Debates elections



Can political debates become more informative after the debate? Researchers in Britain are building a debate-replay website that aims to increase viewer comprehension,
engagement, and political confidence.
The Democratic Reflection app aims to gather nuanced feedback from political debate viewers. All images (c) the Election Debate Visualization Project.

Case Study:
 Election Debate Visualization Project
Country: United Kingdom
Research Team: University of Leeds: Stephen Coleman, Giles Moss (School of Media and Communication), Paul Wilson (School of Design); the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute: Anna De Liddo, Brian Plüss, Alberto Ardito, Simon Buckingham Shum (now at the University of Technology Sydney)
Debate: ITV Leaders Debate, April 2, 2015—the only debate where all seven leaders of British political parties met in advance of the May 7 general election for the 56th Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Picture this: You’re watching a televised debate involving two political candidates, and one of them accuses the other of breaking a campaign promise. There’s a denial, followed by a cross-accusation. Pretty soon you’re not sure if either candidate is telling the truth, but you are certain that they’re avoiding the central question, and the moderator seems unable to refocus the conversation.

Now, what if you could replay the debate—but this time, there’s built-in fact-checking and data maps that track the arguments and show who violated the debate rules? And what if the viewing platform was interactive, so you could call up previous articles about an issue, pull in other viewers’ responses to the debate, and share your own?

What if, in other words, debates became more informative after the debate? Could the enhancements increase viewer comprehension, engagement, and political confidence?

That’s the question researchers working in Britain on the Election Debate Visualization (EDV) project are attempting to answer.

Robust political debate is common in the United Kingdom; the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions has been broadcast live since 1990, drawing international audiences. The first televised election debates, however, didn’t take place until 2010. They attracted strong public interest, but through a series of national surveys completed before and after the debates, Stephen Coleman, a professor of political communication at the University of Leeds, found that many viewers were left with questions on the issues and uncertainty about the candidates’ competing responses.

In 2013, researchers from University of Leeds, including Coleman, teamed up with data science experts at the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute (KMI), a research and development lab, on the EDV project. The three-year effort (it concludes this fall) aims to identify the information needs of various audiences and create interactive visualization tools that respond to those needs.

“The analogy that I often use is that the debate is rather like trying to buy a car from someone who is a very fast-talking salesperson,” said Coleman. “What we want to do is to give you a chance to go home, sit at your computer, slow the whole thing down, take it apart, and really ask the questions that you want to ask.”

KMI researchers had already been conducting some informal experiments around creating interactive maps that tracked argumentative moves during the 2010 prime-ministerial debates. They were eager to do more with debate rhetoric and computer-supported argument visualization (CSAV), which captures and presents argument structure. They also wanted to analyze “fair play,” a specialty of EDV team member Brian Plüss, a research associate at KMI who codes linguistic behavior. Also known as non-cooperative dialogue, fair play refers to how well a candidate sticks to the debate rules. Avoiding a question or interrupting another candidate would be considered violations.

With a grant from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, the EDV team set out to develop an open-source web platform that would allow viewers to re-watch a debate with a full array of interactive visuals and analytics on discourse, audience feedback, debate topics (such as healthcare or the economy), and, in the future, data-mining tools that could answer such questions as, “Did the candidate actually promise this last year?” They named it Democratic Replay and expect to release in May, with a tutorial explaining the components.

But that’s not the only interactive use of technology they are introducing to the debate experience. Early on in the collaboration process, as ideas were being tossed around, the project team decided to see if they also could create an audience-response web app that would provide genuine insight into voters’ attitudes and needs. It was outside the project scope (and unfunded), but they were motivated by voters wanting a say in the debates and the limitations of existing ways to capture feedback.  

In 2010, for instance, U.K. debate broadcasters introduced the “worm,” an analytic tool used to gauge audience responses. Using a control device, such as a dial, a pre-selected group of voters register approval or disapproval of the candidates’ comments, and the responses appear in a line graph on screen, wiggling like a snake or a worm. Some researchers have had concerns about the tool’s influence on debate viewers.

“We agree with the view of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications that ‘the use of the worm might distort the viewer’s perception of the debate,’” EDV team members wrote in a 2014 project report, referring both to the small sample of participants and the fact that the worm only asks the audience to “like” or “don’t like” what the candidates are saying. There’s no context.

More insight into voter reactions can be gained by analyzing Twitter activity during the debates, but this, too, is limited. “If instant audience feedback is to be a new fact of political life,” they concluded, “we need better tools for capturing and interpreting what viewers and voters are thinking.”

Gathering Debate Reactions

The audience-response app—called Democratic Reflection—began as a paper prototype. EDV team member Anna De Liddo, a research fellow at KMI and leader of the Collective Intelligence and Online Deliberation group, proposed using flashcards to elicit more nuanced feedback.

The team settled on 18 cards representing three categories: emotion (how debate viewers related emotionally with what they were viewing), trust (whether viewers trusted the person speaking or what was being said), and information need (if viewers had questions about the debate topics).

Collective intelligence systems generally require complex tasks to be broken down into smaller tasks, with the actions distributed across large collectives. Looking at how this could be applied to political debates, De Liddo focused on this question: “How can we capture and harvest people’s feedback to the debate in a way that is light and non-intrusive enough so that people may be willing to react, but also in a way that is nuanced and detailed enough so that analysts can make sense of the feedback?”  

The flashcards were designed to gather “soft feedback,” meaning that viewers voluntarily share what they are thinking or feeling. There are no intrusions, and no binary questions such as, “Do you agree or disagree with the candidate’s response?” This type of collective intelligence can be useful for analyzing both the viewer’s immediate experience and shifts over time.

On April 2, 2014, the team invited 15 students from the University of Leeds to demo the cards during a one-hour televised debate between Nick Clegg, then-deputy prime minister, and Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, on whether the UK should remain in the European Union. The BBC hosted the debate in front of a live audience.

