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The Twitter spin room: What happens when politics goes real-time

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According to Twitter, the presidential debate in Colorado on Wednesday night generated a maelstrom of more than 10 million messages in less than two hours, making it the most tweeted-about event in U.S. political history, and one of the most tweeted-about events ever — close to the record set during the Super Bowl. Obviously Twitter is probably happy about that, and you could argue that those kinds of numbers show that large numbers of people were at least paying attention to the debate, for better or worse. But is the kind of instantaneous commentary and snap judgement that the social network specializes in a good fit with the political process, or does it just turn it into a sideshow?

In the past, any truly public analysis of the performance of the candidates had to wait until the event was over, when the usual political operatives and pundits like former Clinton advisor James Carville would be called on by CNN or Fox News to pick a winner, criticize the moderator, or handicap future debates. We’ve always had real-time, horse-race-style discussion of these events, but it has almost always taken place in small groups — in bars, or at local viewing events, etc. Never before has there been a way to eavesdrop on a giant conversation about such a thing as it happens.

Game-time commentary: Good or bad?

That kind of game-time handicapping is great fun when it’s the Super Bowl, or the Academy Awards, or some other event with less at stake (although football fans might disagree about that description). But presidential debates — in theory, at least — are supposed to be important elements in the political process, which help undecided voters make up their minds and therefore can ultimately affect the course of political history. Does Twitter help or harm that process?


Some would argue the political process is something of a circus anyway, and that carefully stage-managed events like the debates are already a sideshow with little political value — and therefore the additional theatrical element added by real-time commentary isn’t going to have much effect. Many parts of the process are probably also ephemeral, and likely to die out relatively quickly: will there be long-term political repercussions from Mitt Romney’s mention of shutting down PBS, fueled by all of the parody accounts devoted to Big Bird and other characters that Twitter produced? Unlikely.

An optimist would say there is something very real to be gained by having people watch such debates for any reason — even if it’s just to follow along with the wisecracks on Twitter — because then at least there is a chance they might accidentally become more informed about political issues. According to Twitter’s graph of discussions during the debate, some of the biggest peaks in tweets-per-minute came when the two candidates were discussing Medicare. Were most of those jokes or partisan attacks, or did they actually contribute to anyone’s understanding of the issues? That’s hard to say.

The spin cycle is now measured in minutes

The rise of Twitter as a political force has definitely accelerated the metabolism of a campaign by orders of magnitude, to the point where political analysts now talk about a news cycle that is measured in minutes or hours instead of days or weeks. Is that ultimately a good thing for politics or democracy? Some have argued that it is beneficial in part because trumped-up stories or blind alleys can be defused much more quickly, or burn themselves out rather than dominating the spin cycle. But a chorus of Twitter responses can also add fuel to something that might not actually be meaningful.

“I can’t watch a debate anymore without having my iPhone in my hand. I don’t feel like I’m having the full experience if I’m not reading the reaction in real time.” — NBC News chief digital officer Vivian Schiller

On the plus side, some pointed out that Twitter users watching television and following along with the real-time discussion were clearly better off than the professional journalists who were attending the debate — and theoretically were supposed to provide some kind of expert analysis later — since all of those reporters were stuck in a separate room with a balky audio and video feed. And as Alex Howard at O’Reilly noted, it might have changed the debate in some interesting ways if some of the smart commentary and questions from Twitter users had actually made it into the debate itself.

During the debate, even some Obama supporters (at least the ones in my stream) seemed to quickly come to the conclusion that the President was off his game, that he was tired or even uninterested, and that Romney gained the upper hand by being more forceful. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith actually declared Romney the winner only 42 minutes into the event. Those impressions were then reinforced by the pundits on the post-game talk shows. Within an hour, the story of the debate seemed to be that Obama had “lost” and Romney had “won,” even though some said the Republican candidate contradicted himself at a number of points.

Is any of that going to have a lasting effect on voters’ decisions, or the way that the campaigns react? Or is it just ephemera that will be gone in a matter of days, as Twitter users become infatuated with some other celebrity event or perceived injustice? It’s clear that for both voters and politicians, and the political operatives who run their campaigns, the Twitter-sphere’s instantaneous reaction to events is a reality they have to take into account — and it could be changing the way we engage with political issues in some important ways. Whether that’s good or bad remains to be seen.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Aih and Shutterstock/iQoncept

32 Responses to “The Twitter spin room: What happens when politics goes real-time”

  1. yourinquirerprofoundly

    The twitter-sphere reflects public opinion. Instant response to political events whether they are they are unfolding at a presidential debate, in the streets at Occupy, in Tahir square, Benghazi wherever demonstrates the public hive evaluating the world in real time. If organized and filtered in the right way a serious analysis of public opinion could occur, an analysis I suspect that might empirically demonstrate the gulf between public opinion and state policy.

