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Presidential debates are just a showroom for the internet

Presidential debates are just a showroom for the internet

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Lots of things have been eaten by the internet. Amazon turned Best Buy into a warehouse where people go to try out cameras before they walk out empty handed and buy them online; iTunes murdered Tower Records; Craigslist kidnapped the classifieds section of every newspaper in the country; YouTube staged a heist of every VHS in the America's Funniest Home Videos vault. And now Twitter, Facebook, and Google are taking over presidential debates. Each has contributed to prior debates at some level, but Google said today it's taking even more steps to insert itself into the conversation by allowing candidates to offer rebuttals in Google Search results. It's just the beginning.

There's a reason people like Donald Trump can unilaterally manipulate cable news and ignore the print media establishment. It's the internet! When Trump started a beef with Fox News, a lot of smart people didn't think he'd come out on top of that one — but then he brushed off Roger Ailes and won, all because he can ignore Bill O'Reilly and tweet whatever he wants. The presidential field is highly engaged on Twitter, where candidates regularly spar and get attention for their remarks outside of Twitter. It's not even behavior that's exclusive to the election cycle; members of Congress have been caught thumbing tweets during floor business, hearings, and especially during the State of the Union. All of these venues simply provide a date and time for the real action to happen elsewhere.

Before there was the internet, there was C-Span

Using political institutions as pulpits isn't anything new, and if you were a lawmaker before the social internet really took off, one of the best things you could do is camp out on the floor of your chamber and deliver an impassioned speech. Members of Congress did this a lot, and still do — often with nobody else in the room — so their clip might make it out of the C-SPAN archive and onto real television, or at least for their rhetoric to become immortalized in the government's version of Livejournal. Now there's Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, Instagram, and tons of other venues with none of the traditional gatekeepers, and successful politicians can use them all as leverage to get what they want out of the old guard or just ignore them when it's convenient.

CNN, Fox, and NBC are all just showrooms now

CNN, Fox, NBC: these are all just showrooms now with a stage to display products that they don't really control anymore. Internet search results and "trends" are now as integral to the presentation of debates as old-fashioned polls, even if they might be electorally meaningless. I cringe every time I read that Bernie Sanders "won" a presidential debate on Twitter, even if he wasn't actually part of that debate. But there's a sliver of truth behind making that observation in the first place. Journalists are forced to recognize on a practical level that they no longer host the primary venue for discourse in democracy, even if they strain themselves before every event to hype it as if it's the most pivotal thing to happen in election history. "The stakes could not be higher," they say, before ceding the broadcast to a screencap of Google autocomplete results.
Google made cable news even more of a showroom for the internet today when it announced that it's going to elevate lengthy rebuttals and positions from candidates in search results, live, during the next Republican debate. "Political search interest spikes 440 percent on average during live televised debates as people turn to the web to learn more about the candidates and their platforms," Google wrote. "By publishing long-form text, photos, and videos throughout the debate, campaigns can now give extended responses, answer questions they didn't get a chance to on stage, and rebut their opponents." The candidates have been doing this informally on Twitter since the first debates of the 2016 campaign began, but now it's a Thing.

Traditional media giants are losing their control while Silicon Valley titans seize it, but the decline of cable news' influence on elections might be a good thing. When everyone wants to watch a debate on YouTube that sources questions from Facebook, figure out who's on stage with Google, and see candidates trade barbs on Twitter, who will need Fox News?