Earlier this month, when I was asked by Al Jazeera English if I’d like to be go on live television to analyze the online side of the presidential debates, I didn’t immediately accept. I’d be facing a live international audience at a moment of intense political interest, without a great wealth of on-air training. That said, I felt honored to be asked by Al Jazeera. I’ve been following the network’s steady evolution over the past two decades, building from early beginnings during the first Gulf War to its current position as one of the best sources of live coverage and hard news from the Middle East. When Tahrir Square was at the height of its foment during the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera was livestreaming it online to the rest of the world.
I’ve been showing a slide in a presentation for months now that features Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” as a notable combination of social media, online video and broadcast journalism since its inception.
So, by and large, the choice was clear: say “yes,” and then figure out how to do a good job.
As is ever the case with new assignments, what would follow from that choice wasn’t as easy as it might have seemed. Some of the nuts and bolts of appearing were quite straightforward: Do a long pre-interview with the producer about my work and my perspective on how the Internet and social media were changing the dynamics of a live political event like the debate. (I captured much of that thinking here at Radar, in a post on digital feedback loops and the debate.) Go through makeup each time. Get wired up with a mic and an earpiece that connected me to the control room. Review each show’s outline, script and online engagement channels, from Twitter to YouTube to Google+ to Reddit.
I was also afforded a few luxuries that bordered on the surreal: a driver that picked me up and took me home from the studio. Bottled spring water. A modest honorarium to hang out in a television studio for a couple of hours and talk for a few intense minutes about what moments from the debates resonated online and why. The realization that my perspective could be seen by millions in Al Jazeera English’s international audience. People would be watching. I’d need to deliver something worth their time.
Entering The Stream
Live television doesn’t give anyone much room for error. On this particular show, The Stream, there was no room for a deep dive into analysis. We had time to answer a couple of questions of what happened on social media during the debates. Some spots were 30 seconds. Adding context in that context is a huge challenge. How much do you assume the people viewing know? What moments do you highlight? For this debate show, I had to assume that they watched the two candidates spar — but were they following the firehouse of commentary on Twitter? Even if they did, given how personalized social media has become, it was inevitable that what viewers saw online would be different than what we did in the studio.
When we saw the campaigns focus on Twitter during the debates, I saw that as news, and said as much. While the campaigns were also on Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, YouTube and blogs, along with the people formerly known as the audience, the forum for real-time social politics in the fall of 2012 remained Twitter, in all its character-limited glory.
Once the debates ended each night, campaigns and voters turned to the new watercoolers of the moment — blogs and article comment sections — to discuss what they’d seen. They went to Facebook and Google+ to share their reactions. To their credit, the Stream producers used Google+ Hangouts to immediately ask undecided voters what they thought and bring in political journalists to share their impressions. It’s a great use of the platform to involve more people in a show using the tools of the moment.
I’ve embedded each of the debate videos below, along with the full length episode of The Stream on data mining in the 2012 election. (I think I delivered, based upon the feedback I’ve received since in person and online, but I’m quite open to feedback if you’d like to comment.)
The Stream: Presidential Debates [10/3/2012]
The Stream: Vice Presidential Debate [10/11/2012]
The Stream: Presidential debates pre-show [10/16/2012]
On memes, social journalism and listening
The first two presidential debates and the vice-presidential debate spawned online memes. Given the issues before the country and the world, reducing these debates to those rapid expressions and the other moments that catalyzed strong online reactions was inherently self-limiting. The role of The Stream during the debates, however, was to look at these political events through the prism of social media to explain quickly and precisely what popped online. At this point, if you’re following the election, you’ve probably heard of at least two of them: Big Bird and “binders full of women.” (I explain both in the videos embedded above.) We also saw acmes of attention and debate conflict reflected online, from Vice President Biden’s use of “malarkey” to reaction to CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley’s real-time correction of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s challenge to President Obama regarding his use of “act of terror” on the day after the United States Embassy to Libya was attacked.
There are limits to what you can discern through highlighting memes. While it might be easy to dismiss memes as silly or out-of-context moments, I think they serve a symbolic, even totemic role for people who share them online. There’s also a simple historic parallel: animated GIFs are the political cartoons of the present.
Reducing the role of social media in networked political debates to just Twitter, GIFs and status updates, however, would be a mistake. The combination of embeddable online video, blogs and wikis are all part of a blueprint for democratic participation that enables people to explore the issues debated in depth, which is particularly relevant if cable news shows fail to do so.
There’s also a risk of distracting from what we can learn about how the candidates would make policy or leadership decisions. I participated in a Google+ Hangout hosted by Storify last week about social media and elections. The panel of “social journalists” shared their perspectives on how the #debates are being covered in this hyper-connected moment — and whether social media is playing a positive role or not.
Personally, I see the role of social media in the current election as a mixed bag. Networked fact checking is a positive development. The campaigns and media alike can find interesting trends in real-time sentiment analysis, if they dive into the social data. I also see an important role for the broader Internet in providing as much analysis on policy or context as people are willing to search for, on social media or off.
There’s a risk, however, that public opinion or impressions of the debates are being prematurely shaped by the campaigns and their proxies, or that confirmation bias is being reaffirmed through homophilic relationships that are not representative of the electorate as whole.
All that being said, after these three shows, I plan to watch the last presidential debate, on foreign policy, differently. I’m going to pocket my smartphone, sleeve my iPad and keep my laptop closed. Instead of tracking the real-time feedback during the debates and participating in the ebb and flow of the conversation, I’m just going to actively listen and take notes. There are many foreign policy questions that will confront the 45th President of the United States. Tonight, I want to hear the responses of the candidates, unadorned by real-time spin, fact checking, debate bingo or instant reaction.
Afterwards, I’ll go back online to read liveblogs, see where the candidates may have gone awry, and look abroad to see how the world is reacting to a debate on foreign policy that stands to directly affect billions of people who will never vote in a U.S. election. First, however, I’ll form my own impressions, supported by the virtues of solitude, not the clamor of social media.