Political Discourse Takes on the Face of Social Networking

Today, the television is but one of the screens battling for voters' attention. The explosion of Twitter and its ilk - played out on mobile phones, iPads, laptops and desktops - let the electorate talk back.
by | October 22, 2012
 

In the moments before last week's much-anticipated rematch debate between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, messages like this showed up online:

"Let's skip the play-by-play on Facebook during the presidential debates tonight, folks. If you must, do it on Twitter with (hashtag debates). You'll reach those who actually want to be reached."

Implicit in the post was that our civic, if not necessarily civil, discourse is now also very much a cyber discourse.

America in 20102 fully expects to vent about and follow politics electronically.

Not long ago, TV was the overwhelming voice in the political conversation. It consisted of campaigns talking at us, often in ways that drove us batty.

Today, the television is but one of the screens battling for voters' attention. The explosion of Twitter and its ilk - played out on mobile phones, iPads, laptops and desktops - let the electorate talk back.

"It's one part effective and one part distracting," said Sarah Wood, secretary and treasurer for the Social Media Club of Kansas City. "You catch new and different interpretations of what presidential candidates have said, and you can fact check on the fly.

"The downside," she said, "is the emotionally charged content and the satire is very distracting."

Wood is part of the technologically savvy culture that lives to post reactions to the season finale of a favorite television program to Facebook even while pulling up a weather radar on one screen and a Twitter feed on another to find out when it will rain.

During last Tuesday's debate, Wood watched the YouTube live stream on her iPad, while using her iPhone to read real-time posts on her Twitter feed.

"This tech-savvy generation wants to be involved in conversations to create a connectivity that a singular viewing of an event cannot produce," she said. "We want other opinions and interpretations to be part of our experience."

Indeed, following the pattern from the two previous nationally televised debates, Monday night's third and final debate between Obama and Romney on foreign policy will surely draw millions to their multiple screens.

Their 100-minute exchange last Tuesday generated 12.4 million comments on Twitter and Facebook, according to Bluefin Labs, an analytics firm that studies social media's reaction to televised events.

It was also the all-time top political event in social media. It trailed only this year's Grammy Awards and the MTV Video Music Awards. (We are a nation with priorities, after all.) The first presidential debate, on Oct. 3, ranked fifth. The candidates' discussion on immigration generated the biggest social media spike.

"The growth of social platforms like Twitter and Reddit (where users share links to news) are bringing a whole new experience to the election this year," Evan Conway, president of the Kansas City-based OneLouder, which makes apps for mobile phones and tablets, said in an e-mail.

"We're seeing new types of random, humorous trends such as 'Big Bird' and 'Women in binders,' " - references to comments by Romney that went viral - "taking flight, rather than general topics like health care or the economy," Conway said.

He also noted a slew of social celebrities who make a name for themselves by commenting during political debates and throughout the campaign season.

Today, OneLouder will roll out Live140, a mobile app that curates live-tweet streams for popular television programs, sporting and other live events.

Social media have allowed voters to become more engaged and informed during this election cycle. It's simply getting easier to find information.

Google, for instance, launched a politics and elections website that provides candidate information, news, video links, voter survey, polling trends and other information.

"People are really engaged in this election and (the website) shows that they are not only searching about the candidates but what they are searching about the candidate," said Samantha Smith, a Google spokeswoman. "There is so much information thrown at them, they can control the information by seeing what is their and doing their due diligence."

The search engine drew large numbers last week when Obama urged Romney to read the transcripts from his Rose Garden comments on whether the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya was a terrorist act. There also was a spike for those looking for Romney's five-point plan to restore the U.S. economy, Smith said.

"You can find information about the candidates at your fingertips," she said, "like never before."

Women dominate the social media conversation about the debate. Some 54 percent of comments came from women, 46 percent from men.

Specifically, women, liberals and young people are more likely to use social media.

Roughly 60 percent of American adults use social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. A survey this month by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that 66 percent of those social media users - or 39 percent of all American adults - have done at least one of seven civic or political activities with social media.

Social media users who have stronger party and ideological ties - liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans - are more likely than moderates to use social media for such things.

The survey also found:

-Thirty-eight percent of those who use social networking sites or Twitter use those social media to "like" or promote material related to politics or social issues that others have posted.

-Liberal Democrats who use social media are particularly prone to using the "like" button - 52 percent of them have done so and 42 percent of conservative Republicans have also done so.

-Thirty-five percent of social media users have used the tools to encourage people to vote. Democrats who are social media users are more likely to have used social media to encourage voting - 42 percent have done that compared with 36 percent of Republican social media users and 31 percent of Independents.

-Twenty-eight percent of social media users have used the tools to post links to political stories or articles for others to read. The social media users who are liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are the most likely to have used social media this way, 39 percent and 34 percent, respectively.

Twitter and Facebook can be handy ways to track campaign news. Yet the platforms' live, real-time nature can make it unwieldy to sort through clutter.

"I'm not even watching the debates," one woman tweeted last week, "and I'm overwhelmed with politics via twitter (hashtag) letitbe."

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