Saturday 03 December 2016

Capitol Tweets: Social Media and the 2012 Presidential Debates

NOTE: This is the second part of a special Capitol Tweets post-election series.

Presidential debates have often served as pivotal moments during election seasons. Richard Nixon’s uneasy performance versus John Kennedy and Al Gore’s repeated, exasperated sighs in reaction to opponent George W. Bush influenced Americans’ perceptions – and likely their votes. The 2012 presidential debate season provided campaign-altering moments of its own, such as Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s momentary surge in the polls after a mediocre first debate performance from President Barack Obama on October 3rd.

This election season, the rise of social media added a participative dimension to the debates, bringing real-time conversations out of individuals’ living rooms and into the public sphere as the debates unfolded. These conversations not only provided insight into voter opinions, but also armed candidates and campaign teams with additional channels for direct, reactive engagement. Social media users went so far as to memorialize key debate moments with memes and parody Twitter accounts, extending the lifespan of the conversations long after the 90-minute debates.

Twitter and Search Trends: The New Debate Conversation Barometers

Generating more than 10 million tweets during 90 minutes, the first 2012 presidential debate in Denver became, at the time, the most tweeted-about event in U.S. political history and set the bar for the three remaining debates. Beyond the sheer scale of Twitter participation (totaling 27.5 million tweets over 4 debates), Twitter data revealed spikes in conversation – often surpassing 100,000 tweets per minute (TPM) – that provided insight into the debate moments that viewers found particularly buzz-worthy. These conversation spikes ranged from specific policy issues (Biden on the timeline for leaving Afghanistan, Romney’s tax plan, etc.) to candidate sound bites (Romney’s “Big Bird” and Obama’s “horses and bayonets”) to quips from the moderators.

Similar to Twitter, Google produced analyses of rising search terms throughout the debates. “Who is winning the debate?” was a top search term for all but one debate. Popular sound bites on Twitter also trended on Google, with “Big Bird,” “malarkey,” and “horses and bayonets” generating significant search traffic in respective debates. Most importantly, specific policy issues such as Simpson Bowles, Dodd Frank, Syria, and drones also rose in search traffic. This underscored the role of search in providing supplemental information to debate viewers, whose online participation took place on mobile devices, tablets and personal computers during the telecasts.

Fact Checking, Tweet Sponsorships, and Live Engagement

In addition to acting as a conversation barometer, social media provided a platform for candidates and campaign teams to engage directly and in real-time with debate viewers. Both presidential candidates’ teams created their own fact-checking Twitter accounts (@TruthTeam2012 and @RomneyResponse) that “live tweeted” the debate telecasts. Various congressional members contributed to the live commentary, with some adhering to party talking points and others injecting humor. Still others had to delete tweets that were misspelled, inappropriate, or politically incorrect, but still captured by the Sunlight Foundation’s “Politwoops” tool, which aggregates deleted tweets from politicians.

Real-time sponsorship of emerging Twitter trends served as another way for campaigns to engage with debate watchers. Both campaign teams paid to promote topics and hashtags as they trended organically, driving attention to content from the candidates’ Twitter handles. President Obama’s campaign team was aggressive with this strategy, sponsoring trends with political sensitivity (Ahmadinejad, Nuclear Iran) and those hashtags originally generated by the opposition (#CantAfford4More).

Memes, Parody Accounts, and the Debates’ Digital Aftermaths

An interesting phenomenon of this election season was the popularity of memes and parody/spoof accounts that satirized – and thus memorialized – key moments from the debates. In the first debate, Mitt Romney’s proposal to cut funding for public broadcasting – and allusion to Sesame Street character Big Bird – led to Big Bird Twitter accounts (@BIGBIRD, @FiredBigBird, etc.) receiving more than 12,000 followers each within X hours of the debate. Additional parody accounts satirized everything from moderator Jim Lehrer’s passivity (@SilentJimLehrer) to Vice President Joe Biden’s laughter (@LaughinJoeBiden). Mitt Romney’s claim in the third presidential debate to have received “binders full of women” for staffing his Massachusetts Governor’s Office became a viral meme shared across Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. In fact, even @BIGBIRD weighed in on the “binders” sound bite; such “cross-meme” interactions underscore the longevity of candidate sound bites when preserved by social media.

The table below summarizes the debates based on conversation spikes, rising search terms, trending debate topics, and popular parody accounts:

How did you use social media during the presidential debates? Share in the comments below!

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