Participants were encouraged to raise a card in the air at any time if it represented how they were feeling. The experiment was recorded so researchers could later code each response. They used Compendium, a software tool for mapping information, ideas and arguments with support for synchronized video annotation.

Plüss said the team initially thought the cards offered too many options. Debates can be complicated enough to follow without the added responsibility of choosing from 18 different reflections. To their surprise, the students not only engaged with the cards throughout the entire debate (researchers cataloged 1,472 times the cards were raised), they even started to combine several cards together to express more complex feelings.

When Plüss reviewed the video, he also realized the students started selecting the cards based on design elements. “That gave us a lot of courage because we thought if they engaged with these pieces of paper like that, then maybe if we give them an app, it’s going to be even easier,” he said.

Determining Democratic Entitlements

Around the same time the flashcards were being developed and tested, Coleman, along with two other University of Leeds researchers (Giles Moss, a lecturer in media policy, and Jennifer Carlberg, a doctoral candidate), asked groups of voters and non-voters about their experience with the 2010 televised debates and what they hoped to gain from future debates.

The Leeds team identified five demands, or “entitlements,” that people said the debates needed to fulfill in order for them to feel comfortable taking part in the democratic process:

  • They wanted to be addressed as if they were rational and independent decision-makers.
  • They wanted to be able to evaluate the claims made by debaters in order to make an informed voting decision.
  • They wanted to feel that they were in some way involved in the debate and spoken to by the debaters.
  • They wanted to be recognized by the leaders who claimed to speak for (represent) them.
  • They wanted to be able to make a difference to what happens in the political world.

The design of the focus groups was ambitious. Researchers looked at the relevance of debates in the broadest sense; that is, not whether the debates simply influenced viewers’ perceptions of the candidates, but what people need in the run-up to and during the debates to propel them to engage. (The interviews are also discussed in this report). This moved the focus from the politicians (suppliers of information) to the public (demanding information).

Why go to such trouble?

“We were looking at this on the basis that Britain claims to be, as the United States claims to be, a democracy. In a democracy, you have a public which is in charge and which makes the most important decisions about its future,” said Coleman.

“Very often when political scientists talk about the public, what they say is, ‘Oh, people can’t understand that,’ or, ‘This is too confusing for people.’ That wasn’t really good enough for us. We wanted to know the answer to the question, ‘What is it that makes this confusing?’ Is it inherently the case that the electorate is just dumb? Probably not. If not, then there are barriers in the way. If there are barriers in the way, what are those barriers? Are they barriers that are the same for everyone, or are they different for some people? Are they movable?”

Coleman said getting to that point was made possible by the decision to go into the focus groups with a curiosity about what norms people would establish for themselves, instead of establishing a set of norms for them to meet. Besides being surprised about how forthcoming people were about what they needed to make democracy work for them, and how much people wanted the debates to involve them as well as inform them, the researchers were a little startled by the lack of interest in digital technology as a solution.

“There’s an assumption that people are looking to digital technologies. They weren’t looking,” said Coleman. “They’re looking for particular opportunities to do things rather than particular technologies that they think have got a magic solution.”

Focus group participants came up with interesting ideas for improving the debates, said Plüss, including penalties for candidates who dodge questions. While such a suggestion would never pass the negotiation stage—much like it is with debates in the United States, the debate format in the United Kingdom is decided after a long negotiation between the political parties and the broadcasters—the EDV team began to envision how technology could be used to deliver more of what the public wants.

“If one of the politicians says something that has no evidential basis or that is plainly wrong, we can show it, and then make people aware of that,” said Plüss. “Even though we can’t make changes to the debates themselves, with technology we can empower citizens. That’s one of the overall grand goals of the project.”

From Flashcards to Web App

It took almost a year to turn the Democratic Reflection flashcards into a web-based app. The digital design ended up being similar, but the statements were restructured to extract meaningful insights around the entitlements identified in the focus groups. Coleman recalled arguments over Skype, debating whether to make the questions more colloquial, for example, or the options easier to analyze.

The choices now range from straightforward (“This is informative” / “I’m losing interest”) to more complex reflections (“If s/he understood my situation, s/he wouldn’t say this” / “S/he’s provided convincing evidence for this claim”).

“People’s reactions are used to make sense and assess the debate, but from a people-perspective,” said De Liddo, adding that this collective point of view “would be impossible to capture otherwise in such a rich way and, most importantly, in a way that provides very specific insights on the democratic entitlements.”

“Additionally, people who did not watch the debate can eventually ‘replay’ people’s reactions, and these can also be part of how they shape their opinion on the debate,” she added.

In March 2015, researchers assembled a dozen Open University students and staff in an auditorium to watch the Clegg/Farage debate from a year ago. This time, instead of holding up flashcards, participants could open the Democratic Reflection app on their laptops, tablets, or smartphones and select from 20 color-coded reaction buttons. A second test that month was similarly structured, except participants from the University of Leeds watched the debate independently (on YouTube), at home or at work, to better simulate a real-world scenario.

Everything worked as expected. But all of these tests involved university students or staff, so the users were generally tech-savvy, and no consideration was given to their age, gender, or political leanings. There wasn’t money in the budget to repeatedly test the app with a demographically representative sample of voters.

For that, the EDV team would have to wait until the main event—the ITV Leaders Debate on April 2, 2015—a year to the day of the original flashcard test.

One Test Becomes Two

In advance of the Leaders Debate, the EDV team turned to a polling company to recruit more than 300 people to use the Democratic Reflection app. Participants were given a pre-debate survey about their views on the election and a post-debate survey about the event and their experience using the app. At the end of it all, the team gathered data from 242 participants; some didn’t watch all of the debate, or didn’t complete both surveys.

