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.”

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

Civic Engagement Election 2016 organizing



A campaign by Civic Hall fellow Andrew Slack to unite Star Wars fans against the Empire of Darth Money.

As we speak, the dream life of Star Wars and waking life of politics are merging. One of history’s most popular authors, JK Rowling tweeted she believes Trump is so evil, that even in her deepest imagination she could not come up with someone as terrifying. Darth Trump is spreading on YouTube at Ludicrous Speed. This is not to mention that Ted Cruz’s campaign is offering a chance to see the film with Cruz (and they have him with a light saber). Bernie Sanders fans are saying, “You’re my only hope,” libertarians are comparing Obama to the Emperor, and the internet is chock full of Star Wars Hillary Clinton memes that truly cross into the surreal.yodahil

The force of psychological energy for effective cultural acupuncture runs strong when Star Wars meets American politics. And here’s how we think Star Wars can help us build a real U.S. Rebel Alliance, spoken in the vernacular of the movie but written against the backdrop of our political reality:

We need to defeat the Empire of Big Money so that we may live in a Republic that is of, by, and for the Force—the Force of interconnectivity that is We The People, when all of our voices are heard.

Right now, the Empire of Big Money has struck back against We the People, silencing our voices with the force choke of Darth Vader. It is up to us, to step up as Jedi-in-training and join the U.S. Rebel Alliance, the way Luke starts his journey in A New Hope. Remember, when Obi Wan invites him to get off of the outer rim planet of Tattoine, he is resistant:

“Look, I can’t get involved. I’ve got work to do. It’s not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now… It’s all such a long way from here.”

Similarly, 84 percent of Americans polled believe that the Empire of Big Money is a problem but probably less than 1 percent feels agency to do something about it. It is time to awaken the Force of We The People and that is what we intend to do with the U.S. Rebel Alliance.

In the United States, we are 330 million people, all of us heroes waiting in the wings, wishing to go an epic journey but nervous to take on the Empire. And while activists work on issues around gun laws, taxes, climate, religion, racial justice, and economic equality, it’s pretty clear that regardless of where we stand on these issues, should any of us want to be effective on them, we need to recognize that the Empire standing in our way is Big Money.

To paraphrase both Joseph Campbell (whose concepts profoundly influenced the writing of Star Wars) and Ben Cohen from Ben and Jerry’s: if you want to understand what empire you are living in, look to the tallest building in the city. In the 1400s in Western Europe, the tallest building was the Church. By the time of the American Revolution, the tallest building became the political palace, the nation state. By the end of the 20th century, the tallest building in the city became the multinational corporation in the financial district.

We now have an empire that is of, by, and for the corporations. The Empire of Big Money. In the words of one presidential candidate, “Congress does not govern Wall Street. Wall Street governs Congress.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. As the saying goes, it is far, far better to light even the smallest candle than to curse the darkness. This past November, both Maine and Seattle won ballot initiatives setting up small-donor public financing systems. We the People spoke up against the Empire; candles were lit. Regardless of the Empire’s Dark Side, we can spread the light of those candles across our Republic. And that is what we are doing with the U.S. Rebel Alliance.

We are asking people to sign the Jedi Pledge to end the Empire of Big Money, to share this video starring Mark Ruffalo, Heather McGhee (head of Demos), Darren Criss (star of Glee), Baratunde Thurston (The Daily Show), and more. This Sunday from 7pm ET to 10pm ET, we’re holding a live webcast to geek out about the new film, and we’ll be holding a meme contest on fighting Darth Money.

By signing the Pledge, that’s all just the warm up. As we roll out on Twitter as @usrebelalliance, as well as on Facebook, Tumblr, and YouTube, you’ll hear about actions to get President Obama and the candidates to sign the Jedi pledge and use that to create accountability. We want to help make the very needed issue of Big Money center stage in the U.S. primary. Imagine getting the debate moderators to ask the candidates, “A lot of Americans are comparing Star Wars to the Empire of Big Money. If the Death Star is as they suggest, made by Darth Money and Super Pacs, how do you respond?”

In defiance of the notion that “serious topics” must only be addressed “seriously,” we are aiming to turn this winter into a Star Wars U.S. Rebel Alliance party to create change. We plan to use storytelling through social media, guerilla theater actions, and even U.S. Rebel Alliance hotlines in a where we are the heroes in a real world choose your own adventure.

But You are Our Only Hope! We want your ideas on strategy regarding the larger campaign, social media, guerilla theater, pragmatic asks, and more. We want to work with you on how to get people who have never been engaged in civic life to be working alongside veteran activists.

It is time for the franchise that brought us Obi Wan Kenobi to invite 330 million American heroes waiting in the wings to go on an adventure that balances the Force of We the People. It is an adventure to bring down the Empire of Money in politics while lifting up the heroic agency that flows deep in each of us. It is time to make good on our childhood dreams of becoming the heroes’ in films like Star Wars.

May we use the common thread of Star Wars to Awaken the Force that is We the People. May our light emerge from the Dark Side and the Empire. And #MayTheForceBeWithUS.

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.”

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

Civic Hall Election 2016 future of work Sharing Economy



Marco Rubio weighs in on the on-demand economy, innovation and disruption, money in politics, and platform cooperativism.

