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.

First Post



The U.S. Rebel Alliance is here; RepubliCATS; Sanders gained more Twitter followers than most Republican candidates last night; and more.

  • Hacking Star Wars: We’re interrupting this morning’s programming for an urgent message: The U.S. Rebel Alliance is real. And as Civic Hall’s civic imagination fellow Andrew Slack explains in this new post for Civicist, “as we speak, the dream life of Star Wars and the waking life of politics is merging.” And here’s a new video starring Mark Ruffalo, Darren Criss, Heather McGhee (of Demos), Baratunde Thurston (of the Daily Show), and a host of YouTube stars, explaining more.
  • While we’re on the topic of culture hacking, here’s Cats’ creator Andrew Lloyd Webber with his version of “RepubliCATS.”
  • And here’s actor Mandy Patinkin, taking issue with how GOP presidential candidate Ted Cruz is embracing his role in “The Princess Bride.”
  • Tech and the presidentials: The internet was mentioned a whopping 18 times during last night’s GOP presidential debate, but if you were paying attention and know anything about tech, you were probably cringing most of the time.
  • With millions of people watching last night’s GOP presidential debate, Twitter reports that the candidates who gained the most followers during the debate’s first hour were, in order: Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz. You read that right: Bernie Sanders, a Democrat who wasn’t in the debate, gained more followers than every other Republican candidate save Trump. (If you watched the debate live online at CBS News’ site, you saw these insights in real-time, by the way.)
  • Since you won’t find out most of these things from watching debates, the New York Times Interactive department has built a nifty tool for finding out where the presidential candidates stand on a host of top national issues.
  • Net neutrality opponent Marco Rubio has now added his name to a letter attacking the FCC for trying to help municipalities set up their own publicly-run internet services, Brian Fung of the Washington Post reports.
  • If you doubt the impact of Citizens United on this presidential election cycle, check out this one stat: Super PACs and other independent groups have run 35,743 TV ads on broadcast and cable TV, compared to just 291 by traditional advocacy groups, Matea Gold reports for the Washington Post.
  • Brave new world: Google and Facebook could face huge fines amounting to billions of dollars if they fail to comply with tough new European Union privacy rules, Elizabeth Weise reports for USA Today.
  • Security researchers found a huge hole in Target’s gift-registry app, one that allowed anyone to access reams of personal information, Dan Goodin reports for ArsTechnica.
  • FBI Director James Comey testified yesterday on Capitol Hall, calling on tech companies to change their “business models” and stop providing their customers with encryption by default, Dan Froomkin and Jenna McLaughlin report for The Intercept. Told by Senator Mike Lee that encrypted apps would still exist, Comey acknowledged that “the sophisticated user could still find a way.”
  • Related: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is calling for Silicon Valley to do more to counter ISIS’ influence online, David Sanger and Amy Chock report for the New York Times.
  • Trump watch: Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen hears cries of “Sieg Heil” directed at Black Lives Matter protesters at Donald Trump’s Monday rally in Las Vegas. Literally.
  • Kamua Bell explains the #WhitesAgainstTrump movement, which has started trending on Twitter.
  • What sharing economy? Quartz’s Alison Griswold reports on the continuing controversy over Airbnb’s business practices, centering her account on the company’s hyper-controlled approach to data transparency in New York City (they are offering limited viewing hours to internal spreadsheets at a “data room” they occasionally set up here at Civic Hall). The best line in the piece goes to NYC council member Helen Rosenthal, an Airbnb critic. She tells Griswold, “When I met with Chris Lehane (Airbnb’s recently appointed head of policy and a former Bill Clinton aide), he said flat out that he did not agree with our laws. I did not realize that a $25 billion company can just decide which laws they do and do not agree with.”
  • Richie Ross, a veteran labor organizer who worked under Cesar Chavez, is championing legislation in California that would enable gig workers to self-organize and negotiate with the companies whose apps they are working through, George Skelton reports for the Los Angeles Times. He notes, astutely, that Ross’ legislation is unlikely to pass, since business wants to keep these workers exploitable as independent contractors and labor unions want them redefined as traditional employees subject to current labor laws.
  • Related: Seattle’s city council has voted to let Uber and Lyft drivers unionize, Marielle Mondon reports for Next City.
  • Open society: Sam Borden and James Montague report for the New York Times on the rising impact of Football Leaks, a whistleblowing website modeled on WikiLeaks that is driving attention to soccer scandals worldwide.
  • new report from Philamplify, an initiative of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, calls on the Knight Foundation to “Look Beyond #ShinyBrightObjects” and “Do More to Promote Equity.”
open data Sharing Economy Transparency



In the absence of open data standards, companies like Airbnb can define their own terms for behaving in an “open and transparent” way.

  • In early December, Airbnb made headlines by releasing some data on how people are using the company’s platform in New York City.

    In doing so, the company has provided an object lesson in the critical role that data plays (and will continue to play) in government regulation of private companies in the 21st century, and highlighted how ill-equipped governments are to obtain and use this data.


