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Social media: On the outside looking in at presidential debates

A television camera man works during a rehearsal at the Magness Arena at the University of Denver Oct. 2, 2012, where the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is scheduled for Oct. 3. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

Social media has been a wild card in presidential politics since at least 2003, when liberal, tech-savvy activists used blogs and early social networks to lift from obscurity Gov. Howard Dean’s anti-war challenge to front-runner Sen. John Kerry.

But so far, social media has played a minimal role in the most decisive campaign news events – the presidential and vice presidential debates held in the final weeks of the campaign. The debate tradition, according to Personal Democracy Forum co-founder Micah Sifry, is the political institution that “has changed the least since the rise of the Internet, despite public demands for greater participation and transparency.”

That is because the presidential campaigns don’t want change, Sifry contends. Sifry, who teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, is editor of TechPresident.com, a blog about how politicians use the Web. He was a long-time advocate for campaign finance reform. The Personal Democracy Forum runs a website and an annual conference on how technology trends are affecting politics and government.

In an editorial on TechPresident, Sifry said that the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) “is deeply committed to making sure that the people who used to be known as ‘the audience’ remain only that. There will be no citizen participation of any meaningful kind in these encounters.”

The campaigns of President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney “stage manage the entire show with a secret contract negotiated in advance by their top lawyers that lays out in incredible detail what will and won’t happen at the debates.”

Such agreements have long been a point of contention among government and political reform organizations. Recently, 18 such groups, including Common Cause, Public Citizen, Judicial Watch and Rock the Vote, demanded that the campaigns release the details of their contract.

Despite the existence of that agreement, the CPD co-chairs, former Clinton White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry and former Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., promised “an innovative Internet-based voter education program that will encourage citizens to become familiar with the issues to be discussed in the debates, and to share their input with the debate moderators in advance of the debates.”

But, as Sifry wrote, only one of the four debate moderators – ABC News’ Martha Raddatz – has asked her Twitter followers for suggested questions. Jim Lehrer of PBS NewsHour, who will moderate the first debate today, does not have his own Twitter presence.

PBS NewsHour’s feed frequently asks followers for questions for upcoming guests, but has not asked on behalf of Lehrer for debate question ideas as of Oct. 2. However, that hasn’t stopped activists from making “Tell Jim Lehrer…” a popular word string on Facebook, Twitter and Google, Sifry says.

On Sept. 25, the CPD did announce a digital initiative, “The Voice Of…” In partnership with Google, Yahoo! and AOL, the CPD will “provide the American public with access to information about the issues at large, feature the live debates, allow access to archival debate footage, and give people throughout the country the opportunity to share their voice.”

The “opportunity to share their voice” is essentially contained in a series of three-question polls about key issues, such as national security, foreign policy and energy and the environment. At this time, the sites do not promise that anyone involved with the debates, neither candidates nor moderators, will be asked to respond to the results. And it would be hard to envision “The Voice Of…” initiative taking the place of the robust and sometimes shrill debates that occur constantly on Twitter and Facebook.

Coverage from Federal News Service

Like many news organizations and bloggers, The Dolan Company’s Federal News Service, will be live-blogging the four debates this month, but with a twist.

FedNews has a large archive, stretching back to 1984, of transcripts of presidential and candidate speeches, past debates, public hearings and other public events focused on the federal government and federal elections. It will publish online, in “near real time,” the verbatim transcript of the debate for its subscribers. A full, time-stamped version will be available in FNS’s online store, which is particularly useful to news organizations and political junkies that wish to post video clips of the debate.

On the blog, which is being launched in conjunction with the debates, correspondents for FedNews will post past comments on debate topics by Obama and Romney so readers can see for themselves how much the candidates have altered their stances since the 2008 campaign and on other public occasions. The conversation will continue on Facebook and Twitter.

Meanwhile, Tumblr, a blog platform with 69 million blogs that is popular among college-age users, will be “Live-Giffing the 2012 Debates,” which means the editors of Tumbling the Election will post short, endlessly repeating videos documenting “the best debate moments, from zingers to gaffes to awkward silences,” and are inviting users to do the same during the debates.

GIF stands for Graphics Interchange Format, a bitmap image format that goes back to 1987. Its use in making short animations, sometimes using video footage, has become a popular format for humorous graphics, something in which Tumblr specializes.

As Sifry says, neither the candidates nor the moderator will be following the flurry of online responses to their words, but the election will be influenced by it.

And as Mississippi State University political science professor Marty Wiseman said on Science Daily, “With the new, absolute explosion of social media, you can have the smallest little parenthetical expression that occurs in a debate, and you are going to see it parsed so many times in social media, there will be consequences.”

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