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In early February, I looked at an interesting project by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) called Riding Talk, where they provided a moderated forum for each and every riding (electoral district) in Canada before the late January elections. I had hoped to include the thoughts of a few politicians who participated in the forums but I didn’t hear from them until more recently.

I think the project is a great first step toward some type of open discussion online between voters of every political stripe and local politicians on the real issues of the day — without the spin of consultants or political ads. But even with moderation, there’s the possibility of people spreading disinformation.

Another problem is that CBC might not have promoted the forums well to the general public, and only the most active political folks participated, leaving out the undecided and moderate voices from the discussions. That’s the view of Aaron Hynes (pictured above), a Conservative Party candidate in the election who finished second in his riding. Hynes stepped into the online discussion, and was mainly impressed

“Any means of informing the electorate of the policies, views, records and attributes of electoral candidates or parties is helpful,” he told me via email. “However, I doubt the average voter spends much time online looking for political blogs and discussion groups. It seems to me that the CBC forum you mentioned was mostly used by those who were already engaged in the political process, and already had firm views. Such forums are also susceptible to being used by party activists to publish their own spin, instead of serving as a non-partisan forum for intelligent and objective discussion.”

I did query Jonathan Dube, editorial director of CBC.ca, but haven’t heard back from him to hear his views on the problem of discussions being hijacked by activists. Dan Harris, a New Democratic Party candidate in Scarborough Southwest who finished third out of six candidates in his riding, told me his only complaint about Riding Talk was that moderation of the forums sometimes slowed them up.

“Personally I am definitely a fan of any discussions that take place about the local ridings,” Harris told me via email. “There are several websites that were doing this, or having boards to help predict outcomes. You tend to get much more honest commentary on these places, partially because of the pseudo-anonymity and because people are volunteering info rather then getting it pried out of them.

“Naturally I would prefer it if we could have unmoderated discussions but I certainly understand the potential legal ramifications so I don’t begrudge the CBC and most other sites making their discussions moderated. A little quicker turnaround would be better. Occasionally it would be a few days before responses were posted, and it kind of interrupts the flow of the discussion.”

That’s often a problem with so many moderated discussions. If a moderator takes a holiday or is off her computer for a while, the participants are stuck waiting during a hiatus. But overall, Harris is sold on the idea of online forums as a direct communication line to voters.

“I also appreciated that it gave me another venue where I could contact voters and talk about the issues,” he said. “Oftentimes in election campaigns you’re only able to scrape the surface of most issues. These types of discussion boards offer an opportunity to get a little more in-depth about positions.”

What do you think about politicians engaging in online forums with constituents? Is this the wave of the future? And how can the people who run forums bring in more voters, especially the undecided voters?