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Is Obama’s ‘Open for Questions’ Site Rigged?

Published onMar 25, 2009
Is Obama’s ‘Open for Questions’ Site Rigged?

Take a look at Obama’s new Open for Questions website. In case you’re not familiar with the story, President Obama will be holding an online town hall tomorrow, and will take a series of questions from users on the WhiteHouse.gov website. The difference between this concept and past online-generated Q&A events is that the Open for Questions site lets users vote for their favorite questions, which are then listed by popularity à la Reddit or Digg.

During the event tomorrow, Obama will answer selected questions from among the most popular. I have no pretense that the questions won’t be screened, but even so, the top ten questions at the time of writing are all about, surprise surprise, the economy, and they already seem to have come straight from an outline of Obama’s economic stump speech, save one notable exception.

But here’s another interesting fact that many might overlook: half of the questions come from classic swing states Indiana, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Florida and Missouri. Two more are from the semi-swing states Oregon and Wisconsin. Moreover, the questions are nearly perfectly geographically distributed: there’s one from the West coast, one from the mountain West, one from the Midwest, two from so-called Appalachian states, two from the South, two from the Southeast, and one from New England. The notable missing states and regions, essentially population-rich New York and California, both heavily favored Obama in the 2008 election.

I’m not accusing the White House of anything nefarious, but it’s not like there’s no precedent for Obama deliberately picking swing states for high-profile online documents. Plus, near as I can tell there’s nothing on the site that mentions moderation of the questions or how the voting process works (aside from flagging), so it seems likely that Obama’s staff is free to manipulate the question lists as much as they want. Again, this is fine, but if the site is moderated, the White House might want to clarify how the site works so that people understand that it isn’t Digg or Reddit, and that more than just voting factors into how questions are ranked.

As a side observation, it’s interesting to note what types of questions come from where. The question from Pennsylvania is about manufacturing, the question from Houston is about the high tech industry, the question from Connecticut about 401Ks, etc. It all fits with areas of the economy that are suffering in those states.

The notable question I mentioned earlier is the one from Oregon, which asks why Obama hasn’t set up his promised online bill discussion site yet. I attribute this to the simple fact that internet-savvy voters are more likely visit the site and find that question interesting enough to vote it into the top ten over other more Obama friendly and economy-focused questions. Plus, if he chooses to answer the question, it will give Obama a chance to pimp the website, talk about the uniqueness of the town hall event itself, and highlight all the technology he’s worked with so far.

And on that note, one more, final observation: Google was chosen to run the Open for Questions service. Is that any surprise? The web company was among Obama’s largest donors during the campaign.

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