University of Southern California

Election 2012

In Brief

Social Media & Debates

October 1, 2012

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The presidential debates have long been considered a potential turning point for any campaign. But with the rise of social media — and of the millennial generation becoming old enough to vote — we should expect to see the impact of the debates change in significant ways.

Thomas Hollihan, professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School, says that social media quickens everything it touches, including gaffes, mistakes, or even provocative post-debate commentary. The ability to go viral hastens the spread of information about the debates.

Social media can also reinforce biases voters already hold toward the candidates, Hollihan says. “Liberals will find most of their social media contacts are people who share their political beliefs, and the same is true for conservatives,” he notes. “Most of us are looking for confirmation of whom we already approve of.”

Gordon Stables, clinical assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School, says voters don’t have to wait for Wednesday’s debate to see the effect of social media.

“I think you’ve already had a glimmer of what can happen,” says Stables, who also serves as director of debate and forensics for the Trojan Debate Squad. “The ability to package small quotes or significant moments can be done now almost immediately. Significant moments will be in videos that can be put in ads in a few hours.”

Rampant political advertising ensures that even those who don’t watch the debates can be affected by the messages voters learn from them. Stables points to Mitt Romney’s controversial “47 percent” comment at a fundraising event, which is now appearing in pro-Obama ads playing in Ohio.

The televised debates have enraptured the media and voters since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate. Hollihan notes that the popularity of those debates isn’t much of a surprise — back then there were fewer alternatives on TV.

But today’s audiences are fragmented, with their attention divided by a cacophony of mediums and political score-keeping. Will social media pull eyeballs away from the TV?

As younger voters acquire greater influence, it’s likely that the format of the debate will change, Stables says. There will be tremendous pressure on the groups sponsoring the presidential debates to stay relevant to new audiences. Google+ Hangouts or other platforms will maximize that audience.

In a sense, this is part of the debate’s natural evolution, Stables adds. The Kennedy-Nixon debates were appealing partly because of the novelty of a new medium.
 
“I could see it not being exclusively in a traditional soundstage or production model. That might change like it did in 1960,” Stables says.

Hollihan agrees that the debates could change, as it becomes easier to watch them at any time. But that doesn’t mean that televised debates matter any less in 2012 — partly because of the viral nature of media.

“The debate has to be understood as more than just the interaction between the candidates on camera,” Hollihan says. He adds that the TV debate is still relevant, because it drives discussion in the news media and on social networks. “It’s a mistake to think of the debate as the only text voters are exposed to.”

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