Candidate forums have long been a staple of the local political process, gatherings where constituents can ask questions to potential council or school board members in a public setting.
But in the politically charged community of Trophy Club, the forums have become less public and more, well, social.
For the upcoming Town Council election, a group called Residents United for Trophy Club is hosting a series of candidate forums on its Facebook page. The forums will have different days devoted to each contested council seat, said Julie Folley, administrator of the Facebook page.
The Facebook forums were first held last year, but Folley said this year is the first time multiple candidates will participate. Folley said Residents United created the forums so residents can easily quiz candidates, from their living room couch or desk at work.
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“We feel if we get people involved at home they will be interested,” Foley said. “And if they’re interested, they’re more willing to vote.”
Online political forums are not new — politicians at the state and national level regularly interact with voters online, and countless message boards provide a venue for hot-topic discussions. But for residents of a small town like Trophy Club to organize a candidates forum on Facebook is uncommon for the North Texas region, where town hall meetings are still the norm.
Mark Tremayne, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington Department of Communication, said he’s not surprised that local candidates are using social media as a way to get their message out.
“At the federal level you see things like [President Barack] Obama having a Twitter town hall meeting and Q&A on Reddit, so the idea of candidates on social media interacting with voters is pretty common these days,” said Tremayne, who studies social media. “As far as forums on a social media platform, I would hazard a guess that it’s something to expect to see more of in the future.”
Tremayne said that the Facebook forum is a great opportunity to reach more people, especially in a small town where TV debates are not practical. He noted, however, that online forums could be an issue for people who don’t use social media or who prefer face-to-face forums where candidates are forced to answer questions quickly.
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University in New York, said the value of the forums depends on the quality of the answers given.
“If they ask shallow questions and get shallow answers, very little is gained,” Gitlin said. “If some citizens make an effort to ask probing questions, then I would think there's the potential for a higher level of campaign.”
Folley said the format does not allow for a give-and-take among candidates.
“This is a Q&A forum and [the candidates] can’t talk to each other, it’s all about their positions and information, not facing each other,” Folley said.
How it works
In the Trophy Club forum, those who are interested in participating must be members of the Residents United for Trophy Club group. Thirty minutes before the forum begins, participants must sign in on the comment section of the group and request a spot in the queue.
Folley will keep a list of the people who signed up and then alert each resident when it is their turn to ask a question by writing it in the comment section on the Facebook page.
Candidates, who will be in different locations, then have 10 minutes to compose their answers. Folley will monitor the page and make sure they post their responses at the same time to ensure fairness.
No candidate can mention the other in their answers, and any inappropriate answers will be removed, she said.
Each forum will last 90 minutes, and a PDF recapping the questions and answers will be posted on the Facebook group afterward.
Trophy Club Councilman Philip Shoffner participated in the forums last year and said he likes the format.
“I think it was a no-brainier for me, especially when you consider the citizens who make up [the group] and how they consistently help each other as a community. As a candidate, that’s the citizens you want to reach,” Shoffner said. “You do a live debate, like Trophy Club has had in the past, you might get lucky and have a few hundred people attend. By participating in this format, I had the potential to reach not only the people who participated that night, but the 1,000-plus other members who could read it the next day, the next week, whenever.”