You can post debate questions on Facebook, but Fox News will decide what gets asked

CNN and YouTube cosponsored a Republican primary presidential debate in 2007. Hans Deryk/Reuters

On Thursday evening, the largest lineup of Republican candidates in presidential campaign history will share the stage for a Fox News/Facebook-sponsored presidential debate.

That Facebook is cosponsoring the debate shows how important social media now is in politics.

It also reveals the tension that exists between who controls the agenda: the public or professional journalists.

Over 70% of adults in the United States use Facebook, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Its reach is nearly as great as that of cable and satellite TV subscriptions. More importantly, social media users tend to be younger people – a demographic that can be difficult for politicans to reach.

Facebook also collects an incredible wealth of information about its users. Before the debate, Facebook will share with Fox News data about what issues its users are discussing. Fox, in turn, will use that data to create some of the questions before the debate.

But while social media is a powerful tool for collecting questions from the public, it hasn’t made the process more democratic. That’s because traditional media outlets still limit the public’s impact.

YouTube was first

While it might seem novel for a social media outlet to cosponsor a debate, Facebook’s sponsorship of the GOP debate is not the first one.

YouTube cosponsored two primary debates in the fall of 2007 – one for the Democratic candidates in September and one for the Republicans in October.

Research I conducted on the first social media debate shows how hard it is for candidates, journalists and the public to figure out how to strike a balance in terms of who gets to ask the questions.

That year, CNN partnered with YouTube in the hope of increasing viewers for the primary debates, which historically have poor ratings. The idea was that the public would upload video-recorded questions for the political candidates. A select few would be aired during the debate for the candidates to answer live. The hope was that the novelty of these videos would draw a big audience. CNN’s gamble paid off. The debates broke records for viewership of cable news primary debates.

Candidates, though, weren’t happy. They feared getting inane or disrespectful questions that they’d have to answer on national television. CNN quelled their fears by choosing the videos rather than letting the public pick them.

Mitt Romney, in his first run for the Republican nomination, continued to balk at the idea of public participation. In the Democratic debate, the first question was a talking snowman asking about global warming. This only resolved Romney’s view that the public asking questions by YouTube was inappropriate. He didn’t cave and agree to accept the YouTube questions until the week before the Republican primary debate – but only because he was at risk of being the only no-show.

Facebook joins in

In 2008, Facebook joined the political bandwagon. In 2012, it co-sponsored with NBC a Republican primary debate two days before the New Hampshire primary. Facebook created a page on which the public could post questions. Facebook also produced a widget through which people could pose questions to the candidates during the debate. Producers selected a handful to ask the candidates.

On August 6, Facebook and Fox News will again let the public pose questions to the presidential hopefuls. As in the 2008 YouTube debates, the public can post a video question to the Fox News Facebook page. Unlike in 2008, if the public visits the page, they can’t view the questions submitted – they simply go into a black box.

My research on the CNN/YouTube primary debates in 2007 showed that CNN did not pick the questions that best represented the public’s concerns.

The video questions posted to YouTube were primarily issue-related and asked many more questions about education and good governance than were selected by CNN. The public also posted far fewer “strategic questions” than were actually aired during the debates.

Strategic questions are ones that focus on who is ahead or behind in the polls or how they will try to beat their opponents. My research suggests that the public is more interested in issues than strategy – at least when they have the opportunity to ask the candidates a question.

Because Fox News is not sharing the videos with the public for Thursday’s debate, we have no way to compare how different the public’s agenda is compared with those of journalists this time around.

In the age of mass media, we saw citizens rather than journalists ask questions during the Town Hall-style debates that were introduced for the first time in the 1992 presidential general election debate between Bill Clinton, George H W Bush and Ross Perot.

In the age of social media, we see the public getting to ask more questions, but journalists still control the agenda.

This story has been updated to correct the date of the first Facebook debate.