Before the tweet, there was the telegram. Writer Adrienne LaFrance, in a recent Atlantic article, recalled that after a 1956 TV speech that cut into regular television programming, Adlai Stevenson, that year’s Democratic nominee for president, received a telegram from a viewer—an apparent Eisenhower supporter—that read, “I like Ike and I love Lucy. Drop dead."

Fast forward 60 years, and American voters now have new ways to vent in real time, this year tweeting and Snapchatting and Facebooking their views about which US presidential candidate—Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump—is better qualified for the White House. According to Twitter spokesman Nick Pacilio, Monday night's 90-minute televised presidential debate was the "most tweeted debate ever," expected to exceed the 10.3 million tweets tallied during the first US presidential debate in 2012. Additionally, there were an estimated 80 million viewers watching the debate on television, and additional millions watching it simultaneously on smartphones, tablets, and laptops—and using social media to criticize or cheer on their candidates. Many also “watched” debate reactions on social media feeds alone, without watching the debate at all; most media companies were live-tweeting the Clinton-Trump exchange as an alternate form of instant commentary on the proceedings.

But one of the biggest differences among voters this year, say new media researchers, is a growing preference by those using social media to go beyond merely watching, tweeting, and sharing. Now, say media researchers, many people using digital media in their everyday lives are starting to want more of a direct say in debate programming itself—chiefly over what questions and follow-up questions debate moderators ask, and what topic areas they cover. "Many people using these social media tools are saying, 'Hey, what about us? Don't we get to play a role? Don't we at least get to help filter some of the questions?" says Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference that explores technology's impact on politics.

Jill Lepore, a political historian and New Yorker staff writer, told The New Yorker Radio Hour on Sunday that technology changes alter the way we argue and that this year's fractious civic debate over the presidential election presents an opportunity for voters to demand new ways to participate—beyond watching the debates and arguing among friends and colleagues. "As messy and maddening as these presidential debates can be, she said, "there is a real opportunity for voters" this year, amid a dramatic "coarsening" of the debate, "to sit up straight, get a little frustrated, and start wondering, what are some of the other ways people could be speaking with each other ... and participating in politics?"

Christine Cupaiuolo, lead author of a new report out this week funded by Democracy Fund and Civic Hall, says social media can and should be used by debate organizers to engineer a long-overdue overhaul of today's 56-year-old debate format—largely unchanged since its creation in 1960 for the first nationally televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. Today, she says, people want to see candidates interacting more directly and authentically under pressure. Further, she says, social media have turned election-year formality—and some say 1960s-style civility—on its ear. Cupaiuolo's report, called Rethinking Debates: A Report on Increasing Engagement, looks at social media experiments giving debate-viewers more say in Australia, Taiwan, France, Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and in some local elections in United States, and highlights format changes that have proved either successful or noteworthy. Voters using social media, she says, "feel more empowered to be part of the democratic process."

According to the report, most of the experimentation is with the use of real-time feedback platforms like live-streaming and crowdsourcing, viewer-response tools, voter-generated questions, and emerging media platforms designed to give voters a chance to "co-participate" by adding at least some of their questions and follow-up questions for consideration.

"In the first presidential debate in 1960," Cupaiuolo says, the candidates and their managers insisted that reporters ask all debate questions. "I think they thought—and this has been the case with subsequent presidential candidates and their campaign managers—that the candidates would look bad if they were seen fighting one another, and if they were talking directly to one another." Managers also thought that if the debates weren't moderated by reporters who knew the candidates and the issues, "a candidate would risk easily coming across as being mean, and if you were in a stronger position as a candidate, you could risk being seen as almost giving the gift of your attention to the other candidate(s)."

Rethinking Debates cites a particularly successful use of new interactive technologies to heighten audience engagement, used by CNN in the United Kingdom last year. During an April debate ahead of the general election, CNN invited 130 people (selected according to official UK guidelines on politically balanced debate audiences) to join moderator and CNN Correspondent Christiane Amanpour on-set. They were seated in the round and equipped with iPads to give instant feedback on some of the candidate's remarks—on topics like immigration, the economy, and European Union membership. Audience members had eight seconds each time a question came up on their iPads to select "yes," "no," or "no opinion"; a sea of smiling, frowning, and neutral emoticons would start to appear on the circular wall, reflecting their sentiments. Drawing on the results, Amanpour would then guide the conversation with the panelists and occasionally ask on-the-fly questions for additional instant input. During a question on whether there should be a referendum on membership in the European Union, the electronic wall surrounding the set lit up, mostly, with smiley faces. The final tally: 57 percent in favor of a referendum; 36 percent against; 7 percent neutral. The conversation among the debaters took off from there. "By combining technology with added comments, the audience was treated more like invited guests than members of a jury," Cupaiuolo says. "And Amanpour still had room within the format to ask follow-up questions and push the guests." According to Gavin Douglas, the CEO of iPowow, the TV participation technology used to wire the audience for instant input, the debate set-up "was a first for television and a political milestone."

Cupaiuolo says some television network executives also think it's time to give voters ways to participate more directly in live-televised debates. TV advertisers, she says, would prefer voters to be co-present rather than immersed in social networks without direct connection. Adds Douglas: "Tweets and Facebook posts drag your attention away from the main television screen, which is where the 'million dollar content' is—the content that advertisers want to make sure you're watching."

Innovative debate formats highlighted by Cupaiuolo in her report:

  • In Taiwan, a crowdsourcing platform called, "President, May I Ask a Question?" enabled candidates to post responses to questions that didn't make it into the debate.
  • In the Philippines, Facebook partnered with the Philippines Commission on Elections (Comelec) and various broadcasters hosting the 2015 election debates to provide data that could help inform the questions moderators might ask the presidential candidates. "This included conversational trends, such as the top political issues people were discussing (on social media) in different parts of the country," the report says. Facebook and Twitter, another Comelec partner, also assisted with crowdsourcing questions ahead of the debates.
  • In Guyana, where the Internet penetration is less than 40 percent, the nonprofit organization Merundoi hosted a series of debates in advance of elections in March, the first local government elections since 1994—and solicited questions from voters via Facebook, a dedicated Gmail address, and a phone number. The debates were broadcast by the National Communications Network and streamed live on its website.

"We really need to consider more seriously how to involve people in our national debates, in a way that respects their intelligence and takes more seriously their concerns," says Cupaiuolo. "Debates aren't perfect ways to involve people, but they can be very valuable."

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