Plüss said most users were active for the full two hours, with activity peaking near the end, during closing statements. The EDV team was concerned 20 buttons would making viewing more complicated, but that didn’t seem to be an issue.

“It leaves the question open to see how many [statements] people would be able to take,” said Plüss, adding that some users indicated that they would have liked more options, particularly more emotionally charged responses—the impolite things people say when they’re watching a debate and something happens that makes them yell at the TV.

On April 16, during a BBC election debate featuring the leaders of the five main opposition parties, the EDV team made the app available to everyone.

It wasn’t planned as part of the study, and they did very little promotion, only a couple of tweets and a mention on the Open University’s Facebook page. The server was optimized to support up to 700 users, said Plüss, and that night, as he watched the number of logins inching upward, he grew anxious. Close to 2,000 people joined in. Sure enough, the server crashed.

“Obviously, if we had collected that amount of data without any interruptions, it would have been amazing, but the fact that we got that amount of interest, I think it’s wonderful,” said Plüss. “It’s not that people were just coming in, taking a look, and leaving—they were actually wanting to interact.”

In fact, that interaction is probably what caused the crash. The team had modified the platform, allowing users to view a live feed of other viewers’ reflections as well as their own responses.

“The idea was to create a bit of a more of a social community kind of experience,” said Plüss. “Technically, that’s what got us in trouble, because that stream of information, when you have such a high number of users, is huge.”

The server was down for about five minutes. But Plüss considers the extra run a success of sorts: To his surprise, some users returned, and the EDV team ended up with about 400 streams of data—not useful for longitudinal data, due to the gap in the middle, but researchers could still study responses to specific moments of the debate.

Besides harnessing more data, said Plüss, “It was amazing to see that people had the appetite for this concept.”

The EDV team is open to discussions with media partners in and outside Britain interested in using the Democratic Reflection app in future debates. The entitlements on which the questions are based might be different, and the technology might be applied in different ways, but the ultimate goal of providing debate viewers with the means to express their emotions as well as their needs could be applied in any country, said Coleman.

“When we were doing this in April and May of 2015, we were saying to each other, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something for the presidential election in the States in 2016?’ My guess is it is almost certainly too late for that,” said Coleman, adding that Germany’s election in 2017 might be a more realistic possibility.

“What we’re looking at is who we can work with for the greatest public good,” he added.  

Launching Democratic Replay

Democratic Replay will be made public in May as a tutorial website. It will include an analysis of data gathered from the Democratic Reflection app—51,964 pieces of data to be exact, one for each time a viewer clicked on a reflection during the ITV Leaders Debate on April 2.

The EDV team is working on multiple layouts with programmer Alberto Ardito, a visiting research student from the Polytechnic University of Bari in Italy. One shows a timeline of audience responses; click anywhere on the timeline to bring up that point in the debate. Another option shows a histogram as the video plays. There’s also a “feedback flower,” its size corresponding to how many people chose a particular reflection during each 10-second segment.  

“What our analysis will show is what was going on during the debate when people felt that particular entitlements were either being satisfied or being particularly not satisfied,” said Coleman.

Users will be able to filter the demographic profiles of viewers who provided feedback, making it possible to compare, say, how men and women responded to a candidate’s statement. Argument maps, fact-checking, and other components will also be available.

The EDV team finished the first iteration of Democratic Replay in October, five months after the election—too late to test if the platform could affect civic engagement or influence voting behavior. But between May and the end of the EDV project in September 2016, the team will continue to assess its use.

In the future, it might be possible to produce a Democratic Replay within a week of a debate, said Plüss. That’s well outside the 24-hours news cycle, but the team thinks the value is in turning the debate into an educational resource and a hub of data for journalists and other researchers.

As for the general public, the platform is going to be most useful for those who watched the debate, said Coleman. Both technologies, Democratic Replay and Democratic Reflection, are aimed at people who are “taking some notice of what’s going on,” but who may not have followed everything closely or who have not yet decided who to vote for.

“What I don’t think Democratic Replay as a technology does is open up a lot of space for people who are completely disengaged from the process,” said Coleman. “I think that will involve us in a different piece of work.

“It can be done, but I think that the problem is to throw everything in and try to take the disengaged, the engaged-but-confused, and then the engaged-but-highly opinionated all together and assume that you can create technologies for all of them. You can’t, I think.”

After all, this isn’t the worm.

Debates elections Social Media

Round-Up: Crowdsourcing Debate Questions in Taiwan

Round-Up: Crowdsourcing Debate Questions in Taiwan

Plus: U.S. presidential debates popular in China, study on second screens and political engagement, and could televised debates in the UK become a thing?

  • Between Christmas and Jan. 2, Taiwan held its first and only vice-presidential debate and two presidential debates in advance of the Jan. 16 election.

    The first presidential debate was pretty standard: Candidates answered questions from the news media and then took part in three rounds of direct debates with one another. The second presidential debate, however, included something new: five questions from the public.

    The questions, all policy-related, were submitted via the online platform President, May I Ask a Question and voted on by the public. The platform was first used during Taiwan’s vice-presidential debate; here are the six public questions selected for that forum.

    Watchout spokesman Lin Zu-yi told Taiwan’s press last month that Watchout would select questions by lottery, drawing only from those questions that received at least 1,000 online signatures. We’ll have more on President, May I Ask a Question—developed by Google, the newspaper Apple Daily, and Watchout—in a future article.

    Plus: Remember Mitt Romney’s comment regarding “binders full of women” during a 2012 presidential debate and the memes that followed? KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu’s comment during the first debate about being encouraged to run by an unnamed elder woman sparked a similar flurry of responses, including the Facebook parody page Tamsui Grandma. Another site, Taiwan Fugue, is offering stickers for those worried about being held responsible for Chu’s campaign.

    tamsui grandma facebook parody page

    The Tamsui Grandma parody page on Facebook has more than 37,000 likes.

