Hashtag politics: Tweets pump up volume on debate

jshaffer@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2012 

For millions, the liveliest chatter about Tuesday night’s presidential debate will arrive 140 characters at a time – free of pundits in pancake makeup.

With smartphones, tablets and laptops, debate-watchers will log onto Twitter.com and form a nationwide peanut gallery, adding instant context, fact-checking and gags to passive TV-watching.

Last week, 4 million people logged on for the vice-presidential debate, sending out their own zingers on Big Bird and malarkey.

Online jabs caught Vice President Joe Biden: “Biden looks like he’s trying to order a drink at the bar and the bartender is ignoring him.”

And Rep. Paul Ryan: “Eddie Munster is going as Paul Ryan for Halloween.”

Short and quick, sometimes crude, tweets are replacing TV talking heads for big-event political analysis. More than 10 million people posted on Twitter during President Barack Obama’s first debate with former Gov. Mitt Romney, the heaviest traffic for any U.S. political event. The second debate could match or top that total.

For many in the Triangle, debate-watching has become an active experience rather than static viewing. Fact-checking happens instantly. Jokes get coined on the spot. Winners and losers get called before the debates are an hour old.

“It’s like you’re watching ‘The Muppet Show,’ ” said Patrick O’Neil, 46, who live-tweets from Raleigh, “but you’re watching it with Statler and Waldorf,” a nod to the curmudgeonly spectator Muppets in the box seats.

Clint Eastwood hadn’t wrapped up his speech at the Republican National Convention in late August before tweeters posted pictures of the empty chairs in their dining rooms. Obama hadn’t given final remarks before the Twitterverse panned his performance as flat. Romney had hardly finished his sentence about cutting funding for public television before Big Bird had his own Twitter account.

“In a lot of ways, it’s like watching a sporting event,” O’Neil said. “You’re calling out the great shots. You’re poking your buddy when somebody gets dunked on. It’s just quality entertainment.”

Out of all the tweets he reads, he guesses 90 percent rate no higher than noise. Who has the bigger American flag lapel pin? But when you tweet using a shared hashtag such as #debates, you’re inviting the world into your living room, however vapid its comments may occasionally be.

“It’s useful to hear what other people are saying,” O’Neil said. “It’s easy for us to drink our own Kool-Aid.”

To academics who analyze social media, the Twitter explosion is mostly a positive step. It tends to bring more people into the discussion and creates a greater chance that opinions get formed based on a wide spectrum of voices.

Twitter use was scant in 2008, so this year marks the first chance to gauge its impact on a presidential race. Journalists tweet. Political operatives tweet. Candidates tweet. Regular watchers tweet.

A ‘competitive forum’

“It’s really this competitive forum where all these people come together,” said Daniel Kreiss, a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. “It’s a medium for real-time reaction.”

The danger, Kreiss said, comes when Twitter shapes perception rather than reflects it. See enough tweets declaring Obama the loser, and you might believe it out of social pressure rather than your own impressions of his performance. See enough tweets saying Ryan got out-debated and you might start to buy into the groupthink.

“It can often form a conventional wisdom of who won that differs if you sat and watched it on your own,” Kreiss said.

If nothing else, it is useful for scouting purposes.

Brent Woodcox of Raleigh worked in public relations for the Republican Party, and he can’t imagine being swayed by the other side. But when he live-tweets, he gets a chance to see how well the other party’s spin is working.

When Ryan joked last week about Biden understanding how words don’t always come out the way you mean them, he immediately checked the Twitterverse to see how hard that punch was landing.

“I don’t consider myself an unbiased observer,” he said. “It gives me a better idea of where the normal person might be falling.”

Twitter is not a place for decorum:

“Joe Biden’s having a scotch right now while Paul Ryan’s mom is putting his ‘debate participation’ certificate on the refrigerator,” went one tweet.

“Mr. Biden, your rude behaviour leaves me with no choice but to ask you to leave Downton Abbey immediately!” went another.

In the end, Twitter’s offering on the debates is as noisy and chaotic as the nation of voters who post there. Much of it, like pet photos and shoe purchases, doesn’t even need to be shared.

“Twitter is kinda predictable,” wrote Chicago radio co-host Roe Conn last week. “Left says Biden won. Right says Ryan won. Everyone else took pictures of their dessert.”

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

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