In an apparent effort to prevent marijuana legalization from again dominating the discussion, Obama's next online townhall event will not allow participants to vote on their favorite questions for the president. But what does that say about the politics of social media? And will it even work?
It started with a simple and promising idea. The young voters who helped put Obama in office congregate on the Internet, and the best way to keep them involved in the political process is to meet them on their own turf. The incoming Obama Administration planned online forums mimicking the "thumbs up, thumbs down" voting systems that help rank the best content on popular viral sites like YouTube, Reddit and Digg. The President would solicit questions from the public and see what people cared about the most.
What no one anticipated was that the legalization of marijuana would emerge as the most popular political topic among the online public. Despite being initially chastised as "Internet trolls," supporters of marijuana reform repeatedly demonstrated their momentum in an open exercise of online democracy.
As startling as it was to see marijuana legalization taking a front row seat in mainstream politics, the outcome couldn't be ignored without defeating the purpose of the exercise entirely. Obama was forced to respond, and after an unfortunate first attempt to brush the issue aside, he eventually conceded just months ago that legalization is "an entirely legitimate topic of debate," but rejected it without explanation nevertheless.
It had become clear that as long as Obama's forums allowed the public to vote on topics for the president to address, the top-ranked questions would be about legalizing marijuana or even ending the War on Drugs altogether. Reluctant to confront the issue further, the White House recently changed its approach and announced an April 20, 2011 event on Facebook in which participants will not be allowed to vote at all. Questions can be sent in by email or posted on the Facebook page, but Obama's staff will make selections without any public input.
In some respects, this formatting change neatly resolves the "problem" that emerged in the last several forums. Although Obama's staff always had the discretion to select questions regardless of the vote, the presence of a visible count created transparency and pressure to address the most popular topics. Now that the voting process has been eliminated, there's no risk of a difficult question taking center stage and embarrassing the President again. Ignoring the drug policy issue entirely will be substantially easier this time, but at what cost?
The inherently democratic, vote-powered economy of ideas on the Internet has proven to be a remarkably powerful tool for discovering content of social value. The ability to click on what you like is the currency of social media and it offers insights into public opinion that may be worth more than meets the eye. The participatory nature of a vote-driven web forum makes people care about the outcome. Advocates for a wide variety of causes are inspired to spread the word and work to make sure their issue gets votes. The Obama Administration has abandoned the process simply to silence one particular idea, but the effect will be to make the forum less interesting for everyone.
Moreover, the rise of marijuana policy into the realm of mainstream public discussion should fascinate, rather than frustrate, our political leadership. It's a phenomenon that should at least interest our elected officials, even if they don't yet fully understand or care that marijuana prohibition funds murder in Mexico, that innocent family pets are slaughtered in botched pot raids, that precious wilderness is being devastated by black-market marijuana manufacturing, that racism defines our marijuana arrest rates, that public servants are being corrupted before our eyes, and that we blow billions each year just to keep the situation as bad as it's been for so long.
If advocates of marijuana reform have become annoying in their efforts to get attention, maybe that's because there is no official time or place to have this debate. How we deal with drug use in America is a question almost anyone would agree is profoundly important, and yet the discussion is ducked by our political leadership at every opportunity.
The real political significance of the Internet is that it's the one place where political priorities are spelled out by the people, unedited, uncensored, and allowed to stand on their own strength. The fact that marijuana legalization gains newfound momentum here is testament to the flawed political machinery of the past, not the quirks of the new social media tools that are just beginning to reshape political landscapes.
Indeed, until he is prepared to discuss the problems with our nation's marijuana laws in much more detail, the President's online events will remain a rather pointless and impractical exercise. If you don't believe it, check out what everyone's talking about on his Facebook page right now.