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Using Tech to Improve Political Debates

I have a piece in today’s Boston Globe called “Net gains” — some suggestions on how to improve politics in the digital age, specifically political debates. Here’s what the Globe ran. In this posting I amplify, as promised, on one part of what follows.

On Thursday night, most of the Democratic presidential candidates will travel to Las Vegas for the latest in this election cycle’s “debates.” The quotes around that word are deliberate, because political debates are stuck in a world of television sound bites, after-the-fact spin, and almost blatant contempt for voters.

Mass media, the communications technology that became supreme in the 20th century, has ruined debates. The Lincoln-Douglas confrontations in 1858 and other verbal contests were once among the deepest and most revelatory of conversations. They revealed intellect and passion, and illuminated the issues of their day. Today’s mass media, reflecting a cultural short attention span, elevates shallowness.

This year’s endless series of events, with so many candidates aiming for the nominations, have been especially puerile, little more than mini-press conferences and spin sessions. Even when the questions are serious, the time limitations on answers puts a premium on regurgitating canned, semi-clever lines that entertain instead of illuminate. These things are to real debating what motel room art is to Picasso.

But technology can also help restore the debate. The Internet and digital tools – search, blogging, online video, wikis, interactive games, and virtual worlds – are made to order for serious conversations. The collision of technology with media offers an unparalleled chance to hold debates that would illuminate our problems and opportunities and give us true insight into the people who want us to elect them.

The role of technology in politics has always been prominent, notably in communications. The pamphleteers of America’s Revolutionary era, and newspaper people later on, knew how powerful the printing press could be. The telegraph sped the news. Telephones, a one-to-one device, transformed personal communications. Radio and then, even more, television became the ultimate tools: one-to-many megaphones of unparalleled power.

The Internet subsumes all that came before, and adds a many-to-many capability. The democratization of media means that anyone can publish; that what we publish is available to a potentially global community; and that creation naturally leads to conversation and collaboration.

The Net has, of course, already made itself felt on the campaign trail. Howard Dean’s 2004 team innovated with blogging and online fund-raising ideas. Former senator George Allen lost his 2006 reelection race in part because of an unflattering video posted on YouTube. In this cycle, the presidential candidates are all over the Internet map, and so are their supporters – witness the now-famous “I’ve got a crush on Obama” video and Mitt Romney’s invitation to his supporters to create advertisements, among countless other efforts.

We’ve seen some modest attempts to make the Internet part of the debate process. The CNN-YouTube Democratic event during the summer (a Republican version is scheduled for Nov. 28), demonstrated at least one thing of value: Regular folks can ask questions that are at least as penetrating, or vapid, as the ones posed by journalists in more typical settings. But post-event chatter focused, to a major extent, on what questioners looked like – and whether CNN and YouTube should have let the audience, not just the journalists, select the questions posed to candidates (the answer is obviously yes). Still, this was a sideshow. We learned almost nothing useful about the candidates or their views.

Meanwhile, Slate and Yahoo joined forces a few weeks ago to offer a slightly more innovative, roll-your-own version. Voters could select specific questions and issues, and get a brief video lineup of candidates’ views. Yahoo says visitors to the site stuck around for an average of seven minutes, a long time on the Web but a pathetic span for serious voters. Perhaps they’d have delved more deeply had the site included more truly interactive features.

Better still is, created by the TechPresident site working with The New York Times and MSNBC, a site that lets regular folks ask video questions and vote on the ones that get posed to candidates. Then the candidates answer, and the regular folks vote on whether the candidates actually answered.

But we can do even better, using a variety of media and techniques. Consider two approaches, different in character but both aimed at greater understanding.

First, the candidates should agree to hold lengthy, one-on-one debates and then put the results online for the public to slice and dice. Rather than having journalists and/or YouTubers ask the questions, we should leave the questioning to the candidates themselves. Give the candidates time to provide substantial responses, and give them full freedom to follow up on their opponents’ remarks. Moderators could help keep the debate on track and civil.

