First Presidential Debate Today, Expect Social Media to Play a Major Role

Ah, politics. Whether you’re a staunch Republican, Democrat, Independent, or you don’t care at all, politics will manage to get into your life one way or another. This is especially true for a Presidential race. It’s all but impossible to avoid the media coverage, especially in our increasingly connected age. There are countless advertisements, tweets, YouTube clips, and other ways to be exposed to all sides of the race.

In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign did its best to embrace the internet as an important tool for the election. It was an especially useful tool to engage young voters. The Obama campaign used social media like Twitter to reach followers. There were many YouTube clips promoting speeches and information about Obama and his campaign. McCain’s campaign did what it could with social media, but it didn’t have the influence that Obama garnered from his social media use.

The Debate Will Show us how Powerful Social Media has Become

If you haven’t heard by now, the first presidential debate will be televised tonight at 9:00PM EST. We’re finally going to see Obama and Romney go head-to-head in a debate. Regardless of which candidate you support, this is going to be interesting.

It’s going to be extra interesting because, as Alicia M. Cohn at The Hill writes, this is the “first presidential debate where both campaigns will be engaged in a virtual showdown on Twitter.” Since 2008, the use of Twitter and other social media has grown exponentially. Plus, both campaigns have embraced social media; they have a very active presence on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms to help motivate, inform, and shape the debate amongst their followers and interested citizens. This year, the Obama campaign has even offered its supporters the opportunity to donate through text message.

Personally, I see the reliance on social media much more today than in 2008. Although, for whatever reason, Facebook only informs me when a friend of mine “likes” Romney’s page. Facebook must be biased (kidding!). Anyway, back to more useful information. Joanne Ostrow at Mercury News quotes Kathleen Jamieson, public policy expert, who describes how social media has changed campaigns: “There’s a contest between the campaigns and the public to control the feed. Instead of working from spin rooms, they try to push their views through Twitter.”

Candidates Need to be Careful

With the capability of near-instant fact-checking, DVR, YouTube, and other web services, one little gaffe or mistake in speech can be blown magnitudes out of proportion. I know I wouldn’t want to be up there on the debate stage with all of that pressure!

We’ve already seen how extremely influential short soundbytes have become in this campaign. Remember a few weeks back when Republicans seized on Obama’s not-so-clear statement of “you didn’t build that”? What about the remarks Romney gave at a private fundraiser when he expressed some not-so-wisely chosen words about the “47 percent of Americans dependent on Government.” With social media, these gaffes never disappear.

Social Media’s Influence is Unavoidable

Something struck me in Alicia Cohn’s blog post on The Hill. She quoted Peter Greenberg, head of political advertising for Twitter, writing, “[Twitter] forces things into the national conversation. Even people who are not on Twitter directly end up being affected by it.” It’s true. Social media has become powerful enough to influence lives, even if people don’t actually use it themselves.

This begs the question – should people be using social media to push more important things? The media does a good job covering many stories, but only social media can propel them into the public space quickly and effectively. Last week, U.S. deaths in Afghanistan surpassed the 2,000 mark, but not many are talking about this milestone or the 11-year war. Sure, social media brings a lot to debates and political discourse, but maybe we should be using it bring awareness to other important issues.

However you look at it, though, social media is here to stay, and its influence is only going to grow. Its ability to gauge what people think and to magnify or illuminate certain stories is unmatchable on any other platform. I, for one, am looking forward to tonight, and I’ll definitely be monitoring Twitter and Facebook to see what happens. Will you?

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Patrick currently lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he is studying for a Master's Degree in Intercultural Relations. Upon graduation from Penn State in 2008, he spent two years overseas in Kyrgyzstan with the U.S. Peace Corps. While writing is currently his chosen way to put food on the table, he loves fitness and exercise, which he believes makes up for his avid computer gaming habit.

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