"Shadow Debate" Part of Presidential Race

As Obama and Romney square off Wednesday night, the real debate may take place in the social media universe.


By Peter E. Howard

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Oct. 3, 2012) – While millions of people watch tonight’s presidential debate on television, there will be another debate – some calling it a “shadow debate” – taking place through social networks.


Twitter is expected to be bombarded with millions of tweets and traffic to other social outlets like Facebook, Pinterest and Google + will also experience a crush of comments, images and interpretations about the debate – a virtual spin zone involving friends, pundits, political handlers, strangers and anyone else who wants to chime in.


“It will be interesting to watch,” said Kelli Burns, associate professor in the School of Mass Communications and a social media expert. “Just like any major event out there, people are going to turn to social media to connect.


“But the use of social media during this event, in particular, has implications for the outcome,” she said. “What’s going on behind the scenes online could have a really big impact on people. Especially if you are impressionable or undecided, this could have a powerful impact on you.”



UPDATE: Reports Thursday morning said Twitter set a record for the number of tweets during a political event - 10.3 million tweets in 90 minutes. But there was also other interesting trends emerging. Politico reported that some felt the overwhelming onslaught of tweets was numbing, with some deciding to turn off Twitter and concentrate solely on the debate. They concluded, Politico points out, "that sometimes less is more..."



President Obama and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney are at the University of Denver for the first presidential debate. Over the past few years, social media has blossomed into a driving force for political fundraising and message delivery, and both campaigns will be closely monitoring the tone of comments flowing through social media.


“It will be interesting to see what makes Twitter explode with positive or negative comments,” Burns said. “They will be able to see what really fires people up, both in a positive and negative way.”


Facebook, Burns said, is primarily a peer group populated with friends and acquaintances. Twitter, on the hand, exposes people to more strangers and to people who feel freer expressing their views in a more anonymous environment.


“A lot of people who follow you on Twitter don’t know you personally,” she said. “I’ll definitely be plugged in to what people are saying. I’ll be curious about what hashtags people are using during the debate.”


Trending hashtags during the day Wednesday were promoting the debate and the candidates. One hashtag, #CantAfford4More, paid for by Mitt Romney for President, Inc., was being infiltrated by Obama supporters who turned the phrase around to promote a message that the country can’t take four more years of a GOP Congress that buries the middle class.


“When you use the opponent’s hashtag, it’s an opportunity for the other side to have a voice in the stream of tweets,” Burns said.


Peter E. Howard can be reached at 813-974-9057.