The videos should be posted online and made freely available. Media organizations, party organizations, interest groups, and private citizens could use increasingly inexpensive digital editing tools to help us sort through the mass of video; for example, someone who cares about healthcare could create a comparison of what each candidate said about the topic.

Then let voters decide what they want to watch. A few will watch everything. Many more will watch several debates, or parts of many.

Certainly this system would ask a great deal of the candidates, including perhaps more of their time than they might wish to spend. It would also demonstrate the utter shallowness of the so-called debates that broadcasters and interest groups sponsor today.

A second approach would be even more ambitious: A debate that would unfold online over the course of days, or even weeks and months. Imagine that one candidate takes a position and poses a question. The opponent would answer with a written response of some predetermined length, but with the help of staff, experts, and the general public. Then the first candidate, again with the help of anyone who wants to join the process, would dissect the response and reply with (we’d hope) a truly nuanced update. Continue this process at length – and repeat it with many other topics.

What would the site look like? What technologies would we use? I have my own ideas, and have posted them on my blog, but I’m just one person; we need a collective effort to figure this out, using much the same iterative process. The specific tools are less important than the willingness to deploy them.

Indeed, we’d start with an inventory of what people are already doing. Nonpolitical online conversations are already achieving remarkable depth and breadth using a variety of methods.

But before we finish yet another campaign cycle in the traditional way, let’s resolve to bring debating into the new century. We have the ability to turn top-down, sell-the-candidate methods of electioneering into edge-in conversations among candidates and the electorate. I’ll happen eventually. Why not this time?

5 Comments on “Using Tech to Improve Political Debates”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 9:53 am

    FYI – you might enjoy my column:

    New media is just another way to pull the same old tricks

    “As is typical of user-generated content, despite all the hype about empowering citizens, the individual was utterly powerless, except to try to please and serve the interests of the gatekeeper and thereby obtain some attention (but not remuneration).”

  2. #2 Jon Garfunkel
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 10:44 am

    Welcome Globe readers…

    Dan– I forgot to tell you the other evening, but Slate’s John Dickerson covered similar ground in May. I do like the idea of one-on-one debates… some Slate reader had even suggested a bracket system. Though note that that this doesn’t really rely on new media.

    Hmm… did I just say I’d “like the idea”? I’m afraid this cycle I have more sympathy for the short-attention span votes. This also from Dickerson’s column: “readers suggested American Idol- or Survivor-type methods for voting candidates off the stage if their answers were no good.”

    Seems like instant Internet feedback could be a helpful gimmick. “President Bush, sixty percent of our audience is not re-assured by your saying that the war in Iraq is ‘hard work’…”

  3. #3 Dan Gillmor
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 11:00 am

    Ah, I missed the Dickerson piece in my research on this. Lots of good ideas there…your piece is also right on, Seth.

  4. #4 David Price
    on Nov 11th, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Hi Dan,

    We piloted a web-based debate tool – Debatemapper – with the UK Prime Minister’s office at the start of the summer, inspired by the same ambition that you articulate so eloquently in your second approach.

    It’s a free tool available now, and we would be delighted to collaborate with you, anyone else interested in fulfilling your ambition, and any candidate willing to back themselves in such a debate.

    I have blogged about the project with Tony Blair at, and our social-entrepreneurial goal is to create a new kind of public service: one that makes the best arguments on all sides of every complex public debate freely available to all, and continuously open to challenge and improvement by all.

  5. #5 Noel
    on Nov 12th, 2007 at 12:20 pm

    Actually, what you describe above as an online debate, pretty much already takes place in a more traditional medium: the position papers papers that campaigns generate on a regular basis, often in response to one another’s work. These are made available by all major and most minor political candidates. An interesting project might be to collect these and try to map them. They can be made into one-on-one debates. It might be a bit of a slog to go through all of the position papers that the campaigns generate, but put onto a platform where the campaigns could then potentially add further arguments and respond to the public who could comment on the debate could be a very interesting project and not a particularly difficult one to pull off.