On Town Halls and Social Media

The social media town hall has become a staple of the Obama Administration with events conducted via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube in the past three years and a Google Plus hangout scheduled for Monday.

The social media town hall has become a staple of the Obama Administration with events conducted via Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube in the past three years and a Google Plus hangout scheduled for Monday.

Agency heads have followed suit, often taking Twitter questions during live streamed events. This month State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is answering questions every Friday from the department's 10 major language Twitter feeds.

Taking debate questions from Twitter and YouTube, a novelty during the 2008 campaign season, has become standard fare during the 2012 contest's numerous Republican debates.

Political pundits' verdict on these social media town halls has been generally positive and even dubious observers can't seem to find a political downside.

Whether these social media experiments bring something new to the table -- and what metric they should be measured by -- has sparked more spirited debate on Twitter and elsewhere. Having followed that debate along with the events themselves for about nine months now, I have a few humble thoughts.

Beware the 'tough question' fallacy

A common theme in advance of these events is that they'll prove their value if tough questions get through the mix. Even more often the events are criticized afterward because there were too many softballs. While I have a journalist's passion for a good zinger, I think it's a mistake to turn social media town halls into de facto news conferences. Mainstream reporters have their share of flaws, but asking tough, provocative questions in a formal setting typically isn't one of them.

Nor, for that matter, is answering controversial questions all that tough for politicians. If it's controversial, that probably means they've faced it before and come up with a good response. Obama wouldn't be president if he couldn't face a tough question or two. Victoria Nuland faces them for a living.

Popularity may not be the best guide, either

On a similar note, the most popular questions that bubble up through social media may not yield the most worthwhile responses.

The popularity fallacy is generally played up by the social media sites themselves. During Obama's July Twitter town hall, for instance, the site urged participants to retweet their favorite questions and employed a team of "curators" to root out queries that best represented the public mood. YouTube, which is picking questions for Monday's Google Plus town hall, has said it will look to raw popularity when choosing questions along with striking a balance between video, text and live questions and between several broad categories such as jobs, education and national security.

If there's a large enough constituency for a question that it bubbles up from among the more than 100,000 questions posted to the White House YouTube page, though, there's a pretty good chance the administration has addressed it before.

Three of the five most popular questions on the YouTube page Thursday evening, for example, were about the Stop Online Piracy Act. Not only has the White House already said it opposes SOPA, but the House bill and its Senate counterpart have both been effectively killed for the remainder of the year.

So what makes a good social media town hall question?

There's no perfect answer to this, but something I keep coming back to is questions from a minority or marginalized group -- a group with genuine grievances that might never get aired but for the flattening effects of social media.

In advance of State Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland's first #AskState Twitter briefing earlier this month, the most popular question under the department's English language Twitter feed, for example, was about U.S. policy toward the separatist Pakistani region of Balochistan. While that region hasn't been totally ignored by U.S. media it's far from standard fare. Answering any of those questions would have helped to raise the issue's profile in the U.S. and shown the administration is at least paying attention to the Balochi's concerns.

Instead, Nuland answered a question about why the United States hasn't taken action to remove Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, whom the International Criminal Court has charged with crimes against humanity. That question wasn't a softball by a longshot, but the U.S.'s unwillingness to put troops on the ground in Darfur has been a well-worn topic for years and Nuland's answer didn't add anything new to the discussion.

Sometimes it's not the answers that matter

The legalize marijuana lobby's miraculous capacity to dominate every single social media event Obama engages in hasn't brought the president any closer to changing his position on the issue. The most that lobbying has produced out of the administration was a brief mention from Obama during a 2009 YouTube town hall in which he mainly played the issue for laughs and a pro forma response on the administration's We the People online petition site.

More digital ink has likely been spilled about the marijuana questioners than any other group Obama did address at his multiple town halls, though, which has likely brought the issue more into the public consciousness than it would have been without the town halls. It may even have brought the issue more into the mainstream by showing its supporters aren't just aging hippies and college stoners. Isn't that worth more than a few tepid responses from the president?

Give 'em a break

It's easy to see the flaws in any of these events: safe questions, no follow ups when the president or another official clearly ducks the main thrust of the question, and a general focus on digital style over policy substance. It's tougher, though, to figure out how to do it better. For now, at least, political reporters are in no danger of being usurped by the social masses.

There's something fundamentally democratic, though, about the average citizen being able to address his president and demand an explanation. That's never been a workable model in this country, even at the founding of the Republic, but this may be the best proxy for it we've yet come across. And the fact that the administration has embraced it so eagerly goes beyond mere political stumping. It's also a precedent that future administrations will be pressured to follow.

Remember, as old as they may seem sometimes, it's still early days for social media. Twitter, Facebook or one of their successors may yet find a way to turn one of these events into a real conversation. When that happens, with any luck, some president will be there.