Backseat Moderating

It isn’t really my intention to get political in my Digital America column, because that kind of topic tends to almost immediately divide readers and force them to challenge their own personal beliefs by comparing them to those held by the men and women campaigning to represent them as elected officials. A healthy exercise in critical thinking and discussion, but not really conducive to the tone I’ve set in my previous entries (though I have discussed the significance of digital tech when it comes to spreading information in the wake of a political revolution like the Arab Spring).

With that being said, I was watching the Democratic Presidential Debate on November 14th and a few things stood out for me from an “oh, that’s interesting, I should mention that in a blog post” point-of-view. For one thing, the hashtags and @ symbols were out in full force that night, sitting beside both the debate’s header (CBS News #DemDebate) and next to each of the candidates’ names on their podiums (@BernieSanders, @HillaryClinton, @MartinOMalley). Looking at photos from previous debates in the past, like this, this, this, this, and particularly this, it’s pretty interesting to me that this may be one of the first times that social media has been so significant in the political process that the Twitter username has overtaken a simple first and last name as an appropriate way to identify the candidates to audiences. I’m also surprised they didn’t use Twitter handles to identify the 47 people on the Republican debate stages this year, but that’s besides the point.

Facebook, Twitter, and other sites have played crucial roles for both the political campaigns of those running for office as well as the news companies looking for a cheap and effective way to get a general feel for how Americans are feeling about the elections. One tool that’s always stood out for me has been the horizontal line graph that popped up during some of the past presidential debates that gauged, in real time, how male and female voters were reacting to what was being said live on television. In an era where public enthusiasm for these types of elections has been tempered by big-money, career politicians, the feeling that one’s vote can’t possibly change the inevitable outcome, and so on, social media has (for better or worse) brought the public together in futuristic ways. In the late 1800s, if you had one family living on a small farm in Wyoming and another family living in a mansion in New York, and you supported the same candidate, you couldn’t really interact with each other like you can today. Facebook comment sections have become the great equalizer among voters and their (often very, very strong) opinions.

Anyways, that brings me back to the Democratic Presidential Debate from this past weekend, or what I like to call, “The ##@#@###@#@##@#@#@## Debates.” At one point, one of the moderators turned to Twitter as a means of including public commentary into the mix of questions. Keep in mind that this debate is live. @HillaryClinton (yes, that’s how I’ll refer to her from now on, since it was on her name tag) had made some controversial remarks earlier that night regarding Wall Street donations, the 9/11 attacks, and women, and social media had been buzzing for a whopping 30 minutes or so.

In a bizarre “Got Ya!” moment that bordered on surreal, a moderator brought up one particular Tweet that had been sent during the debates and threw it up on the big screen behind the candidates. It read, “@AndyGrewal: Have never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations. Until Now. @HillaryClinton #DemDebate.” The moderator asked @HillaryClinton to respond.

This moment immediately put @HillaryClinton on the defensive, forcing her to pull a response out of thin air that SOMEHOW resulted in some awkward applause after she was done. I think these people were clapping because she managed to actually come up with a response at all, though it certainly was a hail mary. In fact, @HillaryClinton’s campaign directly addressed the Tweet after the debate had ended, and Clinton’s communications director said that the Twitter user “had mischaracterized the remark.”

“This is not in response to donations,” Palmieri said. “That is what the person on Twitter did.”

@AndyGrewal, on the other hand, humbly accepted his newfound fame (and new followers) and began to re-Tweet some amusing content, including one Tweet that read, “Hillary apologizes to you for how you properly interpreted her response.” He also Tweeted an offer to the @HillaryClinton camp: “I will retract my  tweet in exchange for 10% of your Wall Street donations.”

Here’s a video of the incident, for your amusement.

This moment stood out for me more than any other moment in the debate not because of her weird attempt at dodging the point, or the fact that she managed to confuse me even more. It’s because this style of questioning, the “immediate public response to something you just said on a stage and now you’re held accountable and have to come up with a response on the fly” method, proved to be not only effective at catching @HillaryClinton off-guard, but it also brought together the candid feel of “town hall debates” (where the public shares the mic and they can directly communicate with the candidates in the same room) with the scripted feel that some of the more typical debates have the tendency to express.

That particular moment has been heavily discussed these past few days. The Tweet had originated from @AndyGrewal, a law professor whose Twitter bio reads, “Law Professor, University of Iowa, ‪@IowaLawSchool; Blogger ‪@YaleJReg; B.A. ‪@WilliamsCollege; J.D. ‪@UMichLaw; LL.M. ‪@GeorgetownLaw.” News outlets, including both local newspapers and sites like New Republic and Newsweek, have written about his infamous Tweet and the fact that his comment spoke for millions of Americans who had been bewildered by @Hillary Clinton’s remarks while watching the debate.

Even @AndyGrewal, who seems like a pretty cool guy, has been using his newfound popularity to share additional thoughts on the issue as a whole, including this particular re-shared Tweet that I enjoyed:

@ShitAcademics Say: “Perhaps the most interesting thing about academics and social media is that the most traditionally influential feel above it, leaving almost completely unattended a massive lane of influence for those not asleep at the wheel”

Is this the dawn of an era of even more immediate accountability? In the past decade (specifically the early-21st century, candidates running for public office can make a dumb remark or a failed connection between, say, Wall Street campaign money and the September 11th attacks, but they would then be able to leave the podium, discuss the issue with their advisors and speech writers, and come up with their own press release explaining what they had actually meant and that “mainstream media” got ahold of the gaff and decided to run with it. Now, if you’re on a stage and a Twitter handle is hovering in front of your chest, you’re not just interacting with the two or three moderators that are sitting in front of you: you’re dealing with millions of inquisitive Americans who are chomping at the bit to get one of their zingers on Twitter to show up on stage at the next debate.

Can you imagine what the journalistic landscape would have been had Twitter existed in the past?

@GeorgeHWBush 12h ago: For the record, I was NOT looking at my watch out of boredom! There was a bug on my wrist and I was trying to identify it.

@DickNixon 7h ago: Damn, they really need to turn these lights down…is it hot in here, or is it just me? Oh, it is indeed just me? Hmm.

@TeddyRoosevelt 14h ago: For those criticizing my high-pitched voice, bugger off. I was just shot in the chest in October and I’ve risen a few octaves since then.

@WilliamHTaft 1h ago: I did NOT break that bathtub! Some water spilled out. Damn reporters…

@MartinVanBuren 5h ago: Ik hoop dat de mensen mij zullen herinneren voor mijn kookkunsten en niet mijn raar haar.

@GeorgeWashington 12h ago: Remember that cherry tree? I used the wood to make my own teeth. THAT’S the kind of guy you want on your side.

I’ll leave you with a small piece of an interview with @AndyGrewal, the unlikely hero of that night’s debate. We need random people like Andy to hold ALL politicians accountable, and to provide endless amounts of witty banter online. Both of these things are equally important to me.

“There I was, sitting in my pajamas, not watching the Hawkeyes, when I see my name and question posted to Hillary Clinton,” Grewal said. “… I was just left wondering how they found (my tweet).”

He does plan to watch and to live-tweet upcoming debates, especially those featuring Republican candidates.

“It’s encouraged me to be more snarky in the future,” Grewal said of his 15 minute of fame. “… It’s somewhat depressing. I’ve written hundreds pages in law reviews and pored over thousands of pages of tax analysis, and what I’m best known for is a pithy tweet.”

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