    Catherine Chou, a PhD candidate at Stanford University, has a fascinating analysis of the responses, looking at how language interweaves with humor.

    “That Chu would use Taiwanese when telling a humanizing story about an elderly lady is predictable; what is less so is that netizens and new political parties—overwhelmingly composed of the young—would respond in the same language,” writes Chou.


    How to Avoid Campaign Fatigue: Not every country is as speedy as Taiwan when it comes to presidential campaigns, but the United States is more like a marathon—or two. Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press looks at how other countries manage to keep their campaigns shorter by putting limits on time, spending and/or by offering public financing.

    Is the U.S. system, which gives more time to candidates to make their case through primaries and debates, more democratic, or simply more adept at supporting all the third-party donors, businesses, journalists, and consultants who benefit from long campaigns?

    U.S. Debates Popular in China: The Guojiang Subtitle Group in China, a group of about 70 volunteers who produce subtitles for American TV shows, are translating the U.S. presidential debates. The videos, which are uploaded to a Weibo account and onto Chinese video-sharing sites, have become quite a hit in China, reports Owe Guo in The New York Times. The group was started by Zhou Qianyu, a Beijing high school student, in 2014.

    chinese translation republican debate

    Chinese translation of Republican debate hosted by CNN and Facebook.

    “Watching the U.S. presidential debates is like watching a football match,” said Yin Hao, one of the translators. “You see a lot of moves and tactics by the candidates, but eventually it all comes down to who scores.”

    You can watch the debates on Sina Video. Read the Times story for examples of comments by Chinese viewers.

    From Parliament to Television: Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for a live, televised annual “state of the nation” debate among party leaders. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told The Independent they would take part if Prime Minister David Cameron is willing.

    That seems unlikely. “Downing Street has said it will ‘look at the formal details of any proposal’, which is throat-clearing in advance of saying no,” writes political columnist Rafael Behr, who takes a broader look at debate participation and the shortcomings of prime minister’s questions.

    The call for an annual debate comes on the heels of a report by University of Leeds researchers showing that the 2015 general election debates increased viewers’ engagement.

    Second Screen Study: A study published in the Journal of Communication found that people who use social media to discuss televised debates are more likely to become engaged in politics as a result. The study, “Dual Screening the Political: Media Events, Social Media, and Citizen Engagement,” focuses on Twitter use during the 2014 European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom.

    “Twitter users who more actively participated in the discussion about the debates on social media using hashtags like #NickvNigel, #CleggFarage and #europedebate came away more energized and engaged with politics,” the authors of the study wrote in the Washington Post.

    New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab helped the study’s authors identify social media users who tweeted about the debates.

    Get Those Second (and Third) Screens Ready: YouTube and NBC News are teaming up for the final Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa Caucus. The NBC News-YouTube Democratic Candidates Debate, hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, will take place Sunday, Jan. 17, in Charleston, S.C., with the action streamed live on the NBC News YouTube channel. The announcement notes that the debate will feature questions from the YouTube community, but we haven’t seen information yet on what that might involve. Check Civicist for post-debate coverage.

    Before Democrats take the stage, FOX Business Network will host a Republican presidential primary debate on Thursday, Jan. 14, also in South Carolina. Happy New Year, and happy debate watching!

    Sign up for the twice-monthly Rethinking Debates newsletter for the latest posts and news.

Debates elections



Taiwan kicks off 28-day presidential campaign, plus a look at the debates leading up to Spain’s surprising election and new research on the 2015 debates in the UK.

  • Taiwan’s three presidential candidates have agreed to take part in two televised debates before the Jan. 16 election.

    One of the debates will feature questions from the media, and the other will include questions from representatives of civic groups, Alex Huang, director of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Department of News and Information, told the Taipei Times.

    Candidates will also answer questions from the public submitted via “President, may I ask a question?”, an online platform launched by Google, the newspaper Apple Daily, and Watchout, which works to engage citizens and hold politicians accountable.

    -1All three are among the nine debate sponsors. Other media sponsors include the Central News Agency (CNA), Sanlih E-Televison (SET-TV), Public Television Service, and three other major dailies—the United Daily News, the China Times, and the Liberty Times.

    As we noted last week in the Rethinking Debates newsletter (have you signed up?), Taiwan’s political parties agreed to three debates following contentious negotiations over the format and hosts. The presidential debates have since been finalized for Dec. 27 and Jan. 2. The vice-presidential candidates will meet first, on Dec. 26.

    The presidential and vice-presidential campaigns received the official greenlight to start, well, campaigning just this past Saturday.

    Besides being amazed by the 28-day campaign limit (what would we do with all the free time?), we’ll be watching to see which questions are answered when voters use the ever-so-polite “President, may I ask a question?”


    Spain is confronting a new political reality after Sunday’s election broke the country’s two-party dominance and left the selection of prime minister in question.

    Seven debates were organized in the run-up to the election, with some of them embracing social media and innovative formats. A youth-focused forum in November, for example, was billed as the “first digital debate on Twitter,” with real-time questioning and commentary. Sponsored by Twitter and the European Youth Forum, representatives from six political parties took part:

    Later debates featuring opposition party leaders were broadcast on YouTube and on the website of the country’s largest daily newspaper, El Pais.

    Incumbent Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy agreed to only one debate, a sit-down with Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez. Held on Dec. 14, it was the campaign’s final debate, and it did not go well for Rajoy.

    The Podemos party, which was founded in 2014, made stunning gains in the election, but it would not have come as a huge surprise to those who were closely following the debates. Even though he was not invited to the final debate, Pablo Iglesias, the Podemos party leader and founder, won the El Pais debate, according to a poll sponsored by the newspaper.


