Open Debate Coalition: a failed format for fake debates

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The "Open Debate Coalition" - a group consisting of people such as Glenn Reynolds ("Instapundit") and Stanford law professor Larry Lessig [1] - is calling on John McCain and Barack Obama to open the presidential debates by allowing questions chosen by regular people and not just the MSM.

However, what they support has not only been proven to be a failure, but two of the signatories helped show how such formats can be gamed and another was involved with the system that was gamed. In brief, their proposal is a farce and a setup.

From this:

They prefer use of bubble-up Internet technology, which they call "the essence of the internet as we know it." In effect, online users submit the questions and then vote on their favorites, pushing the most popular to the top of the list. Debate questions would be taken from the top 25 vote-getters.

The experience of shows how that can be gamed. In November, Patrick Ruffini was able to propel a weak question to the top of the 10 Questions heap and it was asked of the candidates in some way. The month before, MoveOn was able to propel an even weaker question to the top of the heap, and that was asked of Obama during an MTV/MySpace televised debate. Not only that, but BHO had already stated his position on the topic months before.

Guess what: both Ruffini and two people from MoveOn are signatories on the current letter. And, another signatory is from TechPresident, the group that produced 10Questions. I guess they all want another crack at an "open debate".

I've already discussed how to make such systems work. And, in fact, I proposed that system to one of the groups behind 10Questions and they weren't interested. Instead, they joined forces with the New York Times and MSNBC to push the weak format that Ruffini and MoveOn were able to game.

Other systems show how a raw popularity vote pushes weak questions to the top and submerges the ones that partisan hacks don't want to discuss; for one example, see this.

So, why is the "Open Debate Coalition" proposing something that's a proven failure? Could it be that they don't really want real debates at all but are simply partisan hacks who want to manipulate the debates to their own advantage? Perish the thought!

UPDATE: In response to the first comment from Adam Green with MoveOn:

1. I'll take his word for it that Ruffini's question wasn't asked on TV. If it wasn't asked there, I assume it was asked of the candidates in some way. I've changed the above.

2. About the MoveOn/net neutrality question, this site says: "Obama's revelation wasn't exactly jaw-dropping" and I'll go a bit further. That question was akin to asking, "Comrade Lenin, do you agree that shoelace production is up 43%?" Ideally, questions should be adversarial and that was not.

3. There are literally thousands of bloggers and hundreds of various kinds of pundits who could vote under my plan, and all their votes would have the same weight. Under the "bubble-up" plan, Instapundit and others who get a large amount of traffic could cancel out the votes of almost everyone else simply by encouraging their readers to vote up certain questions. Under my plan, tough questions about immigration would stand a chance; under the "bubble-up" plan they'd be voted down by Party hacks who don't want that topic to be discussed.

4. No moderator, aside perhaps from those who'd never be selected as a moderator, would assuage my concerns about those who don't want tough subjects to be broached attempting to put their thumbs on the scale.

[1] Here are the members of the coalition. Almost all of the ones I'm familiar with are partisan hacks:
Lawrence Lessig – Professor, Stanford Law School & Founder, Center for Internet and Society
Glenn Reynolds – Professor, University of Tennessee Law, and founder of blog
Craig Newmark – Founder, Craigslist
Jimmy Wales – Founder, Wikipedia
David Kralik – Director of Internet Strategy, Newt Gingrich's American Solutions
Eli Pariser – Executive Director, Political Action
Adam Green – Director of Strategic Campaigns, Political Action
Mindy Finn – Republican strategist, former Mitt Romney Online Director
Patrick Ruffini – Republican consultant, Bush/Cheney 2004 eCampaign Director
Arianna Huffington – Founder, Huffington Post
Markos Moulitsas – Founder,
Jon Henke – New media consultant, including for Fred Thompson, George Allen, and Senate Republican
Mike Krempasky – Founder of
Matt Stoller – Founder/Editor,
James Rucker – Executive Director,
Robert Greenwald – President, BraveNewFilms
Kim Gandy – President, National Organization for Women
Carl Pope – Executive Director, Sierra Club
Micah Sifry – Co-Founder, Personal Democracy Forum and
Shari Steele, Executive Director, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Josh Silver – Executive Director, Free Press
Carl Malamud – Founder, Public.Resource.Org
Roger Hickey – Co-Director, Campaign for America's Future


Hi, this is Adam Green with MoveOn. I appreciate you taking the time to think about these issues. And I agree with your analysis of the YouTube debates -- that too much control was in the hands of gatekeepers. You are mistaken on some of your facts, and I disagree with your main opinion. So, wanted to comment. Fact: Patrick's question was not asked on TV. Only 1 was, the one about Net Neutrality. Fact: Obama had not answered that question before. He was supportive of Net Neutrality, yes. But the question specifically asked if he'd make it a priority during his first year in office and if he'd pledge to only appoint FCC commissioners who agree with open Internet principles. He answered yes -- breaking big new ground. This was also the first time a Net Neutrality question was asked during the presidential campaign, so it's a little surprising you'd be against that. I disagree with your solution: Let prominent bloggers decide the questions? So, replace one set of gatekeepers with another? That makes no sense if you have the ability to let the wisdom of crowds prevail. If you think a question is weak, that's your opinion --- vote it down. If people agree with you, it won't be asked. Note: Unlike 10Questions, today's letter doesn't mandate that the top questions all be asked. It allows a bubble up process pick the top 25 questions, then a moderator can choose from there...this mitigates the gaming concerns you should have. (Though what you call "gaming" is actually groups of citizens who care about an issue organizing online around that issue to ask public officials about it --- seems like a pretty good thing, surprising that you'd oppose.) Thanks again for paying attention to these issues. Glad you are.

My suggestion is that we should divide the debate into rounds, just like a boxing match, where in each round the candidates rattle off some short, prepared remarks about an issue and then are asked questions about and can discuss that issue. And just like boxing, between rounds a scantily clad woman walks around holding up a card showing the topic for the next round; the people at home watch commercials about laxatives, denture cream, beer, etc. At the end of the debate, a panel of celebrity judges -- including TLB favorite Paula Abdul of course -- will score each candidate, and presto you know the winner.