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The hodge-podge of political discussion boards online can give you a headache. Usually it’s a matter of who can scream the loudest and attack the fiercest. And if the subject is economics, someone will spout off on abortion. Plus, how can you find the right forum for the issues that concern you or your locale?

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), which is Canada’s national public broadcaster, tried to solve these problems during the recent national election campaign, which ended with the Conservative Party triumph on January 23. CBC launched an ambitious project called Riding Talk with 308 moderated forums on its website — one for each riding in Canada. (A riding is the equivalent of an American voting precinct.)

The idea was to allow people to talk about whatever political issues were important to them and their district — and to do it in a civil way. Jonathan Dube (pictured below), the editorial director of CBC.ca, the CBC’s online portal, said that every one of the 10,000 forum submissions went through human moderators.

“We hired several experienced journalists — veterans of Time Magazine, the CBC and LATimes.com — to read the thousands of reader submissions and ensure only relevant and appropriate comments were published,” Dube told me via email. “As a result, the debate was extremely high quality and on subject.”

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Because CBC journalists were watching the forum chats, they found leads for stories that hadn’t been told yet. Dube said an issue about living allowances for civil servants in the Yukon came up on the board, with residents saying the issue would affect their vote. The CBC ended up covering it in more depth.

In some ridings, the candidates themselves popped in to defend their policies or chat virtually with potential constituents.

Dan Harris, a New Democratic Party candidate in the Scarborough Southwest riding, was tentative at first in joining the forum. “I’m not going to enter the discussion because in my place I’m obviously biased and could taint the discussion,” he wrote. “But I feel the need to respond to a couple of points, that strike me personally. For the rest I encourage you to visit my website and get in touch, because I do answer my own email.”

But after that tenative start, Harris ended up posting numerous times to tout his ideas and defend himself from personal attacks.

Preventing the Smears

While Riding Talk is a great example of giving people a moderated platform to voice their opinions on local issues, there are still challenges in this type of system. If you have to moderate comments, there’s a delay in publishing comments in a timely way. And it’s difficult to stop a group of people on one side of an issue — or who support one candidate — from ganging up and taking over the forum.

One participant on the Tobique-Mactaquac riding forum, Andrew Scott, told me that Riding Talk was a nice break from all the analysts, journalists and TV ads that dominate political discourse in Canada. But Scott, a student at the University of Ottawa, also saw room for improvement.

“First of all…there was no way to verify facts or expose propaganda,” Scott told me via email. “It is unfortunate that some citizens merely take someone else’s opinion and take it as their own without prior research. The other problem I found with the forum was that few people actually knew about it. The dialogue that took place there was generally from a solid group of 10 contributors who were, generally speaking, already partisaned. Perhaps, if [the forum were] more widely publicized, the undecided voter population would have been able to view a debate by the people next door.”

Without fact-checking (which would have been nearly impossible due to time), it’s also fairly easy to smear a candidate. In the Mississauga-Erindale riding forum, the discussion turned to liberal candidate Omar Alghabra, who reportedly said “This is a victory for Islam! Islam won! Islam won!” when he won the Liberal Party nomination. The CBC investigated the incident, and found out that he hadn’t said that at all, and had to remove the posts from Riding Talk alleging that it happened. Unfortunately, the Canadian Coalition, the group that helped publicize the smear, still has those posts on its website.

Still, the CBC experiment is a nice advance down the road of civil, focused political discourse online. Dube admits that there might not be a business case for doing moderated forums, but that it fits well with CBC’s mission to serve the public.

Could a similar nationwide project work in the U.S., which has far more precincts? “It would no doubt be a challenge to make it work on a national scale in the U.S. or elsewhere, in such a way that people can read about and discuss local issues,” Dube said. “A similar model could work for congressional races, by creating separate areas for each congressional district. Smaller publications could certainly do this for their areas, but I think part of what made this project so valuable is that we were able to create a nationwide series of discussions about local issues.”

I’ll be watching the 2006 fall election in the U.S. closely, and am curious if any media sites will try to replicate what CBC pulled off. I’ve already heard about an interesting project called the Pennsylvania Election Project, in which independent video producer Peter Wiley is asking for citizen journalists to submit videos shot at any political speeches or rallies throughout the state. Wiley told me he’s hoping to package those videos by topic.

Technology and the Internet have already changed the way we get information on candidates, and the way campaigns raise money. It would be nice to take the various debates and discussions out of their polarized partisan silos and put them in a more moderated, non-partisan space. Send me links to any citizen media-fueled political projects for the 2006 elections that you hear about in your community or nationally, and I’ll try to list all the projects in one place on MediaShift.

Or just share your thoughts on CBC Riding Talk and the idea of moderated political discussions by speaking out in the comments below.