This morning Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio dropped by Civic Hall to deliver a prepared speech on the on-demand economy, followed by a Q&A with Civic Hall founder Andrew Rasiej. In his speech, Rubio touted the advantages of the on-demand economy, including upward mobility, flexibility, and independence. He argued that all of the “best innovation is happening in the unregulated space” and said his proposed tax reform plan would make the tax code more welcoming to the on-demand economy. Many of Rubio’s prepared comments tracked with other speeches he has given on the subject, although this one was without any explicit jabs at fellow candidates.

Rubio highlighted New York-based Handy as an innovative startup facing overregulation, and said another entrepreneur he met recently asked him not to name his company publicly to avoid drawing the attention of legislators.

Rubio called for a new category of worker, pointing out that those with W2 status have more protections but fewer of the freedoms that characterize the on-demand economy, but if employees are categorized as independent contractors, employers are prevented from training them or otherwise dictating how something is done. Rubio argued that a middle ground is needed, pointing out Germany already has a third category for “dependent contractors.” He added, “Whether or not this model is the best for America is something we have to figure out.”

To cut down on innovation-stifling regulation, Rubio proposed a cap on the amount that regulations can cost the economy, saying current compliance costs approach $70 billion. Rubio singled out regulation lobbied for by incumbent interests like the taxi and hotel industries for hindering competition.

When Andrew Rasiej pushed him on the root issue that makes it possible for established interests to have their way—money in politics—Rubio first said that small government is the answer: If unlimited regulation is an option, he argued, incumbent interests will “find a public safety argument and use that to put up a roadblock.” In response to Rasiej’s follow up question, again about the influence of money in politics, Rubio said that the American people should “stop electing” people susceptible to that. But he didn’t offer any ideas for how to achieve that.FullSizeRender

Citing the impact of Airbnb on the housing market, Rasiej asked how the government could minimize the collateral effects of the on-demand economy without regulation. Rubio responded that he’s not against all regulation—he’s glad that his drinking water isn’t poisoned and that someone is checking on the planes he flies on—but added that “structural change in the economy has always been very disruptive” and pointed out that the industrial revolution brought about a number of new issues, including child labor, that had to be resolved.

Rubio repeated himself somewhat when a member of the audience—an independent taxi driver—asked whether new companies and drivers should have the same access to the market that he has, but without paying the same fees. Rubio first replied that he doesn’t think it’s the same model, but reiterated that innovation is always disruptive, citing the impact of the car on the horse cab driver. Rubio said that it is the role of government not to prevent innovation, but to help people affected get access to the new innovative economy, whether through education or other means.

Rubio was dismissive of the potential for worker-owned cooperative platforms to compete with other startups, saying, “I don’t think you’re going to get innovation that way…people aren’t driven to do it if they don’t see the opportunity to make money.”

Finally, when asked by Rasiej whether he would continue to support the U.S. Digital Service if he were elected president, Rubio said, “If it proves that it’s something that is effective and that it can attract the brightest minds to improve how government works, then that’s something we should definitely continue.”

#PDF Analytics Election 2016



“Journalists should be pushing campaigns to answer ethical questions about the work they’re doing.”

  • Personal Democracy Forum is in less than three weeks, and we’re reaching out to some of the speakers for a quick preview of their respective talks and panels. First up is Ethan Roeder, who ran the data department for the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012. Roeder stopped by Civic Hall yesterday to lead a brown bag lunch talk on political campaigns and data. We caught up with him afterwards to ask a few questions about the PDF panel he’ll be moderating, on the future of political analytics.

    You’re moderating a bipartisan panel at Personal Democracy Forum on the digital politics of 2016, featuring campaign consultants and analysts Scott Tranter, Kass Devorsey, and Masa Aida. What questions are you going to raise?

    The thing that I’m most interested in is the relationship between outside actors (like I360, Civis, and BlueLabs). The second thing would be innovations in analytics. One of the things I’ve heard is that building an individual-level candidate support model is a trivial affair in 2014. If building an individual-level of support model is no longer an advantage, what is?

    Roeder mentioned that he hasn’t yet figured out if he’s going to ask a framing question to get the panel started, and if so, what it will be. Perhaps people with strong opinions on the subject could offer suggestions in the comments.

    What questions should the media ask campaigns about their use of data this election cycle?

    Here’s what I hope doesn’t happen. As I mentioned in the talk, in 2012 we did a very effective job at hosing the media. And as a result they just came up with their own narratives. It wasn’t necessarily in our best interest but we effectively deflected all of their questions

    What I would hate to see happen is the media learn all the wrong lessons from that. Like Micah said, I hope they just don’t ask, “Does he have a Pinterest page?” There is a “Does he have a Pinterest page” equivalent for data, technology, and analytics. For example, “Are you using online data to target people?” Of course they’re using online data to target people.

    I think that journalists should be pushing campaigns to answer ethical questions about the work they’re doing. “Is there a line you won’t cross?” That’s the question I would ask. If you can’t give me a definition of your own understanding of the lines you won’t cross, it probably means you’re crossing a line.

    I’m less interested in the privacy question than Micah is, although that is a conversation that should happen. I’m more interested in the ethics.

    Did you run into any ethically dubious activities when you were working on campaigns?

    No specific instances.

    Campaigns exist to win. The only motivation of a campaign is to win. The only ethics of a campaign is whatever won’t hurt their chances of winning. I’m less interested in naughty things a particular campaign staffer did, and more interested in asking “What is your ethical compass? How do you determine what you will or won’t do?” I don’t think campaigns have an answer to that.

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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