  2. I guess I can’t help but think we’d have been better off if I didn’t have to see tweets on the bottom of my TV screen throughout the debate. It was distracting to say the least, and when I’m watching a debate I couldn’t care less what anyone else thinks of it. The purpose is to help me make up my mind!

  3. william wallace

    There many individuals and each being precious in their own right
    however many having not been informed of the true purpose of life
    thus it gets rather complicated in diversity of beliefs ideas humour.

    Thus to bring some clarity of understanding as to the true purpose
    of life // needed that humanity can find peace in the common bond.

    The purpose of creation being that it sustain the human form / the
    purpose of the human form is via heart brain there being constant
    growth of understanding experience unto life universe its purpose.

    The ultimate stage of understanding experience is in meditation in
    one turning their senses inward in an unfolding of the spiritual self.

    I use the word (spiritual) as people will respond to such word as it
    being tied with religion however if not of religious nature then leave
    the world spiritual out /put your experience as the power of creation.

    Throughout history of humanity there be spiritual teachers amongst
    all be the “Teacher of Teachers” the “teacher of teachers” takes one
    as guides one on the last stage of human development in one’s via
    meditation turning the senses inwards in a unfolding of the true self.

    Present time the “Teacher of Teachers is Prem Rawat / Prem has
    dedicated his life in aid of those in reaching the stage of meditaion
    in one going beyond ideas / beyond beliefs / beyond the concept a
    heaven somewhere beyond the clouds that one need die to reach.

    Via meditation one being granted via experience a greater depth of
    understanding that gifting a clarity in answering all one’s questions.

    On internet search put (words of peace) or (words of peace global)
    on site a selection of videos of which Prem explaining life its reality
    of purpose / that in reality of experience one can then know creator.

    Of course one can know the creator in the material form / its beauty
    yet the purpose of the material is tha via human form one can know
    the creator in essence /know that which can’t pass as ever change
    but that which has an will be will always be for all time unchanging.

    The example apt be of the baby breast or bottle feed / then to more
    solid food for its greater growth. Thus as one’s reaching entering a
    stage of meditation one going towards far greater experience unto
    the essence of creation for their far needed greater spiritual growth.

    Of course with such growth in knowledge be a greater responsibility
    one must keep the material as the spiritual in balance /one can’t just
    discard their material identity thus one must be sensible not misuse
    spiritual experience /as if it being but another a material possession
    thus take heed / the final stage of development / but testing to the full
    one’s ability. Spiritual experience great / yet one must use wisdom in
    the approach / thus bring both material & spiritual in perfect balance.

    Of course one makes errors of judgement yet practice makes perfect.

  4. I watched about fifteen minutes of the debate, then saw that it was a waste of time due to all the exaggerations and false claims. In addition, I stayed away from social media since it is mostly also a waste of time–a bigger circus of anarchy and chaos.

    Instead, I waited until the next day then checked the fact checkers to see who lied more/better: Obama or Romney, and discovered that Romney lied twice as much as Obama and Romney’s lies were giant WHOPPERS compared to Obama’s feeble attempts at misleading. If Obama is going to compete with Romney, he has to take lessons from Romney on how to mislead with false claims. When it comes to telling a lie and misleading the public, Obama is an amateur.

  5. Do you have any info on how Topsy determines the sentiment score? Obama’s 2 hour flat sentiment line seems, I don’t know, like viewers had more patience than might be reasonable. In those two hours, a bunch of people who felt positively about the pres. probably began to feel negatively about him, and I don’t think he won anyone over in the first debate who wasn’t already on his side. The data appear suspect in this light.

  6. My observation of the post-debate buzz was puzzling at best. Romey supporters felt that he had clearly won the debate… and at the same time, Obama supporters felt that their candidate had won the debate. If we all watched the same debate, then how could this be? Possibly because emotions are attached to our opinions, and emotions run deep? Quite possibly.

  7. Waiting for the ‘official’ political analysis of the event buys into the idea that people aren’t smart enough and have to be told how to think about things. The political process has always been a circus and I don’t think this near instant response to it makes that any better or worse. If the election machines are paying attention, it also gives the candidates fast insight into what real people are really thinking about their actions and words.

    • “Waiting for the ‘official’ political analysis of the event buys into the idea that people aren’t smart enough and have to be told how to think about things.”

      There is some truth to that statement for the following reasons:

      Abraham Lincoln said, “You can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

      I do not agree that political analysis and fact checking that follows a political debate tells people how to think about things. What it does is teach them the facts and informs them of the lies and exaggerations that politicians and his or her campaigns spin to influence voters through emotion and not facts/truth.

      It is obvious that politicians rely on the ignorance of the public to get away with telling lies and exaggerations and that is what has led to the current state of partisanship in the population.