    So how much do televised debates matter? In the UK, quite a lot, according to new study.

    University of Leeds study on UK debatesUniversity of Leeds researchers concluded that the 2015 general election debates “performed a crucially important civic role,” both by reaching younger and first-time voters and by helping citizens acquire information needed to make meaningful choices. The authors are calling on party leaders to commit to debates in 2020.

    Researchers first organized a series of focus groups to ask voters and non-voters about the 2010 televised debates and what they hoped to gain from future debates. They came up with five demands or “entitlements” people said they needed from political debates to be democratic citizens:

    • They wanted to be addressed as if they were rational and independent decision-makers.
    • They wanted to be able to evaluate the claims made by debaters in order to make an informed voting decision.
    • They wanted to feel that they were in some way involved in the debate and spoken to by the debaters.
    • They wanted to be recognised by the leaders who claimed to speak for (represent) them.
    • They wanted to be able to make a difference to what happens in the political world.

    The researchers then set out to determine how voters evaluated the 2015 debates in terms of meeting their needs. They noted that more than 30 percent of viewers of the first debate—a full debate between all seven leaders of the main parties—said they became “more interested in the election campaign.”

    And of those who said after the election that their vote was influenced by a media source, almost half (48 percent) referred to the televised debates as being among the most helpful—the highest percentage for any source of election information.

    “We found that many voters feel they have a right to see the party leaders debate on television,” said Stephen Coleman, a political communication professor and leader of the research team. “Debates should become part of the fabric of major political events.”

    View the full report: “The 2015 Televised Election Debates: Democracy on Demand?

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Debates Election 2016 Social Media

Round-Up: Three Questions That Didn’t Change the GOP Debate

Round-Up: Three Questions That Didn’t Change the GOP Debate

CNN and Facebook, hosts of last night’s Republican debate, took pre-recorded questions and engaged viewers with polls and emojis. Plus, is social media improving the debate experience?

  • There was no first-time-ever-for-a-digital-audience moment, as there was during the previous Democratic debate, but CNN and Facebook, hosts of last night’s #GOPdebate, took advantage of several interactive tools—plus emojis.

    CNN touted the “thousands” of people who stepped inside the cross-country Campaign Camper to record video questions for the candidates and the “millions” who weighed in on Facebook.

    How many questions made it into the debate? Three.

    While it was good to include different (and younger) voices, and the questions pushed the candidates for more nuance on their positions on refugees, military action against ISIS and how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the use of “regular people” mainly reinforced the debate narrative. We need a more direct form of public engagement to drive different questions and to elicit more informative answers.

    During the debate, viewers were encouraged to go to CNN’s Facebook page to vote on such questions as “What’s the greatest threat to U.S. security?” and “Did Trump do a good job defending his plan to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.?” Facebook users could also answer “How are you feeling about the debate right now?” by selecting the appropriate smiley face, ranging from angry to excited (complete with double hearts!).

    CNN-Facebook how are you feeling the debates

    Sanders Trumps Trump:  CBS and Twitter, which teamed up for last month’s Democratic debate, worked together again last night, with Twitter providing real-time insights on

    Here’s the final analysis of the debate conversation, which Donald Trump won, the largest follower growth, which Sen. Bernie Sanders won (!), and the most tweeted moment—a not-compliment from Trump to Bush. For more on the debate and the many mentions of the internet, read today’s First Post at Civicist.

    Plus: Are Twitter and Facebook improving the debate experience? “It depends,” writes Callum Borchers in the Washington Post. “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.”

    U.S. Debate Viewership Soars: Meanwhile, nearly 7 in 10 adults (69 percent) say they have watched at least some of the televised debates, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. That number is up from 43 percent in December 2007, the last time we saw contested nominations in both parties.

    Almost two-thirds of viewers (65 percent) say the debates have been helpful in learning about the candidates. That finding is consistent among all age groups, though young adults under 30 are less likely than older adults to have watched a debate (58 percent compared to 72 percent).

    Just over half (51 percent) of debate viewers have found the debates “fun to watch”—with liberal Democrats (57 percent) and conservative Republicans (59 percent) enjoying the debates the most. Yet only about a third (34 percent) say the campaign has “focused on important policy debates,” while 58 percent told Pew it has not. View the full report.

    It May Never End: Donald Trump last night said he is “totally committed to the Republican Party,” but if he changes his mind again, he could remain part of the presidential debate field. If Trump makes an independent run, he would need to draw at least 15 percent support in national polls, writes Angela Grieling Keane at Bloomberg. The same goes for Sen. Bernie Sanders, though he has been consistent about not running as an independent.

    “Fifteen percent in this crazy year we’re in, it’s not entirely inconceivable that someone may come along,” said Mike McCurry, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates. “Our job is to make sure the candidates Americans are considering for president are there on the stage.”

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Debates Election 2016 Social Media

How Twitter and CBS Found the ‘Voice of the Crowd’

How Twitter and CBS Found the ‘Voice of the Crowd’

“For 55 years, we’ve all been yelling at the screens in presidential debates…This is really the first time the screen talked back.”

  • This is Christine Cupaiuolo’s first report for the Rethinking Debates project. While the vast majority of stories will be about the ways that debate producers around the world are experimenting with using interactive technology and social media to make these events more meaningful and responsive to public concerns, this story highlights an unexpected breakthrough here in the United States: the first time in which a member of the viewing public was able to talk back virtually to the candidates in real-time.

    Political debate watchers in the United States have been offered more ways than ever this year to view the presidential primary debates and to interact with the host networks and the candidates.

    Yet after six debates—four Republican and two Democrat—and tens of thousands of questions submitted via Facebook and Instagram, real-time opinion meters and polls, streaming Twitter reactions, live coverage on Snapchat, and livestreaming in virtual reality, only one attempt to engage the public broke through the wall dividing candidates and viewers.

