March 26, 2017

Government Shouldn't "Help" Citizens Pick Tough Questions for Obama

A couple of weeks ago, Julian Sanchez at Ars Technica, Ben Smith at Politico and others noted a disturbing pattern on the incoming Obama administration’s website: polite but pointed user-submitted questions about the Blagojevich scandal and other potentially uncomfortable topics were being flagged as “inappropriate” by other visitors to the site.

In less than a week, more than a million votes-for-particular-questions were cast. The transition team closed submissions and posted answers to the five most popular questions. The usefulness and interest of these answers was sharply limited: They reiterated some of the key talking points and platform language of Obama’s campaign without providing any new information. The transition site is now hosting a second round of this process.

It shouldn’t surprise us that there are, among the Presdient-elect’s many supporters, some who would rather protect their man from inconvenient questions. And for all the enthusiastic talk about wide-open debate, a crowdsourced system that lets anyone flag an item as inappropriate can give these few a perverse kind of veto over the discussion.

If the site’s operators recognize this kind of deliberative narrowing as a problem, there are ways to deal with it. One could require a consensus judgement of “inappropriateness” by a cross-section of users that is large enough, or is diverse with respect to geography, time of visit, amount of past involvement in the site, or any number of other criteria before taking a question out of circulation. Questions that have been preliminarily flagged as inappropriate could enter a secondary moderation queue where their appropriateness can be debated, leading to a considered “up or down” vote on whether a given question belongs in the mix. The Obama transition team could even crowdsource this problem itself, looking for lay input (or input from experts at places like Digg) about how to make sure that reasonable-but-pointed questions stay in, while off topic, off color, or otherwise unacceptable ones remain out.

But what are the incentives of the new administration’s online team? They might well find it convenient, as Julian writes, to “crowdsource a dodge” to inconvenient questions–if the users of adopt an expansive view of “inappropriateness,” the Obama team will likely benefit slightly from soft, supportive questions in the near term, though it will run the risk of allowing substantive problems, or citizen concerns, to fester over the longer term. And that tradeoff could hold much more appeal for the median administration staffer than it does for the median American.

In other words, having the administration’s own tech people manage the moderation of questions directed at the President may be like having the fox guard the henhouse. I agree that even this is much more open than recent past administrations, but I think the more interesting question here is what would be ideal.

I suspect this key plank of the new administration’s plans will never be able to be fully realized within government. The President needs to answer questions that a nonzero number of his most enthusiastic supporters are willing to characterize as “inappropriate.” And for that to happen, the online moderation needs to take place outside of .gov. A collective move toward one of the .org alternatives, for this key activity of sifting questions, would be a great first step. That way, the goal of finding tough but honest questions can plausibly sit paramount.


  1. but also a “nonzero number” of Federal prosecutors, people running ongoing investigations, and committees at various stages of investigation.

    Unless you’re either (1) willing to accept a bromide as a sufficient response or (2) deliberately advocating setting a populist “perjury trap” (not under oath, but most assuredly to be broadcast as if it were a deliberate lie if it can be distorted as such), it does not add to the information content of the dialog.

    Were someone actually indicted or charged (other than Gov. B), then the question becomes reasonable. While the process is still unwinding, a question that at its best produces no information and at its worst interferes with ongoing investigations, then it is clearly inappropriate, as defined by the Federal prosecutor.

    That you pretend not to see the difference is demeaning to you.

  2. I would tend to agree that these are some challenges for the administration to handle if they want to leverage this process and make it effective and engaging citizens in the debate about policy. Engaging on tough questions with honest, even-handed answers is part of what Obama’s initial appeal was and what a lot of people are hoping to get out of a new administration.

    But don’t forget, this is the first time any administration has done this, the first time anyone has used the particular technology on this scale. And they’re not even in office yet. To claim a “risk of allowing substantive problems, or citizen concerns, to fester over the longer term” would mean that these sorts of problems or concerns were being addressed today, when in point of fact they often aren’t even being raised publicly like this.

    I think the Obama team’s decision to dive into using this sort of technology is a great example of their openness to trying to foster this debate. Hopefully they will be able to improve the effectiveness of this channel over time.

  3. NO. It appears more open. Appearing more open is NOT the same thing as being more open. I would say it’s worse.

  4. Funny, when a Bush administration official answered questions at a press conference that turned out to have been planted by an aide, I don’t recall anyone commenting on how his novel technique for getting more information out to the public didn’t work as well as intended, and required significant changes to become effective at its purpose. Rather, it was assumed–quite correctly, I have no doubt–that the technique was intended all along to ensure that he only had to answer softballs rather than face tough questions from hostile journalists.

    Perhaps readers should try imagining the above story occurring during the transition into the Bush administration, to see if their assumptions change…

  5. One could require a consensus judgement of “inappropriateness” by a cross-section of users that is large enough, or is diverse with respect to geography, time of visit, amount of past involvement in the site, or any number of other criteria before taking a question out of circulation.

    I spent a lot of time thinking about this problem some time ago, David, and found it interesting but (as far as I could tell) ultimately insoluble. Any system that is that strict (to prevent bias in ‘important’ questions like the Blago issue) will inevitably be spammed by trolls, and any system sensitive enough to get rid of the trolls will almost certainly be susceptible to moderator bias. Moving to .org rather than .gov won’t solve the problem- the moderators there (see, e.g., slashdot, intensedebate) have a different set of biases, but biases none the less, and will inevitably ‘skew’ in a manner that is profoundly undemocratic, at least as we conceive of the term today. (Of course, we’ve got tons of filtering that introduces bias already, so maybe we should just accept that we’re going to have some bias- but whether we accept it or not it will be there.)

    • I agree that moderator bias may be an unavoidable property of troll-free systems. But that still leaves open the question of who the moderators are and which directions their biases point. Arguably, the press itself has an adversarial bias, a constant search for conflict, scandal and news.

      Maybe we want a range of different systems out there for sifting questions? One possibility would be to have an existing mainstream news organization begin to host or conduct its own user generated question-gathering, and then ask (some of) the questions its users urge. Being able to speak up in one pressroom or another in Washington and preface a question with, “115,000 of our viewers would like to know…” could be a powerful tool for any news organization.

  6. Anonymous says:

    All they need is a moderation system as is used on A certain small percentage of random registered users get a limited number of moderation points. Another small percentage of registered users get a limited number of metamoderation points. Also, you cannot moderate or metamoderate on a discussion that you have posted on.

    Works great on, which has a daily viewership in the tens of thousands.

  7. I keep asking will the goverment require all the Corp. officers to return all the money they have taken as bonus, etc. Why should we give the companies money? When all these fat cats are not making any effort to return monies they have wasted. They can sell the million dollar homes, the corp. jets..