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Is Twitter good for democracy?

  • 4 October 2012
  • From the section Magazine
People watch the debate at a venue hall
A Brooklyn, New York art space shows the US presidential debate to a crowded room. Watching the debates has always been a social activities, and social media makes it even easier to compare notes with others.

The first presidential debate was the most tweeted US political event in history. Does it matter?

According to Twitter, more tweets were sent about the first US presidential debate between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama than any other political event in the United States.

That's not saying much, considering that Twitter didn't exist until 2006.

Still, in that short time Twitter and other social media platforms have fundamentally changed the political landscape.

Nowadays, people watch the debate while checking their Twitter feed, posting on Facebook, or creating .gifs to post on Tumblr. News reports reflect Twitter trends.

But does the social media platform have an outsized influence on American politics?

The Pew Internet and American Lives Project suggests that only 15% of American adults who are online use Twitter.

Votizen, a technology company that identifies tweets from registered voters, took a sample of tweets throughout the debate and found a high concentration of Twitter users in New York and Washington - but also a lot of activity in swing states like Florida and Ohio.

"California and New York have more people, but Floridian voters tweeted a lot more. They're very plugged in," says Jason Putorti, co-founder of Votizen.

"We humans like to talk, we like to express ourselves and we did so in record numbers last night."

Indeed, Twitter has made debate watching more social, and that in turn puts more power in to the hands of the electorate, says Clay Schossow, co-founder of New Media Campaigns, a web design & development firm in North Carolina.

"Anytime you get more people engaged and fired up about politics and the vote they have a right to make, that's a great thing," he says.

"People are telling [journalists] what stories they want to see," Schossow says, noting that trending terms on Twitter turn into the next day's news.

In this debate, for instance, Romney made a fleeting comment about cutting funding for PBS - despite liking the Sesame Street character Big Bird. That led to a flurry of #BigBird hash tags and hastily-generated photo illustrations.

"Eight years ago there might have been a story or two about Big Bird, but as an objective journalist that's not what I'm taking away from the night," he says.

A Google search today reveals over 1,700 stories.

In that way, even voters who aren't on Twitter find themselves influenced by the Twitter narratives, he says. "Every network that I looked at had a segment about what happened on Twitter during the debates," he said.

"A lot of people watching that network analysis don't know what Twitter is, but they heard the opinions of Twitter laced throughout the broadcast - whether it was explicit, when a broadcaster reads the Twitter trends, or implicit, when a reporter is influenced by what they see on Twitter."

That worries Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogged about the problem of Twitter-induced hive mind for the Columbia Journalism Review.

"I think it is too easy to be influenced by other people's reactions, especially for something as subjective as a presidential debate," he says.

Nyhan decided to sign off from Twitter during the debate, and encouraged other journalists to do the same.

"The political science take on debates is that they don't move the polls very much, but to the extent that they do debates matter, the mechanism to move the polls is coverage after the fact," he says.

The question, he says, is how Twitter and other social media outlets magnify the post-debate narrative, and whether it renders us too quick to judge a complicated event.

"What I saw was a largely wonky and drama-free debate between two relatively skilled politicians, and I think the nuance of that is being stripped out by the post-debate narrative," he says.

While journalists have always sought narrative, he says, Twitter has made that process faster and broader.

Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage, LLC, a Washington, DC, political media firm, says the Twitter data he gathered about who was winning the debate within the first 20 minutes reflected the larger polls taken at night's end.

That, he says, is less about the persuasive power of Twitter than its ability to quickly pick up on the zeitgeist.

"It's not going to trick us into believing that someone who won the debate didn't win the debate," he says. Instead, he says, Twitter "makes the reactions gel more in real-time."

Of course, the more people who use Twitter to watch the debates, the more it may be difficult to actually focus on the debates themselves.

"I find myself missing big lines," says Ruffini.

"I'm engrossed in Twitter and engrossed in my own personal consumption of the debate itself as opposed to what's said on screen."

In fact, the flow of tweets last night was so quick as to be overwhelming.

"You saw a lot of people talking about the fact that their Twitter stream was almost useless; that things were trickling in so fast that you couldn't keep up in real time," says Patrick Gavin, a reporter for Politico who said the site "jumped the shark" as a result.

He appears to be in the minority.

More and more people are turning to Twitter to discuss their political views, and don't show any indication of turning back. Twitter users - and the American electorate - will learn to adapt accordingly.

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