Multi-modality debating: How social media (especially Twitter) are changing the presidential debates

How we choose to watch political debates changes what we get out of them. That’s not really news: scholars have been discussing this effect since the first televised presidential debates in 1960. Popular wisdom suggested Nixon’s poor appearance (“death-like”) on TV hurt his standing compared to Kennedy’s vitality, later supported by finding that people who watched the debate (compared to those who listened to audio) did evaluate Kennedy more highly. Similarly, when debates use a “split-screen format” to show both candidates, it can lead to increased perceptions of candidate incivility and, when combined with performance-based analysis, decrease our trust in the political system.

So why is this relevant? The 2012 presidential debates exist within a different media ecology, one that is increasingly shaped by social media – and in particular, Twitter. And it is my perception at least is that Twitter is shaping public response to the debates, albiet one that is shared by others. And in fact, watching the debates while on social media has been a great learning experience for me this year.

For one, social media can offer instantaneous feedback about the debate – similar to the graph at the bottom of CNN showing real-time responses to particular moments in the debate. USC is offering the same thing with Twitter “sentiment” during the debates – although this is likely to be somewhat skewed by the greater proportion of Democrats and Independents on Twitter compared to Republicans – and not to mention that people who watch the debates tend to be different from those who don’t.

And importantly, this feedback can shape the way we process the ongoing debate, especially in terms of winning vs. losing and the important moments. Research has long suggested that we see what we expect to see (e.g., selective perception), so early impressions on Twitter can be reinforced throughout the debate. Further, previous research suggests that post-debate coverage of winners and losers has been shown to influence our perceptions, especially among those who didn’t see the debate in question – so this same spin on Twitter might be more powerful both for those who aren’t currently watching as well as those who are still watching the ongoing debate.

Finally, journalists themselves might contribute to the power of Twitter. The discussion of Twitter trends on news outlets has been the butt of jokes before, and this discussion of Twitter response still occurs after the presidential debates. So even if you aren’t on Twitter, you can get updates from the journalists in interpreting these trends.

Beyond winners and losers, social media can refocus our attention on key social media moments of the debate. The creation of Big Bird accounts after the first debate, the Tumblr response to the “Binders full of women” comment in the second, and out of the third debate, jokes about the 1980’s calling and the “bayonets and horses” moment. Of course, what makes a social media meme may not be the same as what is a substantive policy debate that should be the focus of voters…but that critique extends well beyond Twitter.

Of course, none of this overrules perhaps the most important reason social media has become a part of our debate experience: it’s simply fun. And even for a political junkie, fun is often something missing from the debates themselves – which is why we have social media to fill in the gaps.

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