OnDC 09: Panel on Politics and Social Media

Moderator: Peter Corbett, CEO iStrategy Labs

Kevin Merritt, CEO Socrata, Inc. (A venture backed startup in Seattle that helps government agencies get data online and it social)

Vijay Ravindran, was at Amazon 7 years, @catalyst, now at Washington Post

Tom McInerney, Lt. General U.S. Air Force (ret.), Fox News Analyst

Mike Allen, chief political correspondent for Politico

Panelists were asked what was impressive to them so far about technology in politics and government. One mentioned the Pres. Obama campaign’s use of social media. Someone else said how IdeaScale and Google Moderator are being used in town hall meetings.

Vijay. Wikipedia’s announced move to use moderation in high profile pages, will ultimately make them more useful. At the Post, we’ve had success with whorunsgov.com, that shows government structure down at a lower level than Wikipedia.

Peter. This is about influencer identification and analysis. What other technologies are used for this? How can this harm or help our democracy?

Mike. There is great commercial value in being able to identify the right people and communicate with them. 3121 [an initiative of National Journal] is like Facebook for Congress. It’s named after the Congressional switchboard phone number. The idea is that someone will emerge in that community who will be the place you go if you are Rep and want to hear about immigration or if you are a Demo and want to hear about climate. It could be a low-level person. To be able to communicate through that person, to other higher level people, might be very helpful.

Vijay. It seems like Comcast’s customer service policy on Twitter is influenced by how many followers a customer has on Twitter. That has interesting implications if it spreads. Before, you had a broadcast mechanism to talk to voters; in our new social media world where you might be connected to 1,000 people and myself to 5, talking to a bunch that are connected to 1,000 — the multiplicative value makes you more valuable than you used to be. It changes the value in campaigns with young people, and it won’t be purely connected to turnout percentage.

Peter. So a young person may be willing to share a video or write a blog post or give $1?

Peter. How will things be different in the next election cycle? Anything you are excited for?

Mike. We are concerned about the fact that even though the technologies are billed as connecting people, they are in fact, sometimes isolating people. As more people get news from HuffPost or Fox, we aren’t having the common conversation we used to have. If a national campaign wanted to really move a story, have a big splash, they used to have to deal with AP, or Washington Post, or NY Times, but now there are a million places they can go to break a story. Politicians don’t need the Post or Politico. Their own content is now accessible. As we look ahead to 2010, the campaigns will have less and less worry about what we write about them, and will put more energy into reaching them directly. Campaigns are worried about their TV commercials being TIVOed (and skipped).

Peter. So is our democracy being strengthened by this or not? Is this better?

Mike. We love the fact the there is more you can get, and more premium quality. You used to have to read what your local news gave you. Now you can click away. You can see the raw speech, the raw materials for my story. You don’t need my account. There is a premium on understanding, explanation, things you can’t get from the raw materials yourself. I talk to journalism students. More smart people are reading more than ever.

Tom. Pres. Obama didn’t have a track record before, but now he’ll have a host of things about bills, etc. He’ll now live on what his accomplishments are. But he’ll have to justify what unemployment is, what the debt is. I don’t read the papers I used to read, I just get everything online. People consume a lot of content. It’s going to be interesting in the 2010 election, to see what role online plays vs. what the facts are and what people have to depend on. I’m in the TV business and everything is based on a 4-minute segment. You get 2 and the anchor gets 2. Your points have to come across quickly. It’s not in the depth. They do put a lot of background material up. Visual, sensual images have a powerful role to play. They can be quick and decisive.

Peter. How does the democratization of data play a role in our daily lives?

Kevin. Social media topic is an important one. I’m personally not very focused on the election process. We don’t look at that. But with regard to the use of social media, a couple of thoughts and concerns. One is: social media in general makes politicians more approachable than they have ever been. I went to an event 4-5 months ago Congressman Honda was there. Maybe it was because I had visited his page on Facebook, his feed on Twitter, I approached him, probably because I had the tangible sense that he was another human being. I don’t have a crystal ball on technology, but someone will take advantage of FB as a platform. Many people use Facebook Pages, but underlying this is a way to get into the social graph of influencers, people with large networks, there will be creative folks leveraging the platform for campaigning or fundraising. Vijay made a good observation on young folks being neglected, to them becoming a core central focus in the election process. We shouldn’t do that to the exclusion of those folks not comfortable yet with social media. Google Moderator had hundreds of thousands of logins during the Presidential Townhall. Kudos to the Sunlight Foundation for creating some interesting data sets that look at the political process, fundraising, lobbying, etc. I see interesting work in the future as more of these data sets come online, like Congressional calendars, as transparency comes into the process, you’ll see interesting ways of combining this data. We’ll get new learnings from this.

