The Internet is taking a backseat at the next presidential debate: CNN’s moderator Candy Crowley will not be “taking questions via email, Twitter, Google Moderator or any other online source for the October 16th debate,” reports TechPresident. Four years ago, taking questions submitted over YouTube and Facebook was hailed as the democratization of the elite-controlled candidate debates. Since then, however, media organizations and the White House alike have quietly dismissed the process of crowdsourcing questions, likely because of the perceived silliness and marijuana-obsessiveness of the questions. “I think the presidency ought to be held at a higher level than having to answer questions from a snowman,” said current Republican nominee, Mitt Romney in 2008, after one YouTube submitter animated a Snowman to ask a question about global warming to the panel of debaters.
Google had promoted a page soliciting questions for the upcoming debate. Upon investigation, it was found that these questions were merely suggestions, which Crowley evidently plans on ignoring in favor of those posed by a group of undecided voters.
It’s not just CNN: The Facebook-savvy President, himself, has quietly ceased taking questions from YouTube and other online sources. His first attempt on YouTube was dominated by the overwhelming power of the pro-marijuana demographic–a demographic that dominates most online voting forums. Since then, Obama has chosen to answer questions from forums where he can decide which questions to answer, rather than be forced to answer those with the highest number of votes, such as a recent “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) on the popular news aggregator, Reddit. But, “the Reddit AMA is a terrible format for extracting information from a politician,” argued The Altantic’s Alexis Madrigal, who complained that it simply gave Obama a soap-box to rehash talking points to a new audience.
Part of the problem is that the voting systems can be gamed by well-coordinated or particularly active political interest groups. Digg.com, the once-mighty news aggregator, where a news story’s popularity was measured by votes, famously lost credibility after a stealth contingent of hyper-conservatives coordinated to upvote Republican-friendly posts.
In other cases, the net is simply biased towards the most tech-savvy demographic. Ron Paul is not even a close contender for the Republican presidential nomination, but he disproportionately dominates Twitter discussion, as do other fiercely libertarian stories.
The fact that democracy represents those who participate–not the whole population–is an age-old problem of rule by consent. But, on the Internet, we can choose what we want to say and hear. It has been true for citizens, and now it appears to be true of politicians as well.
Update: Our media friend, Alex Howard, reminds us that the President did do a Google+ hangout from a live audience. I maintain these are exceptions to the otherwise shrinking role of vote-based questions, but it was an important example and we’ll let you decide.