    It happened Nov. 14 during the Democratic debate in Iowa, when a real-time comment on Twitter was posed to a candidate. While it took all of eight minutes for debate organizers to select, vet, and read on air a #DemDebate tweet rebuking presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, it could be argued that the lead-up took decades.

    “For 55 years, we’ve all been yelling at the screens in presidential debates,” said Adam Sharp, head of News, Government and Elections at Twitter. “This is really the first time the screen talked back.”

    CBS, host of the first-ever televised presidential debate in 1960, teamed up with Twitter for the event at Drake University, marking the first time the social media platform was an official partner in a U.S. debate (Twitter has advised other networks hosting debates).

    The two media companies started working in tandem over the summer, said Sharp, testing out curation methods during the other networks’ debates and building on ways Twitter has been used in previous election cycles and in other countries.

    Past debates, for example, may have included a counter showing number of tweets per minute. This time around, online viewers saw a graphic cycling through the volume of conversation as well as each candidates’ share of the conversation. Visuals also captured the topics people were tweeting about and debate moments that drove conversation (here are the top moments). Twitter collaborated with Postano, a social visualization and measurement platform, to display data on a huge digital video wall in the spin room.

    Using Curator — a tool Twitter rolled out earlier this year to help media publishers search, filter and curate tweets for display on web, mobile or TV — CBS producers could select and display a scrolling timeline of tweets that ran alongside the candidates on

    #demdebate - cbs online

    Photo: @gov

    Photo: @gov

    Photo: @gov

    “That’s where it started, with the data telling a story,” said Sharp.

    As the debate was happening, producers saw a spike around Clinton’s comment linking Wall Street campaign contributions to her work as a senator helping to rebuild downtown Manhattan after 9/11. Sharp said CBS used Curator as well as TweetDeck and Twitter itself to gather perspective on how Twitter users were reacting. Upon noticing that the majority of tweets were highly critical, the search was on for a tweet that would represent the consensus that was forming.

    “It was immediately apparent that this was the moment that was driving conversation, this was the moment people were going to be referring to at the water cooler the next day,” said Sharp. “Finding a tweet that referenced that wouldn’t be just picking a face in the crowd, it was actually picking a voice of the crowd.”

    Then a comment by University of Iowa law professor Andy Grewal surfaced:


    “I couldn’t believe the tone-deafness,” Grewal later told the Des Moines Register. “I felt compelled to make an actual critical remark.”

    Grewal had fewer than 200 followers when producers found the tweet, so it wasn’t the most re-tweeted comment when it drew CBS’s attention (it’s now been retweeted more than 2,800 times and liked by more than 3,000 Twitter users). Being an Iowa voter helped.

    “The fact that it came from an independent voter,” added Sharp, “in Iowa City, in his pajamas, who had never live-tweeted an event before, really just highlights, I think, the potential moving forward.”

    Before submitting the comment for air, CBS producers had to quickly vet Grewal, verifying his bio and reviewing past tweets for any sign he might be working for another campaign.

    “That’s where it gets important to have both that algorithmic layer and that human editorial judgment paired together, but neither can exist without the other,” said Sharp. “The reality is, with many millions of tweets about one of these primary debates, a human without help from the algorithm would drown under the volume. The key is, how do you get them at least to the right part of the haystack so they could start poking around a little bit more.”

    The candidates had already moved on from Wall Street contributions and were discussing gun control when the debate moderator, John Dickerson, interrupted them:

    JOHN DICKERSON: Sorry, I’m gonna bring in [CBS News Congressional Correspondent] Nancy Cordes with a question from Twitter about this exchange.


    NANCY CORDES: —about guns but also about your conversation on campaign finance. And Secretary Clinton, one of the tweets we saw—said that I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now—the idea being that, yes, you are a champion of the community after 9/11. But what does that have to do with taking big donations?

    HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I’m sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild. And so yes, I did know people. I had a lot of folks give me donations from all kinds of backgrounds, say, “I don’t agree with you on everything. But I like what you do. I like how you stand up. I’m going to support you.” And I think that is absolutely appropriate.

    The tweet was shown on a screen above the candidates as it was read, making it visible to all debate viewers. Reaction online was swift, with praise coming from other media outlets.

    Micah Grimes, social media strategist for NBC Nightly News, tweeted:

    CNN’s Brian Stelter, retweeting Grimes, wrote:

    Grewal’s tweet led to a short exchange involving Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley about Wall Street’s economic and political power. Yet the comment also had a longer-lasting effect, giving the controversy over Clinton’s Wall Street ties more volume and validity in the post-debate narrative.

    It was the level of impact Twitter officials had hoped to achieve going into the debate. Sharp said they wanted to show other news outlets that a Twitter-enabled debate could be “meaningful and relevant.”

    “For every prior debate since August, [CBS] producers have been using these tools to surface tweets around those debates. They have a very good handle of what type of content and what quality they’d be able to raise during their own broadcast,” said Sharp.

    “And now, undoubtedly, producers of future debates know, Oh, I can get a great question from Twitter, and I can get it in real-time. I don’t have to either take something stale that’s weeks old, or something that’s more stunty or kitschy, because that code’s now been broken, if you will.”

    (In other words, there would be no doubt about the appropriateness of the question, the way there was, say, in 1994, when President Clinton was asked “boxers or briefs” during a MTV town hall. Answer: “Usually briefs. I can’t believe she did that.”)


    Yet we still have a ways to go in U.S. political debates before technological innovation revolutionizes public engagement. Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor at Syracuse University and author of “Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age,” cited numerous factors that deter innovation—including risk-averse candidates used to controlling everything from podium height to lighting, and news outlets that see themselves as solely responsible for pressing candidates on tough issues and deciding which questions get asked.