Peter. On the topic of transparency, exposing relationships, lobbying etc. Something was reported recently about lobbyists not having to register.

Mike. Pres. Obama is thinking of extending his lobbying restrictions to boards…. White house put out a letter today about lobbying rules. Facebook as a platform for candidates in 2010 — how little the surface has been scratched. David Plouffe, campaign manager for Obama, his book is coming out on Nov. 3, anniversary of election. He will say their key driver was email. FB and Twitter was helpful for the optics. But it really didn’t change things. Texting and raising money online is why he is president.

Q. Has the quality of news coverage suffered because of sound bytes?

Tom. You have to be on point and talk in sound bytes. On the radio you can do 15, 30 min, an hour.

Mike. Who covers the expensive stories? Few reporters travel with the president now. Few cover the wars. It’s because of the economics. When a paper loses $1 in paper, they gain $0.10 online. So we have more talk, but not necessarily more facts.

Peter. Last week a discussion started happening around news organizations converting to non-profits.

Mike. Pres. Obama said he would be open to it.

Tom. Mike Young can give you views from Iraq and Afghanistan that are very informative. Online, you can get good stuff and bad stuff online, but how can you tell which is which?

Audience question: how will fund-raising change in the next election cycle?

Vijay. They didn’t abandon the big fund raisers, but they incrementally added new ways to raise money online. There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in getting money through social. Like what examples of making money from Twitter. There have been donation apps on FB that have raised like $28 and have gone no where. With all the tools in the platform, you’ll see people taking a cut. It’ll be done as an additive. If they think they can run their whole campaign this way, it will be a short shelf life.

Peter. If you have someone’s email address, a couple of companies can analyze their social graph and target their friends.

Tom. The Obama campaign did that and those that did it have turned it into a commercial effort.

Kevin. Medicare, and all the procedures that take place in it, one of the big pieces that is not visible is the cost of these procedures. At Socrata, we were up for renewal on our medical plan. One item was $5 m lifetime maximum benefit, the other was $2 million. I have no idea how much things cost, like open heart surgery. So we are taking medical transactions, and stripping out all the personal identifiable information … you can do some trending and analyzing. With an Attorney General office, we are looking at the cost per unit of a prescription drug at any pharmacy in the state. Some places may charge twice as much per unit. So as we think about health care reform, part of it is giving people some sense of what things cost.

Kevin. We have 35 years experience working with email, we consider them records. But is a Facebook comment considered a record. Am I allowed to moderate it, or is it a violation of a freedom speech issue? White house is taking every social interaction as a record and they print it off and send it off to an archive. Once there is more clarity about what a record is….

Vijay. Most politicians use social media to broadcast their message more inexpensively and not really as a two-way exchange. How many comments from politicians have you read on their message boards or fan pages?

Peter. How many blog posts does it take to kill a tree? [Referring to the Obama administrations printing and archiving of all online comments]

Peter. You used to be able to target for political affiliation on Facebook, but it was taken down about a year ago. I don’t know why.

Vijay. In 2008, one side used social media a lot more than the other side. My sense is that it’s much more of a political leaning element as much as it is the age group, their social circles. I see as many libertarians using social media effectively as liberals.

Peter. Gallup poll showed 63% favorable for Obama, but I used ScoutLabs which showed bloggers were only 52% favorable to Obama–why the difference?

Someone mentioned a Twitter hashtag #tcoc to follow “top conservatives on twitter”

Vijay. The media doesn’t know how to cover these trends.

Q. what is the political killer app of 2010?

Peter. One thing I’d like to see is a very sound, fantasy candidate system. Where whoever wins, all their money goes to their candidate.

Vijay. I’d like to see something like Google Wave to be able to parse the unstructured conversations that are occurring …

Kevin. Micropayments and virtual goods might be tied together to raise funds on Facebook.

Q. Will republicans reach the level of sophistication like demos did in 2008?

Peter. A very specific candidate ran and won. Brand Obama was good. He had about 3MM subscribers to his SMS.

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