      Between 60 – 70% of Americans eligible to vote will cast a vote in this presidential election and most of those Americans are not capable of understanding the complexity of all the controversial issues in the US since most Americans do not read even read if they can read. Instead, millions of Americans that vote depends on talk shows and the TV/radio media to tell them about the issues and most of that source of information is either misleading or incomplete. For example: Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck with an audience in the tens of millions. Imagine, what happens when a large segment of the public gets its info from such biased sources that are often inflammatory and misleading?

      In fact, studies and surveys tell us that after high school 80% of Americans never read a book again. In addition, 14% of American adults read below basic, 29% read at basic, 44% read at the intermediate level and 13% read at the proficient level.

      Education plays an important factor in voting: A study of the election in 1988 revealed that 38% of adults in the US with no high school education voted, 43% with some high school voted, 57% of high school graduates voted, 66% with some college voted, 79% of college grads and 84% with post graduate degrees voted.

      It stands to reason that voters with the least education tend to get their opinions from opinionated sources such as talk radio or the TV news and the TV news does not report any event at the level of detail that leads to a more comprehensive understanding of the issues.

      Even race shows a significant difference in voting rates: In the 1996 election in the US, 56% of eligible Whites votes, 50% of Blacks and only 27% of Latinos.

      Considering the complexity of the political process and controversial issues in the United States and the world, it may be safe to say that voters NEED to be exposed to political analysis and fact checking for a better, more informed source of information before casting a vote.

      The result could be what happened in Germany when Hitler became its leader. It was one of Hitler’s staff that said if you tell a big lie enough times that it will become the truth and that philosophy led to World War II, the death camps in Europe and fifty million dead from war.

      Then consider that an influential faction of the GOP believes in the Nobel lie to achieve its goals. That faction is called neoconservatives and President G. W. Bush is a known neoconservative and he used that philosophy to push the lie of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq leading to the Iraq War. We now know that there were not WMD in Iraq.

      Neoconservatives believe as Hitler and his top leaders did that the public is not capable of making rational decisions so they must be lied to then the leadership may do what it wants such as starting unnecessary wars.

      In fact, even America’s Founding Fathers believed that everyone should not have the right to vote because of this very same reason and in 1796; only 10% of the population was eligible to vote according to the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights back then. What is happening today in America is proof that the Founding Fathers were correct in their assessment of letting everyone vote that cannot make rational decisions nor has the ability to tell the difference between opinions and facts.

      • One way to make more people aware of all the information and of creating more jobs would be to create a ‘voting’ industry in which people’s votes stand on their own. Information on the issues would be published in readily accessible forms in plan language rather than legal language. People would vote on more than just major elections. People would have the opportunity to vote on everything. But since there would be easy access to materials written for regular people, no one can use the excuse that they just didn’t know something. The only way not to know would be to choose not to know. This would require regular voting stations. So the publishing, distribution, and voting sides would all create a lot of jobs across the country and put a lot of people back to work.

  8. (A little disclaimer- I’m British so I know this isn’t really my politics, but the internet is universal and the principles under which it operates, so the general ideas presented in this article can apply to other democracies too. Plus, we seem to hear a lot about your country in the media anyway…)

    Perhaps the danger with it is people are not going to focus so much upon what the candidates are saying as what other people are saying on Twitter. It’s not a small group of people influencing things as with traditional media, but at the same time one ideally watches/listens to these debates in order to get a better idea of what the candidates have to say about themselves, not other people. Not to say that expressing your opinion online is a bad thing, just it might be better for people if they were to decide to wait until afterwards for the commentary and opinion after they’ve had good time to form theirs. Is there not the possibility of a sort of mob mentality here, with people getting caught up in the tide of popular opinion (or that of whichever side reinforces their views?)

    Of course we are talking about one debate here, with only the two most prominent candidates here. For all the excitement about Twitter and how it allows people to express what they think as they think it, it’s still showing the bad elements of the traditional media- focussing upon the two main parties and sidelining any alternatives from even getting a look in. This isn’t the internet at its best- when it allows all sides a look in.

    And is measuring public reaction by Twitter really representative? You probably have a certain demographic who uses Twitter, and then some who use the internet but stay well away from it as it seems too trite or too open, and there are those who are not even online (many older people will probably fall into this category, at least in the part of my country where I live). So you miss out a good chunk of a whole demographic, and the sort of people who stay away from Twitter, whose general attitude might well influence the rest of their outlook in life.

  9. kirchlife

    While I’m more traditional and enjoy being in the moment, the reality is we live our social lives more through others and through the internet.. G2G Dancing with the Stars rerun is on!!

  10. dookruby

    Well, this does suggest that, as we observe, Romney hammered Obama. But is twitter the best indicator to real performance? I mean, come on, it is the most dumbed-down social medium for the most dumbed-down audience

  11. Giles Bailey

    Positive or negative, this is the new reality of the digital age. It may make politics more of a circus or it may allow a more realistic and unfiltered view of what the public really thinks in real time