    “Of course they are paying attention to what the public is saying and feeding that back to the candidates when it resonates,” said Stromer-Galley. “But if it doesn’t match the politicians’ agenda or the journalists’ agenda, you’re not going to get new kinds of questions, new kinds of voices, new sorts of topics.”

    There’s still something to be said for incremental change, she added. “When you think about it, we had a debate in 1960 and we didn’t have a televised debate again until the 70s. We’ve had debates routinely after that, and the format—again, very slowly—has evolved to include more voices. And now with digital media, the information infrastructure that we live in opens up additional opportunities for the public to be more directly involved.”

    The next Republican debate is scheduled for Dec. 15 in Las Vegas and will be sponsored by CNN and Facebook. The Democrats follow on Dec. 19 in New Hampshire, in a debate sponsored by ABC News, WMUR-TV, and the New Hampshire Union Leader.

    Sharp said Twitter expects to be involved in more debates but wouldn’t provide specifics. Viewers, however, should expect future collaborations with news networks to be equally substantive and gimmick-free.

    “We don’t want to give another excuse to dismiss the voter and centralize access to the candidates,” Sharp said. “By demonstrating that you can have this popular involvement and engagement in a meaningful, relevant way, it actually opens that door for, I think, a broader civic dialogue to be able to take place.”

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Debates Election 2016

Taking Debate Questions From YouTube Creators

Taking Debate Questions From YouTube Creators

The media is still figuring out how to push political candidates beyond their comfort zone while also remaining an editorial gatekeeper and profitable debate partner.

  • In 2007, televised presidential debates reached a new milestone: CNN included questions from the public submitted via YouTube.

    “We’re out there to actually see how people who want to be president think and handle issues and questions and people that are slightly outside of their comfort zones,” David Bohrman, then-CNN’s senior vice president, said at the time.

    The move was both welcomed as a step in the right direction and criticized for not going far enough, as it was still up to CNN to determine which questions would be posed to the candidates. Four years later, when Fox News teamed up with Google in 2011 during the primary debates to gather questions from the public, users voted up their favorite submissions for Fox to consider, another small step.

    But a year later, despite the Commission on Presidential Debates announcing a digital coalition with Google, AOL, and Yahoo to engage the public, there was no guarantee that questions submitted online would be used during the 2012 presidential debates.

    Fast forward to 2016, and the media is still figuring out how to push candidates beyond their comfort zone while also remaining an editorial gatekeeper and profitable debate partner. The difference, as we saw this past Sunday during the NBC News-YouTube Democratic debate in South Carolina, is that questions are now being asked by members of the public with social media followings and audiences that rival those of major media companies. 

    The last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucus included questions from four YouTube creators: writer/actor Franchesca Ramsey (220,000+ subscribers), author and lifestyle entrepreneur Connor Franta (5.2 million+ subscribers), tech reviewer Marques Brownlee (3.1 million+ subscribers) and MinuteEarth (1.2 million+ subscribers), a group channel that creates animated videos about science and environmental issues. 

    Steve Grove, director of Google News Lab, said this week that the first debate involving YouTube in 2007 was “not necessarily as democratic as it could have been,” because CNN ended up choosing the questions, “but we thought it was a great step forward for getting voices from outside of the Beltway reporter class into these discussions.”

    Now, the goal is not only to include new voices but to bring in new audiences as well.


    “One of the phenomena we’ve seen evolve over the past five or six years,” said Grove, “is the strength and power of online YouTube creators to really marshal extraordinary audiences on their channels, and who can bring new people into political discussions if they themselves get politically involved.”

    So instead of looking for well-known creators who cover big-P politics, Grove said YouTube and NBC sought to include creators with interests relevant to debate questions who could also “bring an audience that might not otherwise pay attention.” 

    Diversity, along with audience size, was a key consideration, especially with the debate taking place near the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where a young white shooter killed nine black worshippers in June 2015. Google worked with NBC to compile a list of potential YouTube creators to choose from, with NBC making the final call.

    The debate was watched by 12.5 million viewers across all platforms, including 10.2 million who watched live on NBC. It was the second most-watched of the Democratic debates and the only debate of this election cycle so far to livestream on a network’s YouTube channel, among other digital platforms. 

    The decision to work mostly with creators who are up on current political topics led to questions that reflected a sophisticated understanding of the issues. That has not always been the case, in part because the media tends to pick more strategy-driven questions. 

    Ramsey, who often blends social commentary with comedy, particularly around race and LGBT issues, asked one of the most pointed questions of the night: 

    I believe there’s a huge conflict of interest when local prosecutors investigate cases of police violence within their own communities. For example, last month, the officers involved in the case of 12- year-old Tamir Rice weren’t indicted. How would your presidency ensure that incidents of police violence are investigated and prosecuted fairly?

    Debate moderator Lester Holt, host of NBC Nightly News, directed the question to Sen. Bernie Sanders. He responded with specifics: 

    This is a responsibility for the U.S. Justice Department to get involved. Whenever anybody in this country is killed while in police custody, it should automatically trigger a U.S. attorney general’s investigation. Second of all, and I speak as a mayor who worked very closely and well with police officers, the vast majority of whom are honest, hard-working people trying to do a difficult job, but let us be clear. If a police officer breaks the law, like any public official, that officer must be held accountable. 

    And thirdly, we have got to de-militarize our police departments so they don’t look like occupying armies. We’ve got to move toward community policing. And fourthly, we have got to make our police departments look like the communities they serve in their diversity.

