Friday, November 30, 2007

Why is anyone shocked that YouTube debate questioners are plants?

I never thought I'd post uncritically to a Michelle Malkin post, but this brings up some very interesting issues.

No, not about the fact that CNN did a piss poor job of background checking those questioners, though it did. And no, not that CNN has a liberal bias, which I don't really think it does.

The issue it really raises is... Who has the time and motivation to submit a video for a YouTube debate? Mostly committed political activists looking to make a point, of course. It's the same as with any online poll: the results can't be trusted because a vocal minority will overwhelm an unmotivated majority. So it's no shocker that someone who works for a union is going to ask the candidates how they will make sure we "have safe toys in American again and keep jobs in America." Why wouldn't a union take the opportunity to try and raise the salience of an issue that works well for it?

Plus, these CNN/YouTube debates are premised on the idea that a broad cross section of Americans are into making and posting personal videos online. Totally untrue. The vast majority of content on YouTube is either pirated professional content, stupid videos made by teenagers, or low budget professional stuff (like mine!). Personal video diaries are, by and large, a media myth. Lonelygirl15 is phony, remember. (and that, btw, is why the much hyped new Web series Quarterlife, premised on the idea of 20-somethings who keep Web diaries, feels so fake).

Finally, don't forget the fact that very few people actually watch these early presidential debates. Most Americans, even those who vote in the primaries, probably didn't even know there was a YouTube debate.

To summarize:
-very few average people watch these debates or care about them
-very very few regular people actually make personal videos for youtube and could thus be expected to shoot a video of themselves asking the candidates a question
-in any survey open to anyone to answer on the Internet, we regularly find results skewed by an active and vocal minority.

So... we shouldn't be surprised that we don't get many "real" questions at a YouTube debate. Frankly, the idea that any regular people are going to take the time to shoot, edit, and upload a question that has a small chance of being asked at a debate that they probably wouldn't watch anyway is ludicrous.

I love the idea of letting citizens ask questions at debates. But if we're going to try an experiment like this again, can we please use some basic scientific methods to make sure we're starting with a pool that's actually representative of the population (or of Republican primary voters, or whatever group it is) BEFORE we start letting them submit questions? Can you imagine how mobilized the interest groups will be to get a question in if we have a similar YouTube debate next fall for the general election? It'll be a nightmare.

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