    Over the past year, the use of Airbnb to rent properties in New York has received intense scrutiny from government regulators because of suspicion that a non-trivial amount of rentals listed on the site were in violation of state or city rules. In late 2014, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman released a report examining Airbnb rentals in New York that concluded that “most short-term rentals booked [through Airbnb’s service] in New York violate the law.”

    The recent data release by Airbnb was meant to make good on a promise by the company in response to the Attorney General’s report to be “open and transparent,” and to underscore its contention that the vast majority of the users of its service do so in compliance with state and local laws.

    From the start, the release of this data was viewed with skepticism by some journalists, activists, and others that closely watch the “sharing economy.” In order to view it, interested parties needed to make an appointment to review the data in person at Civic Hall, where Airbnb is an organizational member. The data was highly redacted, was not published to company’s data website, and those viewing it were not allowed to copy it to review it more closely after their scheduled appointment.

    In the weeks that followed the release, outside reviews of the data seem to contradict Airbnb’s primary claim that most of its hosts are using the service lawfully. Others have cited the need for more detailed information to draw definitive conclusions. Though Airbnb has indicated that it would like to share similar data on usage for other cities, there is no indication that the company will release more detailed information for New York City.

    It seems clear that the ultimate question of whether Airbnb’s service is being used lawfully will be determined by examining data on how people use the service. State regulators and others know this and have used legal and other means to try and get this data. Airbnb also knows this, and it has carefully constructed its limited release of data (and its public outreach about this data release) to assert that they are in compliance with the law.

    But if data is at the heart of government’s ability to regulate Airbnb and other “sharing economy” companies, why are they so ill-equipped to obtain and use it?


    At its core, the sharing economy—whether defined by the example of UberAirbnb, or one of the other standard-bearers of this emerging class of business—represents a change in the way that people consume goods and services that is enabled by advances in technology. This change in consumption results in a challenge to an existing, entrenched market actor (for Uber, the taxi industry; for Airbnb, the hotel industry) that is subject to existing government taxes and regulations.

    The challenge for public officials and regulators is to avoid stifling new innovation that can result in better services but at the same time to ensure the fair and equitable application of rules that have been set up to regulate business operations and protect consumers. This is an issue that can have significant political implications. Striking the proper balance between competing needs can indeed be tricky.

    But this challenge is not a new one for governments—tension between regulators and private interests spans the history of collective governance.

    Supporters of the sharing economy commonly criticize existing government regulations as outdated and ill-suited to support innovation by 21st century technology companies. Reputation systems are often pointed to as a 21st century alternative to traditional government regulation, to ensure that sharing economy firms and similar types of companies act in the best interest of consumers.

    But there are a number of common examples where consumers engage in transactions for which they have an abundance of reputational information where the company providing the services is also highly regulated by government. Consider the example of dining out at a restaurant—never before have consumers had as much information as we do now about the quality and cleanliness of food service establishments. And yet, restaurants and food service establishments are highly regulated by multiple levels of government.

    In addition, recent research specifically examining reputation systems used by technology companies suggests that reputation systems and more traditional central regulation can work beneficially in tandem. A recent study from the Ohio State University examined the reputation system used by eBay in conjunction with a buyer protection program—a centrally managed program to provide protections to buyers and recourse if they are dissatisfied with purchases (an approach strikingly similar to the notion of centralized regulation). The study concluded that:

    “[W]e estimate that the total welfare rises by 2.9% after the introduction of the buyer protection program. This increased welfare demonstrates an efficiency gain by having the two mechanisms, the eBay Buyer Protection and eBay Top-Rated Sellers, in place.” [Emphasis added]

    Sharing economy supporters also claim the the growth of companies like Airbnb, Uber, Taskrabbit and others has led to a fundamental change in the economy, with more people opting to become freelancers who—to paraphrase the words of sharing economy companies—become masters of their own destiny. But another recent study from George Mason University suggests that the freelancer phenomenon began long before the advent of sharing economy companies like Airbnb and Uber:

    “Our data support the claim that there has been an increase in nontraditional employment, but the data refute the idea that this increase is caused by the sharing-economy firms that have arisen since 2008. Instead, we view the rise of sharing-economy firms as a response to a stagnant traditional labor sector and a product of the growing independent workforce.”

    The George Mason study helps to clarify the role that sharing economy companies can play in a changing economy—as opportunities for traditional employment become scarcer, the sharing economy may play an important role in providing employment for a changing workforce.

    But we should not allow these potential benefits to be offset by other negative consequences that may arise if sensible regulations are not applied sharing economy companies.


    The exercise of regulating private interests by government almost always involves an information asymmetry. Governments seek to discover the occurrence of specific activities that are subject to regulation and to apply relevant rules and taxes to those activities.

