Twitter Will Bring #Paris Questions to Tonight’s Debate
When news of the terrorist attacks in Paris broke yesterday, many of us who were groping for understanding, or just basic information, turned to Twitter. We saw streaming updates from journalists on the ground; hashtags offering Parisians shelter in the chaos; Periscoped live-streams of the aftermath; and heavy-hearted messages of solidarity from people around the world.
Now, as the Democratic presidential candidates take the stage tonight in what will no doubt be the most poignant debate of this election season, Twitter is working with CBS News to bring users’ questions and concerns to the very people who would be tasked with protecting the country as commander-in-chief.
CBS has already acknowledged that last night’s horror in Paris will feature prominently during tonight’s debate in Des Moines, Iowa. And Twitter, which is sponsoring tonight’s debate, will play a crucial role in bringing the rest of us into that conversation.
“On Twitter, we’ve seen a lot of the questions shifting over to Paris in the last 24 hours,” Christopher Isham, vice president of CBS News, told a group of reporters gathered at Drake University, where the debate will be held. “We’ll take that into account and expect some of the questions to be used.”
In many ways, Twitter has become the modern day spin room during debate nights, crafting the narrative before traditional TV networks and campaigns have the chance. That’s why Twitter decided to sponsor the debate to begin with, says Sean Evins, Twitter’s partnership manager for government and elections, because Twitter is uniquely positioned to show what people are talking about minute-to-minute and second-to-second.
Already, the company had built tools for CBS to demonstrate which candidates and topics were being talked about most on the platform and help moderators find questions coming through during the debate for the candidates. “We’ve never been able to say to candidates, ‘This question was asked seconds ago,’ and that’s what we’ll be able to do here,” Evins says.
After the attacks in Paris, Twitter’s team worked through the night to ensure its tools will be able to help the moderators uncover conversation about Paris, along with the existing topics the team was already tracking, like health care and the economy. In a moment of so much grief and confusion, it will be particularly important to elevate the voices of average Americans in the debate.
But that is also what will make tonight’s debate so tricky for both the candidates and the moderators to navigate. As we grapple both online and off with the tragedy, the last thing any of us wants to see are the country’s leaders attacking each other on stage. At the same time, the night also presents an opportunity for the candidates to demonstrate leadership in a time of crisis.
The moderators themselves will have to strike a careful balance between respecting the situation in Paris while also challenging the candidates on issues unrelated to the attacks. Isham emphasized this morning that though the Paris attacks will be a topic of conversation, the debate will not focus exclusively on foreign affairs.
That means after the candidates have offered up their prayers for the victims and their plans for how to cope with the attacks, at a certain point tonight, the moderators will decide they’re ready to move on. But will we?