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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.