    Prior to the digital age, governments sought to (and still seek to) address this asymmetry by hiring groups of trained employees like auditors, inspectors and agents. The job of these individuals is to investigate certain kinds of activities and transactions to determine if the activity in question falls under the authority of a specific regulation or regulating entity, and then to enforce any applicable rules or taxes.

    With the rise of the internet and the dawn of the digital age, governments have employed a wide range of new tools to help ensure that the activities of private interests comply with rules that have been adopted by elected and appointed bodies. The steady march of technical advancement has also made compliance with government mandated taxes and rules easier and more efficient for businesses than ever before.

    The tension between how technology alters production and consumption patterns, and how these new patterns square with existing government rules is not new.

    In the 1960’s, the rise of mail order retailers began a protracted debate on the application of state and local sales taxes to remote sales—a debate that has raged through the time when internet retailers like Amazon developed and flourished, and that still rages today.

    In the early 2000’s, a new class of business—bolstered by the increasing availability of broadband internet access—began to offer consumers new options for telecommunication services that bypassed the Publicly Switched Telephone Network. In a scenario that is remarkably similar to the sharing economy, these new VoIP companies competed against large entrenched industry incumbents that were heavily regulated by government by offering customers improved service, a better customer experience, and lower prices.

    The tension between the new service being offered to consumers VoIP companies and existing government rules was ultimately resolved by an order from the FCC.

    So while the tension with existing tax and regulatory requirements created by technical advances is not new, and existing government institutions have shown they are capable of resolving these tension to the benefit of consumers, things are a little different when we consider the companies that make up the sharing economy.

    Sharing economy companies self identify as “technology companies”—not dispatch companies (in the case of Uber) or hoteliers (in the case of Airbnb) that happen to make heavy use of internet technologies. They position themselves not as providers of a service, but as enablers or connectors that bring together individuals that want to transact with each other.

    The issue with respect to government regulations as they relate to sharing economy companies is not so much that existing regulations are outdated as some have claimed. Instead, it is that the infrastructure for ensuring compliance with these regulations was not constructed for the 21st century—or, at best, the infrastructure has been minimally and very unevenly built.

    Government regulations need to speak the native language of these companies—in the 21st century, this language is almost always data in JSON or CSV format delivered over HTTP.


    Consider Airbnb’s recent data release—what if the State of New York, as part of its request to the company to share data, had offered Airbnb the ability to publish data to its open data portal?

    The state could have provided the company with a user account and requested that they publish their data using that account at regular intervals to allow for scrutiny by regulators and other interested parties. They could have provided Airbnb with existing guidelines for ensuring privacy as well as metadata guidelines to help ensure data quality.

    Even if Airbnb didn’t opt to publish data to the state’s open data portal, the request to do so would have helped to better qualify the deficiencies in the data the company actually did release. The state’s portal already contains scores of data sets with detailed information from dozens of agencies. Are technology companies like Airbnb less equipped to publish data on their core business operations than the State Liquor Authority? Really?

    With very few exceptions, government open data portals are one-way vehicles—transporting data unidirectionally from government agencies to external consumers. Governments largely don’t view their open data portals as platforms for comingling data from different data producers, much less as vital instruments for successful 21st century regulation.

    But what if they did?

    With complete enough data, the question of whether an Airbnb host is in compliance with the law is fairly easy to spot. The issue is that in the absence of a standard mechanism for sharing this data openly, companies like Airbnb can define their own terms for behaving in an “open and transparent” way.

    We need to expand the way we think about open data so that it’s not just about agencies publishing data to an open data portal, but instead is an integral way that we collectively help ensure the health and stability of our communities. We need to expand our notion of “government as a platform” to go beyond just building new civic apps to helping ensure efficient compliance with rules that are adopted collectively through democratic processes.

    We’ve started to assemble some of the building blocks for this new infrastructure, but we now need to put the pieces in place.

    For example, some governments publish data on zoning rules as open data. But we need to go beyond simply publishing this data and expose these rules through an interface that allow them to be encapsulated in a transaction. This work has only just begun and is,for now,largely driven by actors outside of government.

    Imagine an infrastructure that would allow companies like Airbnb to instantly determine if a potential short-term rental was authorized under local zoning and rental regulations, and to determine if a rental tax was due on the transaction and the amount.

    We are woefully short of this goal.

    In fact, in jurisdictions that specifically require short-term renters to register with the local government, there is no interface that supports an automated check to determine if a specific property has a permit and is authorized to conduct such a rental. The absence of this essential infrastructure to enforce local regulations may go a long way toward explaining the dismal rate of compliance.

    It seems clear that governments will not be able to successfully regulate these new companies without the infrastructure necessary to do so.

    Building the infrastructure for 21st century regulation will require us to expand our ideas of open data and government as a platform. Checking for compliance with tax and regulatory requirements—by either party in a sharing economy transaction—should be as simple as making an API call.

    Constructing this infrastructure won’t be done overnight, and it probably won’t be inexpensive. But the stakes for state and local governments have never been higher.