Going deeper than Big Bird and binders on Twitter and TV debates

Lots of social-media talk, but is some skewed, manufactured?

  • Screen grab from C-SPAN2 Tuesday night showing debate with tweets from reporters in real time. This one is from the big Libya moment.
Screen grab from C-SPAN2 Tuesday night showing debate with… (Courtesy of C-SPAN )
October 22, 2012|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

This is bigger than Big Bird or even binders full of women.

The first two presidential debates and vast public reaction have raised too many media-related questions to be addressed in one column. But the ones involving huge conversations in social media demand a closer look — especially in terms of who’s doing the talking and how representative or biased they might be.

Tuesday’s town hall showdown generated 12.24 million comments on Twitter and Facebook, making it the top political event of all time in social media. Before the debate had even ended, a phrase uttered by Romney, “binders full of women,” had 20 Facebook pages and its own Twitter account with more than 12,000 followers. One of the Facebook pages had 136,000 likes, according to the Associated Press.

Romney’s words were intended to support his claim that as governor of Massachusetts he had made an effort to find qualified women for Cabinet posts. But on social media, they became a target of ridicule. Big Bird went viral the same way when Romney said in the first debate he would cancel funding for “Sesame Street” if elected.

The media metrics have been widely reported, but we in the news media haven’t gone inside the numbers to explore what social media conversations might say about the state of politics, media and the way we communicate today.

How “authentic” is that conversation, for example, and could some of it be generated by party operatives? Might there be an ideological bias to such social media talk? After all, the two big conversations so far have been loaded with anti-Romney snark.

The clearest change noted so far by researchers studying social media and the role it’s playing in the 2012 election is the way in which it is further compressing the news cycle.

“In the pre-Internet era, you had morning-after polls,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

“But now, we’ve got these new tools where you can watch millions of people have real conversations ... in real time, and the feel of this is so much greater than with a morning-after poll,” he adds. “Here, you can instantly see what millions of people are saying rather than just sticking your microphone or notepad in a single person’s face as they’re walking by The Baltimore Sun building and saying to them, ‘What did you think of the debate?’”

William Powers, director of The Crowdwire, a Boston-based project analyzing the role of social media in the 2012 presidential race, sees a “new symbiosis between Twitter and the news media” in the use of hashtags based on things said in the debates.

The result is a near-instant news cycle driven by editors seeing hashtags go viral and then ordering up stories based on the hashtags — in effect, validating those hashtags and shaping the news budget.

“In the old days, when something took off like ‘Morning in America’ [a Ronald Reagan campaign slogan], you had to have a poll done a week later to see if people had noticed the ads, and it was this much longer, more drawn-out process,” says the former Washington Post reporter who now works for Bluefin Labs, a pioneer in social media metrics. The Crowdwire is a Bluefin project.

Now, “when one of these takes off, and people are using it in large numbers on Twitter, that’s a very delectable morsel for the media, because they can actually see the impact in a quantifiable way and have confidence reporting it,” he says.

“It’s like a new cycle is happening that we don’t even have a word for yet,” he says. “It’s changing the whole process.”

A snapshot of that symbiosis can be seen in C-SPAN’s coverage of the debates. C-SPAN2 now shows the pool feed of the debates in split-screen with real-time tweets from 270 political reporters.

“The showing of tweets during debates is a natural evolution,” says Howard Mortman, communications director for the cable industry’s public affairs channel. “There’s definitely a huge volume of tweets from big-name, top-shelf reporters. ... For us it’s just part of sharing the full story of the debates — and the ongoing transformation of the media.”

Mortman points to the changing nature of the Spin Room, a campaign-trail institution, in explaining that transformation.

“It used to be all the campaign spokespeople would show up in the media rooms after the debates, and the reporters would huddle around them and furiously jot down notes,” he says.

“The Spin Rooms don’t really exist any more,” he says. “The facilities are there and the structure is there for the spokespeople to show up. ... But for the most part, the spinning is done by the campaigns on social media during the debates.”

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