Twitter has made the 24-hour news cycle into a 2-hour news cycle

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The fact that political campaigns use social media to try and influence public opinion isn’t new: the “spin cycle” is no longer something that involves private calls to a few grizzled newspaper columnists or TV commentators — instead, there are teams of social-networking staffers working the spin on every conceivable platform. But we rarely get a glimpse inside these “war rooms” until long after the campaign is over.

In a recent research paper, journalism professor Daniel Kreiss got a look at some of the social machinery (PDF link) behind the 2012 campaigns of presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, based on interviews with senior staffers and insiders of both.

One thing that dramatically changed from the previous presidential election in 2008, Kreiss notes, was the influence of Twitter — which existed in 2008, but wasn’t really thought of as being an important tool for shaping public opinion. The Obama campaign’s digital director, Teddy Goff, said it was an afterthought at best:

The Twitter echo chamber

One of the conclusions of the paper is that Twitter in particular has turned what used to be a 24-hour news cycle — in which political operatives would try to spin the perception of news events for the next day’s newspaper or TV broadcast — into a two-hour news cycle that continually resets during a campaign, based on what the trending topics are on Twitter or what content is being shared on Facebook.

From a political and journalistic standpoint, one of the interesting conclusions that Kreiss comes to is that both campaigns took advantage of the fact that some journalists looked to Twitter as a sign of what average citizens were thinking about the election or the presidential debates, but in many ways what they found was the same thing that used to exist with traditional media: namely, a consensus formed in part by smart political spin, amplified by other journalists using the social platform.

As Derek Willis of the NYT’s Upshot pointed out in a post on the Kreiss research, clever tweets and pleas for support may momentarily influence actual voters to donate or take some other kind of action, but “the main audience for campaigns on Twitter is the people who write, talk and tweet about the campaigns for a living.” In other words, political reporters and their marketing counterparts within the campaigns themselves — the definition of an echo chamber.

So despite the focus on new technologies, whether social or mobile, the political and media landscape we have now isn’t really that different from the old days of newspaper editorials and columnists dictating the requirements of the news cycle — it’s just a lot faster than it used to be, and a lot more distributed. The only upside is that now we have thousands of potential outlets to choose from instead of just a few.

2 Comments

Angelbacker

In the long run, I think twitter (or a shorter news cycle) is a good thing for news & communication. Speed and accessibility gives more power to the people. The world is a big place and many things are happening at one time. We nearly always want to find out about happenings while they are still happening and not afterwards.

triplett

It appears to me that more has changed than just a shortening of the news cycle, greater news distribution, and a greater number of news outlets to choose from. This assumes the general public will equally (equal to the former newspaper distribution) access all those outlets to form an opinion. Tweets and blogs are followed by certain demographics of people, not all of the voting public. This is a “tower of babel” which contributes more confusion than was previously provided by paper news. Good luck to the political analysts in figuring out what happened after the fact!

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