Hijacking the Physical Public Forum Space and a New Town Hall

Posted on August 12, 2009 by

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Dominating news headlines and public conversation over the past few days has been the outrageous antics pulled by citizens at townhall debates in communities across the US.

While the health care system has been talked about by wonks, news analysts, and other “experts” for years on end, now the debates have become open for public discussion between public officials and citizens.

While I’m all for democracy, that public discussion however has turned real ugly. The public discussion manifested in the form of community town halls with local congressman across the US, have been habitually hijacked by people wanting do little more than shout at meetings.

Shouting is not debate. Shouting is not democracy. What is happening in the townhalls is equivalent of message board trolling.

Least when on a message board, you can filter a lot of trolling. If someone is going to keep posting nothing more than crap that amounts to “George W. Bush sucks” or “socialism sucks”, knowledgeable people who read a posting can immediately disregard that person’s posts as a non-credible source of information on a chosen topic, without regard to race, gender, age. Knowledgeable people save themselves a lot of time by skipping over non-credible sources of information. Knowledgeable people can tune in and out of different debates on a message board when and wherever they want.

However, knowledgeable people and ignorant people alike can’t skip over non-credible sources of information in the physical space of a townhall meeting. Knowledgeable and ignorant people can’t tune in and out of different debates because there is usually only one debate, one topic, and one speaker at a time. This one debate, one topic, and one speaker at a time is when trollers can take their floor space to keep shouting!

Just keep talking about the scariness of big bad government dictating your health needs, shout socialism, and suddenly your viewpoint is as credible as a Democratic Congressman’s or a Brookings Institution wonk.

I think the traditional townhall meeting is easily hijacked because there is only one debate, one topic, and one speaker at a time. Find a politician in support of Obama’s health care reform, round up a mob of homogenous trollers, and get ready to complain, whine, and scream no matter what salient points are brought up. Get ready to be the main speaker at one point when everyone actually has to pay attention to you, so get ready to stand out so that people will awaken and recognize the truth.

I wonder if there is a way to make townhalls more like live, real-time message boards. Multiple debates, multiple topics, and a way to accept, yet easily ignore unsubstantial shouting.

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