Online Political Debates: Make Substance and Clarity Count

by / March 31, 1996
Online political debates over modern media (the computer nets) won't replace face-to-face debates, but they have significant advantages and few disadvantages -- at least, not for honorable candidates and advocacy that can stand the light of intense public scrutiny.

Local campaigns can use local civic nets. State and national campaigns can use the nonprofit, nonproprietary Internet -- that is also accessible to those who use higher-priced services such as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy.

Thousands of debates -- or discussions -- occur online, with worldwide participation. The process begins when someone posts a message in a public forum identifying the subject and making an opening statement.

As others electronically visit the forum -- minutes or days later -- they may simply watch ("lurk"), or may add their own comments, if permitted by the forum "owner."

Many of the best online forums are moderated by their owners, through which all forum postings are channeled. Moderators usually exercise restrained control, merely filtering out content-free or off-topic comments. (Otherwise, they are vigorously criticized in other public online discussions, and quickly earn ill repute.)

An online campaign debate could operate with the moderator limiting questions, responses and rebuttals only to those who are legitimate candidates (by mutually agreed criteria). However, the moderator's control would only be to verify that comments came from the campaigner (avoiding forgeries), and assure that comments meet agreed-upon size and timing limits.

An online debate costs almost nothing, but can reach thousands of journalists and voters within minutes or hours, who -- in turn -- can and often do cascade interesting content on to thousands of their online contacts, at the stroke of a key.

It has a maximum potential audience of 30 million to 60 million people who are, on the average, upscale and often more affluent (translation: potential donors). Net users are also -- more often than the average -- in policy, management and leadership positions in their work and their communities (translation: can influence voters).

It has no schedule conflicts, nor schedule excuses. Candidates and their trusted advisors can draft their questions, proposals, responses and rebuttals
from anywhere, at any time, wherever they are located.

(Campaigners could type their own responses -- which makes about as much sense as them doing their own typing after being elected to office -- i.e. generally, they should let some staffer's fingers do the walking.)

It allows candidates to make their statements -- presumably under time and space limits. But in addition, they can reference more comprehensive information about any given topic, simply by giving an access pointer to where that information is located online, where anyone who is interested can retrieve it almost immediately, essentially without cost or effort. (However, this is only of value to those candidates who have substantive positions on the issues.)

It allows campaigners to consult with their advisors -- rather than studying play books and training with speech coaches and handlers as is the case for face-to-face debates.

Candidates have ample opportunity to consult and develop thoughtful responses, since online debates typically occur over a period of days -- or weeks -- with each participant posting only one or two comments per day. Thus, their responses can accurately and completely present their views.

Some members of the press dislike this. They want more spontaneous interaction -- more entertaining and
with greater likelihood of some inadvertent slip.

But the fact that someone is entertaining is rather poor criteria for selecting political leaders. We don't want to elect clowns (or so we say), and we want our policy makers to seek the best advice and give each decision careful consideration. Don't we?

So why ask candidates to do less when they present their positions to us prior to an election?

* It avoids the need for "a pretty face." It's been said that homely Abraham Lincoln probably could not win a presidential election in this era of television. Perhaps one of the more serious impacts that television has had on politics is that -- essentially -- a candidate who is visually or verbally unattractive has little chance of winning an election, or of persuading voters in a televised pitch or debate -- regardless of how well qualified they are.

In contrast, it's often said online that, "There are no bad haircuts in cyberspace." (It's also been said that "no one knows you're a dog" -- but that, of course, is not applicable in this situation.)

Online, only two things count -- the substance of what is presented, and the clarity and persuasiveness of its written presentation.

* An online debate easily facilitates free, immediate polling and feedback from the audience, regardless of size or geographic distribution. There are numerous ways to structure volunteer or active-outreach polling, conducted entirely by (free) e-mail or other mechanisms. With appropriate design, it can even permit automated counting of the responses.

Citizens -- and the press -- can "watch" the debates online at any time, from any place in the world. They can easily save the full text of the candidates' exact statements for later retrieval, review, excerpting and redistribution whenever desired. (Perhaps we shouldn't mention this aspect of it to the politicians.)

For the first time, independent of time and location, citizens and candidates can bypass the editor's scissors and the news-casters voice-over "translation" of candidates' actual statements.

There is another benefit: For the first time in history, everyone who is interested in a political debate can also have equal access to simultaneous, parallel online discussions -- including national and global experts, pundits and activists -- in the moderated and "immoderate" worldwide forums about every conceivable issue, that occur continuously, online.

Statewide debates have already occurred in Minnesota and surely elsewhere.

And in January, I proposed an online debate by Republican presidential candidates that would have been hosted by mainstream media including U. S. News & World Report and the Mercury Center at Knight-Ridder's San Jose Mercury News.

However, only three candidates accepted -- Lugar, Taylor and Collins (Dornan agreed in writing; then reneged) -- although all say they are competent to "lead" us into the Information Age and the 21st century.

The question is not if substantive online candidates' debates will become part of all major political campaigns -- the only question is whether it will happen this year.

Jim Warren has served on the California Secretary of State's Electronic Filings Advisory Panel, received John Dvorak's Lifetime Achievement Award, the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists' James Madison Freedom of Information Award, the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award in its first year.
He founded the Computers, Freedom & Privacy conferences and InfoWorld magazine. He lives near Woodside,

Calif. E-mail: