Science·Analysis

Facebook, Twitter test ability to engage voters with role in U.S. election debates

Sure there are doubts about how they make editorial decisions, but with Twitter and Facebook committed to a role in the four U.S. election debates, the question is, can they draw in the unengaged voter?

Presidential debates to be 'communally experienced, must-see' events

Construction crews hang part of the set as preparations continue for the Monday presidential debate between Democratic Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump. Twitter and Facebook have deals with broadcast partners for the four debates scheduled. (J. David Ake/Associated Press)

Tonight, when people tune into the U.S. general election debates, for the first time ever, they won't just be in the living rooms, in front of the television set. They'll be in the streets, at the office, or on the bus, watching from their tablets or smartphones.

Just last week, Facebook announced that it will team with ABC to live stream all four of the debates, three for presidential candidates, one for potential vice presidents. Twitter followed suit, partnering with Bloomberg to live stream debate coverage on its platform. These strategic partnerships between traditional media outlets and social media companies represent a significant moment in the evolution of live video. While everyone's been experimenting with how to engage viewers online, there's been a push to see more "television-style" content on Facebook Live, and now we're seeing that come to fruition.

"The debates are going to be what has become more and more of a rarity in news and entertainment: a live, national and international, communally experienced, must-see event," says Rachel Sklar, media writer and political commentator. "Everybody wants a piece, and they want it everywhere."

How interactive will it be?

With Facebook and Twitter live streaming the debates, the big question remains, will it truly change the way voters can interact or engage with that process, or will the social media platforms continue to push out TV-style one-way content?

Facebook is much more than just a distribution platform - it has become a cultural ecosystem. On one hand, the live streaming of these debates is notable because it marks a new era of TV.

But it's also significant because a political debate should be a non-partisan media event, and Facebook has received a huge amount of criticism over the last year for censorship, bias, and a lack of transparency. Just a few weeks ago the social networking giant was accused of censorship when it removed a historic Pulitzer-winning photo of Vietnamese children fleeing the site of a napalm attack. Earlier in the year, the company was at the centre of another controversy, over how it selects which news stories appear as "trending" in people's feeds.
How will the social media generation react to the style of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump? (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Mark Zuckerberg has argued that Facebook is a technology company, not a media company, as a way of avoiding the regulation and standards to which news outlets adhere. But as the scope of the company's reach extends into media, news and politics, the need for accountability becomes ever pressing.

LIVE DEBATE COVERAGE

Watch the debate live on CBCNews.ca, CBC News Network and CBC Radio One starting at 9 pm. ET. CBC News reporter Matt Kwong and poll analyst Éric Grenier will be taking your questions and fact checking the candidates' remarks on our live blog.  

In addition to streaming the debates, ABC has said it will stream from inside the spin room, where reporters will incorporate questions from the Facebook audience as they speak with debate participants and attendees. Twitter's model, which has been tested in live streams of the Democratic and Republication National Conventions, as well as recent NFL games, includes a live feed of Twitter comments alongside the video stream.

How do you vet the person who is asking a question and make sure that it's not overtly biased towards one party?- Ramona Pringle

Where Facebook has faced backlash over a lack of transparency when it comes to its editorial decisions, Twitter could face a similar response with regards to the way it picks and chooses which tweets are highlighted along the live streams. Using a combination of algorithmic and human filtering, the real-time feed is cleaned up so that users don't need to wade through a digital swamp of overly offensive remarks, or spam comments from the millions of bots that populate the platform.

But this filtering of public commentary raises concerns over the potential for political bias, and transparency about who is making the decisions over which public comments we see featured alongside the video stream.

The challenge of millions of voices

Granted, accounting for the voices and opinions of the millions of users on these platforms is an incredibly complex challenge. For instance, how do you vet the person who is asking a question and make sure that it's not overtly biased towards one party?
Hillary Clinton took a question from Twitter in a debate last year, a moment that one commentator called 'the first good use of social media in debate history.' (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

But it's not impossible. During a debate last year, Hillary Clinton took a question about campaign donations live from Twitter, which Slate called the "first good use of social media in debate history." In a follow up question to Clinton, the debate moderator Nancy Cordes cited online conversations and Twitter chatter, reflecting the concerns of the digital audience.

As media critic Brian Stelter pointed out in a tweet, it was the moment internet users had been waiting for, where the media gate-keepers acknowledged the presence of Twitter's user base, and not just by saying "we're reading your tweets," but "we're reacting."

With over a billion users worldwide, the sheer magnitude of Facebook's audience reach is significant. The appeal of the social networks, to the broadcasters, is that they can attract viewers who may not be watching television, including cord cutters, and younger voters.

Engaging the non-voters

"It's notoriously hard to get young people to pay attention," says political analyst Andrew McDougall. "Having the politics come to them on channels they use can only help."

Rachel Sklar agrees. "If broadcasters are smart – and they are finally and reluctantly coming up the curve – they will try to capture the rising generations of media consumers who are untethered and expect to be able to access content from wherever they may be."

So how will all of this engage potential voters in the campaign process, and ultimately, what effect will it have on voter turnout? Live streaming the debates on these interactive social media platforms could be — and should be —revolutionary. There's been a huge amount of hype around live video, but if it doesn't do things differently than the traditional broadcasters, it's just another screen, playing the same content.

HOW TO WATCH

  • For pre-debate coverage, watch Power and Politics with Rosemary Barton starting at 5  p.m. ET.
  • For a financial perspective on the debate, watch On the Money, with Peter Armstrong, at 7 p.m. ET.
  • Live debate coverage starts at 9 p.m. ET on CBCNews.ca, CBC News Network, CBC Radio One.
  • Post-debate, join Rosemary Barton and the team from Power and Politics for ​highlights and analysis from 10:30 to 11 p.m. ET on CBC News Network and CBCNews.ca.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.

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