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Inside The Facebook Group Of Undecideds Asking Questions At Tonight's Debate

PBS formed a group of carefully chosen voters from across the country to discuss key election issues.

[Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images]

In recent election cycles, it's become common for debates to tap the power of social media, with questions posed by Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook users. But tonight's Democratic debate in Milwaukee takes that trend to a whole new level.

To include more voices in the debate, PBS Newshour has assembled a Facebook group of about 70 undecided voters from primary states to discuss the key issues in this election cycle.

Members of the group have been discussing the issues for several months now, and that will prompt some of PBS's debate questions for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on Thursday night.

PBS correspondent and weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan has been moderating the group and will help determine the debate questions drawn from the group's discussions.

"We’ve fielded several questions already, but we don’t know exactly which ones will be asked, but there’s a decent chance they will make it to the stage," Sreenivasan said.

Debate moderators Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff will have a lot to say about the choice of questions asked during the debate. "They might dovetail into what Gwen and Judy have been thinking," Sreenivasan said, or the moderators might take follow-up questions from the group that seem to fit in with the flow of the discussion.

As you might expect, PBS NewsHour will stick closely to substantive questions and will not allow the Facebook tie-up to be a distraction.

"We’re not letting the tech drive the debate itself," Sreenivasan said. "We're not trying to form a holographic image of the group," Sreenivasan joked, referring to CNN's laughable 2008 stunt in which correspondent Jessica Yellin in Chicago was beamed into the CNN press center in New York.

We’re not into the schtick of it," Sreenavasan said. It will be useful if it’s a way to "humanize the process."

Facebook has partnered with television networks on a number of presidential debates this year, but the PBS voter group represents the most organized and targeted means to date of selecting questions.

PBS formed the Facebook Group in mid-January, Sreenivasan said. Hundreds of people volunteered to participate in the group, he said, and PBS screened them by asking them to fill out questionnaires. Volunteers were asked if they were undecided, if they had and existing candidate or party affiliations, and if they were actually interested in voting in the primary.

The chance that people admitted to the group were actually politically motivated imposters trying to influence the debate was very low, Sreenivasan said. "Everybody has gotten at least a questionnaire and a call from one of the producers."

The Facebook Group will be closed to the public until the start of the debate, Facebook said.

Sreenivasan said the closed group has been mostly free of the rancor and ad hominem attacks usually seen in political discussions on the Internet. He said that because the participants are truly searching for the right candidate to fit their views they’ve tended to focus on discussing real issues.

"They brought a spirit of innovation to thinking about how to incorporate people on Facebook into the debate," said Facebook's director of news and media partnerships, Andy Mitchell, in a statement. "That spirit shows through in their unique use of Facebook Groups to help foster conversation about the issues and bring Americans’ voices into the political process in a new way."

The Democratic National Committee (DNC)-sanctioned debate will be held in the Helen Bader Concert Hall in the Helene Zelazo Center for Performing Arts in Milwaukee. It will be broadcast nationwide by PBS and WETA Washington, D.C., as well as streamed online at pbs.org/newshour.

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