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News & Views

The Presidential Debate wasn't just waged on TV

When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president in 2008, his campaign’s mastery of social media, particularly its ability to engage and mobilize younger voters, was widely cited as a key factor in his victory.

Eight years later, social-sharing platforms Twitter and Facebook have become key cogs in candidates’ campaign machinery, helping drive media coverage while framing – and often enflaming – the discussion.

Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton currently have a combined 21.6 million followers on Twitter, as well as 17.9 million followers on Facebook (although there has been speculation that some of those followers could be bogus).

Both candidates actively use the two platforms to engage and recruit new followers. In fact, the businessman-turned-reality-star-turned-politician has made Twitter a key part of his campaign strategy, rather than relying solely on standard election weaponry such as television attack ads. (Which, by the way, he has criticized Clinton for deploying in both debates so far.)

The candidates’ social media missives, especially the 3 a.m. musings of Trump, are driving their fair share of media coverage, since this is where so much of the dialogue has shifted to, as supporters and detractors of both candidates voice their observations and opinions.

But reporters and journalists are also delving deeper into it, using their own resources to fact-check any claims being made on social media by each presidential hopeful.

It is also easy to see how journalists are using the immediacy and candid nature of Twitter to get story ideas that offer a unique and deeply human take on live events. Consider how #MuslimsReportStuff, #NotOkay, and #HillaryClintonFly tweeted threads fueled day after stories in the likes of Time, New York Times and Mashable.

While, “dual screening” – using an online device while watching TV – has become commonplace for event programming such as the Olympics, it’s no surprise that this kind of viewing has made its way to televised political debates. According to a study in the Journal of Communication, people who comment live on social media during debates and follow it via hashtags have the “strongest and most consistent positive associations” with political engagement.

But social media is no longer regarded as a mere adjunct to TV.

According to a January study by the Pew Research Center, 14% of Americans get their news and information about the presidential election through social, second only to cable news (24%) and tied with local TV. That number rises to 35% among adults 18 to 29, and 15% of adults 30 to 49.

Twitter said that the second presidential debate on Oct. 9 was the most tweeted-about debate ever, with users sending out more than 17 million debate-related tweets (and 30 million tweets for the entire day).  But what is interesting about social media is that it can also provide more granular information about which moments resonated most with this dual TV-online audience.

The micro-blogging platform said that user engagement spiked during three moments in the second debate:

When Trump broke with his VP running mate Mike Pence on the latter’s call for U.S. military intervention in Syria.

When Trump said “I’m a gentleman” when allowing rival Hillary Clinton to answer a question first.

And when Trump told Clinton that “[she’d] be in jail” if he was in charge of the law.

Trump generated 64% of the debate conversation on Twitter and a remarkable 76% on Facebook, while Clinton attracted more new Twitter followers than Trump (25,000 for @HillaryClinton, compared with 16,000 for @realDonaldTrump).

This type of research can provide intelligence for each campaign. But no post-debate analysis is complete anymore without a roundup (including from the likes of Fortune and Wired) of the best user tweets, which typically range from pithy observations to GIFs and memes.

Ranging from deeply serious to entertaining, the role Twitter may ultimately be remembered for is how much it has driven mainstream media coverage. Whether that is good for democracy is open to debate. Likely on social media.

This piece also appears on

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