How Twitter Can Change the Presidential Debate
LIANE HANSEN, host:
I bet you never thought you'd hear of a Twitter debate in conjunction with the U.S. presidential election, but think again. This past Friday, representatives from John McCain and Barack Obama's campaigns launched an Internet debate about technology policy and government reform. The debate is being carried via Twitter.
Twitter is a social networking and blogging service that uses instant messaging as a form of communication. Each answer or "twit" is limited to 140 characters. The debate was organized by the Personal Democracy Forum, a Web site that explores the relationship between technology and politics. Andrew Rasiej is the forum's founder, and he joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.
Mr. ANDREW RASIEJ (Founder, Personal Democracy Forum): Thank you for having me.
HANSEN: How did the Twitter debate work?
Mr. RASIEJ: Well, Amery Cox, a well-known blogger who now writes for Time Inc., started twittering her two members of the political establishment, one from the Obama campaign and one from the McCain campaign. One hundred forty questions via Twitter, which they could respond to by Twitter, but it could all be followed online by a massive audience looking at short, quick answers to her questions.
HANSEN: It sounds very informal.
Mr. RASIEJ: That's the whole point of Twitter, which is to simply provide very quick information about a particular subject in a very defined manner, so that you're really forced to think about what you're saying so you convey it in very clear terms.
HANSEN: Now, this Twitter debate was launched in advance of the big conference you're going to be holding in New York starting tomorrow. It's called the Personal Democracy Forum, and your focus will be on rebooting the system, and some of the topics you'll explore will be online political advertising in 2008, the Internet fund-raising frontier, and how to generate a money bomb. What's a money bomb?
Mr. RASIEJ: A money bomb is when a politician tries to raise a large amount of money in a very short period of time using their network and using the power of social networking tools to generate the income almost instantly.
HANSEN: How do you expect the Internet to change the way we approach politics?
Mr. RASIEJ: I think it's going to do more than just change politics. I think it's going to change democracy. And there's the potential of the Internet to be used in a way that makes being involved in civic life and in politics, to be involved in the process of governing, a much more relevant activity, less abstract for the average American.
HANSEN: You know, there's an interesting philosophical question you've been exploring about the Internet age and the fact that it requires a new way of thinking about American democracy. What was the question that you've asked some of the people who will be attending the forum?
Mr. RASIEJ: We're actually releasing a book. It's a series of essays, and the fundamental question is if the framers of our Constitution had the Internet at their disposal in 1787, how would they have redesigned the Constitution knowing the power of this communication tool? And various people have approached it from different perspectives, some saying that it will create huge opportunities for transparency, some people saying that it's going to create privacy issues and concerns.
So we are challenging leading thinkers in the world of politics and media to ask themselves the question, how do we redefine our democracy in an information age? Allison Fine(ph), one of our co-editors, believes that people are going to be using cell phones and mobile devices to vote, and Joe Trippi, a well-known former campaign manager for Howard Dean and then recently a strategist for John Edwards, talks about how the Hillary Clinton campaign was the last top-down political campaign, and if all campaigns in the future are going to be much more modeled on what we're seeing in the Barack Obama campaign of 2008.
HANSEN: So it's more than just replacing the quill pen with the mouse, right?
Mr. RASIEJ: It's really rebalancing the power, not into the hands of the special interests and those with money, but into the hands of citizens who actually now can organize themselves - and let me just add that organized minorities are always more powerful than disorganized majorities.
HANSEN: Andrew Rasiej is the founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, which is holding its annual conference beginning tomorrow in New York. Thanks a lot for your time.
Mr. RASIEJ: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.
HANSEN: Technology and the Internet are undoubtedly changing the way presidential campaigns are run, and as Andrew Rasiej just pointed out, this raises questions like how democracy will be defined by all this new technology. But despite all that is new in this campaign year, there are still some old questions that can't be ignored, like the role of race in politics. Weekend Edition Sunday's blogger, Faye Anderson, takes a stab at addressing that issue. To read her thoughts about what race means to both Democrats and Republicans, go to her blog at npr.org/sundaysoapbox.