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The politics of Twitter: Presidential debate is most tweeted political event in history

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 4 2015 6:01 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking)  (Rick Wilking, AP) President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver. (AP Photo/Pool, Rick Wilking) (Rick Wilking, AP)

By the time last night's presidential debate started, there had already been 2 million tweets on the event in the preceding 24 hours. And when it was over, it had become the most tweeted about event in U.S. political history.

That may not seem like much of a historical landmark, but Twitter, one of the fastest growing and most influential social media sites, is changing politics. On election day four years ago, 1.6 million tweets were sent — in today's world that is the number of tweets posted every six minutes. While President Barack Obama was the candidate to most effectively utilize the power of the Internet in 2008, this time around both candidates are aggressively using sites like Facebook and Twitter to get the word out, respond to attacks and criticism, and to shape opinion. This year, the presidential campaign has been dubbed the "first Twitter election," because of the outsize influence Twitter has with politcal commentary.

During last night's debate, one of the most tweeted about topics was GOP candidate Mitt Rmoney's comment on possibly cutting funds for PBS, reaching 17,000 tweets per minute for "Big Bird" and 10,000 tweets per minute for "PBS."

Other heavily tweeted about topics throughout the course of the debate had to do with the candidates' appearance, Obama's downward gaze during much of the debate and commentary about the health care discussion between Obama and Romney. What impact, if any, this has on the election remains to be seen.

THE IMPACT OF TWITTER

Though political involvement through social media is common, especially as the Presidential campaign continues, Twitter's actual influence may not be as great as some think.

According to a story by NPR earlier this year, the Pew Research Center found that only 2 percent of people looked for election news from Twitter, 3 percent from YouTube and 6 percent from Facebook.

"These numbers are very modest, given all that we've heard about the impacts of social networks on the campaign," Andrew Kohut, Pew Center President, told NPR.

Most Americans still turn to television for campaign news — 36 percent get their political news from cable TV, and 32 percent from local TV news stations.

"Everybody recognizes social media is the direction everything is going and that it matters more and more in the elections," Damon Cann, assistant professor of Political Science at Utah State University said. "It gives candidates an interesting way to interface with people." Thanks to Twitter, any gaffe is quickly dissected and debated.

"There's no doubt that social media has become important enough that no serious enough candidate can ignore the use of it," Cann said. "More and more people will start using these tools and you don't know where it's going to go or what's going to effect. With Twitter you have to be as careful about what people are saying about what you said, as much as the thing you actually said."

And while Twitter use has grown dramatically since the last presidential election, according to the Wall Street Journal, Twitter users represent a small sampling of those who are on the Internet, who themselves are not representative of all voters.

Over 30 percent of U.S. Internet users between 18 and 24 use Twitter, while only 17 percent of those 25 to 34 use the site.

The measurements Twitter tracks, like tweets per minute, are "more valuable in telling us when things happen that have a resonance with the electorate than necessarily telling us which direction that impact is going to be," Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center said.

A Twitter political record was set during the Democratic National Convention, with most tweets per minute after one event. Near the conclusion of President Obama's speech on Sept. 9, the number of tweets per minute peaked at 52,757, specifically with the hashtag #DNC2012.

By the end of the night of the DNC there had been a total of close to 4 million tweets, a little more than total tweets throughout the entire GOP Convention combined. In total the DNC brought in around 9.5 million tweets. Tweets per minute at the end of Romney's speech reached 14,289.

WHO USES TWITTER?

A common argument surrounding Twitter is that more Democrats are users than Republicans. Twitter users are 33 percent more likely to be Democrats, according to recent findings from the Social Habit, a site that tracks social media usage. The study found that 40 percent of tweeters were self-reported Democrats, 23 percent were Independent and 22 percent were Republican.

But is Twitter use changing anything? Is the tweet volume "just noise?" Though social media may not be causing major movement towards the ballots in the U.S., many experts believe it is changing the way politicians handle themselves and their campaigns.

"Social media will, and should, continue to play an important role in our political discourse," Wesley Donehue, a Republican Internet consultant said in an editorial for CNN. "But the trend has grown so quickly; I don't know that anyone has really stopped to consider the implications of moment-by-moment, real-time transparency."

While social media can be a positive reinforcement for the campaigns of many politicians, Donehue said there are major ways in which its use can inhibit politicians.

"Too many politicians aren't voting their conscience, they're voting to placate blog commenters, and that's no way to run government," Donehue said.

That’s a good thing, Joe Trippi, a popular political strategist, said. "This medium demands authenticity ... Authenticity is something politicians haven’t been used to.”

When the national elections, and specifically the debates, were only available through television and radio it created a disconnect between speaker and audience, Trippi said, but with social media the interaction at least feels real and personal.

To follow the popularity of the Presidential candidates on twitter go to the Twitter Political Index, or Twindex, go to: election.twitter.com

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