.

"A lot of it is, we're figuring it out as we go," Stockton explained to me. "There's no model to put this together."

Here's another example: Question submission. If TheTeaParty.net put the questions up for a vote, Stockton is certain that he'll see supporters of one candidate or another promote questions that benefit that candidate and that candidate alone. It's not an unreasonable assumption — but if the point of an online-only debate is to put grassroots issues in front of serious candidates, then isn't it self-defeating to limit the pool of people who get to pick the questions? Local Tea Party groups can sign on to co-sponsor this debate at no charge, Stockton says, and grassroots Tea Partiers will be the ones to select the questions that get asked — it just won't be left up to the Internet at large.

This isn't the first use of Twitter in a presidential debate. During the 2008 race, Personal Democracy Forum hosted a Twitter debate between representatives of Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama. In the latest push in an ongoing effort to integrate social media into what CNN does, CNN debate moderator John King repeatedly asked candidates to admire tweets and Facebook comments related to this year's first televised Republican primary debate in New Hampshire.

And not everyone thinks social media are the right places to take this kind of debate. Take David Moore, the executive director of the Participatory Politics Foundation, which manages the development of the websites for tracking legislation and legislators called OpenCongress and OpenGovernment.org.

"Instead of short, 140-character jabs, the public should demand that candidates publish detailed policy statements in fully open standards for peer review," Moore told me on Monday. "I think the tech community is mis-allocating its resources in focus on social media at all. Instead, there are foundational issues completely unaddressed, such as open standards for tracking legislation, for communicating with elected officials, for accountability in spending, and participatory budgeting."

For more on the Republican presidential Twitter debate, check out Mashable, which looks to have first spotted the news.

This post has been updated.

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