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Social Media Transforms Debate Viewership

Kane Farabaugh

October 12, 2012

Computers and mobile devices are transforming the speed and means by which voters get information about candidates. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are steadily replacing traditional sources as the delivery method of choice for a generation of new voters.

As she gears up for this year’s election, Center College student Kelly Bolton, who's on the campus of the vice presidential debate, is getting political updates not from television or traditional news sources, but instantly, through her phone.

“You know what’s happening, when it’s happening. And that’s exciting in a political season because you want to know where the polls are standing, or if Romney said something or Obama said something,” Bolton said.

The information is delivered to her phone through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have grown in popularity as more Americans own mobile devices.

During the first debate between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the Pew Research Center says one in ten Americans watched the debate while also following news about it on their computers or mobile devices.

“We gathered around a television and watched it. But everybody had their phones out too because if Mitt Romney said something, and we Republicans liked it, we wanted to Tweet that,” Bolton said.

“Twitter has completely exploded the size of the conversation around the election.” said Twitter’s Adam Sharp. He says traffic on the social media site jumps from about 1000 tweets to over one hundred thousand tweets per minute during the debates.

By graphing the traffic on Twitter, he can paint a picture of how the debates are playing to the American public, instantly.

“A generation or two ago, we may have waited until the next morning’s paper, to find out what happened this morning on the campaign trail. Today we are able to follow what happens, as it happens, on Twitter and get closer to the candidates and events in real time,” Sharp said.

Merle Hansen is seventy years old and retired. He's watched every debate since 1960. He still prefers to get his information from a newspaper, and doesn’t plan to get a Twitter account. “If you want to talk to me, call me up. I’ll be glad to talk to you but I don’t like to text or do any of that,” Hansen said,

That’s a sentiment Kenyon Cook, a student, can understand. “I would say it’s a lot easier for young people to access because they know the technology,” Cook said.

“If you’d ask my parents, they’d tell you that they have no idea what an iPhone is, what Twitter is or how to Facebook,” Bolton said.

But that too, is changing. Bolton says her father is setting up a Facebook account, joining about one billion people on the planet who own an account, including Mitt Romney, and President Barack Obama. This election could provide a test on how this way of delivering news will affect the outcome.

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