    As to the first point, Aaron Blake of the Washington Post called Sanders’ response “a concrete proposal on a question that usually leads to platitudes,” and his colleague Janell Ross wrote, “Many people and organizations—namely police unions—do not agree with this idea. But, it’s noteworthy that Sanders offered up a specific policy/practice reform that if elected, his administration would advance.” In response to Sanders’ third point about demilitarization,

    In response to Sanders’ third point about demilitarization, Ross offered more commentary and links for further reading. These comments, and others, appear in the Post’s annotated debate transcript—a terrific feature.

    During a post-debate interview with MSNBC, Ramsey praised Sanders’ response, yet added she was disappointed the question was not addressed to other candidates. She made the same point in the comments on her video. Asked why the question of police violence was of importance to her, Ramsey referenced Sandra Bland and said:

    I worry at times that doing the right things and being law-abiding citizens really isn’t enough if we live in a country where unfortunately people of color and black people are criminalized and seen as a threat, and then our lives are not taken seriously when and if something happens.

    Of course, good questions do not guarantee nuanced responses. Brownlee’s question about encryption technology and privacy vs. security failed to elicit the sort of conversation one might have hoped for. Time magazine’s Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote that none of the candidates “appeared to understand the controversy over encryption technology that, in recent months, has pitted top national-security officials against the CEOs of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech firms.” 

    MinuteEarth’s video about climate change and America’s energy future sparked more digs against Republican presidential candidates than detailed discussion, but it wasn’t MinuteEarth’s fault; the candidates weren’t pushed on the issue. Still, the video, along with the candidates’ responses, has attracted more than 171,000 views on MinuteEarth’s YouTube channel. 

    Viewers can also watch an alternative video on greenhouse gasses that MinuteEarth said it created at NBC’s request, in case the candidates had already addressed the first question. That video has received more than 137,000 views since being posted Jan. 19.

    Franta, 23, who has the most subscribers among those selected, raised a question about reaching out to younger voters. (Note to all candidates: A tweet from Franta encouraging his followers to watch the debate was retweeted more than 2,800 times.)

    “I know Senator Sanders is pretty popular among my peers,” Franta asked, “but what I want to know is, how are all of you planning on engaging us further in this election?”

    It was the least political question asked by any of the YouTube creators, but Holt directed it only to Clinton (who led off by congratulating Fanta on his 5 million viewers). As if the horse-race aspect Holt set up wasn’t already clear, he included a follow-up: “Why is Sen. Sanders beating you to 2 to 1 among younger votes?”


    Throughout the debate, Google provided snapshots of search trends—such as a graphic showing a 175-percent increase between 2004 and 2016 for “how to fix Washington”—along with real-time updates of trending (or spiking) questions about each candidate and the top-searched issues. (Google today announced it’s teaming up with Fox News for the next Republican debate on Jan. 28. and will integrate these same tools.)

    You can still view data for the most-searched candidate by county, and follow search interest in candidates for each minute of the debate: 

    Moderator Lester Holt at one point noted that Google searches for “black lives matter” had surpassed searches for “civil rights movement” in 2015 and had become the top trending political issue in South Carolina. 

    Search trends over time are obviously useful to both the candidates and the media, said Grove. The data can also help voters understand which topics matter most to people in their state or across the country.

    “I think the unique thing about Google Search is that it is an unvarnished look at the curiosities of people,” said Grove, “and we’re able to anonymize and aggregate that data. These are not public social media posts that are a sort of manicured version of what you want people to think you care about—this is what you’re actually curious about.”

    During a post-debate interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd, Daniel Sieberg, global head of media outreach at Google News Lab, noted that Sanders was the most searched-for candidate during the debate, but it was impossible to know if the searches reflected positive or negative attitudes. Goldman Sachs spiked around 10 p.m. when Sanders referenced big banks, and there was a lot of interest around Iran, healthcare, and gun control.

    The real-time data not only highlights the types of issues that spark interest, but it also shows that debate viewers are doing more than just watching—they’re researching. Grove said that gives him hope that people really do care about the issues, even though we’re conditioned to think elections are built on controversy and conflict.  


    Two days before the Democratic debate, another trio of young YouTube creators—Destin Sandlin, Ingrid Nilsen, and Adande Thorne—interviewed President Obama. The video posted to the White House YouTube channel has been viewed more than 1.2 million times in six days.

    The wide-ranging discussion, which streamed live, drew on both the personal and the political, from terrorism to Kendrick Lamar’s new album and the “luxury tax” on menstrual products. The young interviewers followed their passions, drawing Obama into lively and occasionally poignant conversations. While there’s some overlap with issues that are part of the national discussion, there’s also a refreshing unconventionality.

    “The press corps that follows the president and follows the election has a very important role, because they have all the context and know what happens every single day in the campaign, and they can leverage that accumulated knowledge to ask important questions,” said Grove. The flip-side, of course, is that “outsiders aren’t bound to those same conventions.”

    This marks the seventh—and likely the final—YouTube interview at the White House with Obama. The video kicks off with a historical review, hosted by Grove, that reveals how much technology has changed and, with it, our expectations for access and authenticity. In 2010, it was the top-voted video questions. In 2012, it was Google Hangouts. In 2016, it’s #YouTubeAsksObama, with famous creators assuming the role of the press.

    The same is true, kind of, on the campaign trail. Grove noted that YouTube creator GloZell Green interviewed Clinton last month (Green also interviewed Obama at the White House in January 2015), and he predicted that we’ll see more YouTube interviews throughout the election cycle.

    “These creators have enormous audiences—audiences, many times, that dwarf those of cable news stations. So a hit with a Swoozie or an Ingrid or a Destin can be, in some ways, even more valuable than a hit on cable news,” said Grove.

    “If you’re a candidate in today’s political environment, you’d be smart to pay attention to it,” he added, “because it’s a real opportunity to engage with a whole new audience, often times a younger audience, around topics that matter to them.”

    And who knows better than a YouTube creator how to thank fans and draw attention.

    connor franta tweet


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