Another debate, another featured partnership with a social media company — which means another batch of questions sent in by Bill from Reno and Susan from Carson City. (Hey, Tuesday’s debate is in Las Vegas, so the airtime advantage goes to Nevadans.)
This is fun for Bill and Susan, but is it good for the rest of us?
It depends. That is, of course, a well-rehearsed non-answer. But you should probably be used to that, given that's the kind of answer Bill from Reno and Susan from Carson City could very well elicit.
In four of the previous six primary debates, TV networks have used social media to generate questions, with decidedly mixed results.
CNN, which teamed with Facebook on the first Democratic debate — and will do so again for Tuesday’s Republican affair — didn’t seem that into it last time. The network used only one question from a Facebook user, who wondered how Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont would convince Republicans to compromise on issues where President Obama has failed. It was a fine question, but it was also theoretical rather than personal, and it didn’t make the most of social media’s potential to amplify the concerns of everyday voters.
And it amplified the reality of letting regular folks ask questions; they don't always know, as the media does, how to get a politician to shed his or her talking points and actually say something.
Another time, moderator Anderson Cooper stated that “over the last week, guns have been the most discussed political topic on Facebook by 2 to 1,” then pivoted to a question of his own about whether gun manufacturers should be shielded from lawsuits. The only other time Facebook came up was when panelist Dana Bash said, rather vaguely, that “CNN visited college campuses, along with Facebook, and not surprisingly college affordability was among the most pressing issues.” She didn’t use any questions from real students but instead asked Sanders whether taxpayers should help pay for rich kids to go to college.
In other words, social media contributed basically nothing to the last CNN debate.
CBS, which carried the second Democratic debate, seemed similarly unsure how to make the most of its partnership with Twitter for most of the night. But CBS did provide one example of how to do it right when, after Hillary Clinton cited her role in the 9/11 recovery to defend campaign contributions from Wall Street bankers, the network used a viewer’s real-time tweet to push back.
“Secretary Clinton,” said panelist Nancy Cordes, “one of the tweets we saw said this: ‘I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now.’ The idea being, yes, you were a champion of the community after 9/11, but what does that have to do with taking big donations?”
Perfect. A moderator certainly could have come up with the same question on his or her own, but it was more impactful coming from a voter who was shaking his or her head at home, in real-time.
Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network both made extensive use of Facebook during their Republican debates, mostly to great effect. They featured real people asking questions that affect their lives: How will you help small businesses? Will you protect Christians worried about facing prosecution for their religious beliefs?
Fox also used Facebook data to help set the agenda. In the first GOP debate, Fox News moderator Chris Wallace noted that about 1,400 of the 40,000 submitted questions dealt with illegal immigration, so he asked about illegal immigration. In the fourth, Fox Business moderator Maria Bartiromo referenced a “word cloud” graphic that showed homeland security had been the most discussed topic on Facebook during the previous month. So she asked about homeland security.
The moderators probably would have addressed these topics anyway, but Facebook helped drive home the idea that their questions reflected what is important to the public.
So yes, Bill and Susan could be valuable contributors to Tuesday’s presidential debate. But CNN would do us all a favor by taking lessons from CBS and Fox.