Thursday, October 16, 2008

Moving to a more democratic debate

Last night's presidential debate, the final in the series sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates, wrapped up this cycle's general election debates without making use of the Internet to engage voters in the process. The Commission did make an attempt to utilize online tools this year, but that attempt fell flat.

Last week's presidential debate, hosted by Tom Brokaw, used a "town hall" debate format that was designed to let voters ask the questions of the candidates - in person, and online. However, it was Brokaw who decided which hand-picked town hall questions to point to, and which "Internet questions" to ask. Of the tens of thousands that were submitted online, Brokaw selected just four. It's hard to see what influence, if any, voters actually had on this debate. And so this general election cycle has passed without citizens ever having the chance to truly inform the dialogue in the most important of our public forums - presidential debates.

That's a shame, because this year we've seen the Internet offer us new opportunities to tap into the issues that matter most to voters. The role of the Internet in this election has been well documented in this blog and countless others - not only has the web changed the way that candidates raise money, but online platforms and tools like the ones we've developed at YouTube are actually changing the national discussion over politics and policy, re-shaping the media ecosystem to allow voters to have more power, and more access to critical election information, than ever before. It's only natural to leverage these tools to connect candidates and voters directly during debates.

There is a group of concerned online activists who are trying to make sure that happens. The Open Debate Coalition, a bi-partisan group of activists who think our debates need serious reform, is asking for 4 things:

  1. That the debate moderator has broad discretion to ask follow-up questions after a candidate’s answers.
  2. That Internet questions voted on by the public in the fashion that Google Moderator has provided be used to drive the dialogue in debates.
  3. That all footage of debate be released into the public domain so that anyone can post, mash-up, and re-purpose them to increase the audience for our most important public events.
  4. And that an alternative to the CPD is created, to create a more transparent and accountable series of public debates.

During the primary season, we partnered with CNN to use the power and reach of YouTube to create a more democratic debate. Voters could submit questions on YouTube, which were then posed to the presidential candidate in two primary election debates. And this fall, our You Choose '08 Spotlight series has allowed voters to ask questions of candidates in hot Senatorial and Gubernatorial races - and compare both candidates answers - here on YouTube.

But these innovations are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of increasing civic participation in debates - there's a lot more we could do to insure that voter's voices inform our national discussion.

Google Moderator, the tool that the Open Debate Coalition refers to, allows voters to submit questions via text or video, and to vote up or down on all questions submitted. The wisdom of crowds comes into play as people bubble up questions they think are most important, and vote down questions they think are less relevant or inappropriate. The platform is based of the same system we use internally at Google to ask questions of our founders at each week's company meeting, and it is built by engineers who control for issues like spamming, profanity, and duplication.

A few months ago we asked both candidates to come to New Orleans to take questions from voters using this tool. However, the debate didn't come to fruition. We believe it was a missed opportunity to let the concerns of voters, expressed on the most democratic of political mediums - the Internet - inform the debate over the future of the country.

The missed opportunities of this year's debate series gives us the opportunity to re-consider how we construct our presidential debates. We support the work of the Open Debate Coalition and will continue to push for public forums that make use of technology to engage more people in politics and public policy than ever before.


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