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Debate Watchers’ Use of Social Media Can Create ‘Instantaneous Consensus’

A survey by the Pew Research Center shedding light on how Americans are receiving information about candidate debates could help politicians tailor their message to specific audiences.

The study, released as Vice President Joseph Biden and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan prepared to square off in tonight’s vice presidential debate, found that 83 percent of Americans consumed news coverage of last week’s presidential debate, with 56 percent following the event in real time.

Most of those people simply watched the faceoff between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney on television. But a small — although likely growing — number of viewers ages 18 to 39 followed the debate in a dual-screen manner, both on TV and online via social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

“It’s an interesting new way people are watching live events,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center. “And in this case, it’s not just commentators, it’s actual debate watchers, it’s the public to a certain extent, reacting instantaneously.”

Doherty said the practice of following debates both on television and online via social networking platforms is still a small phenomenon, with 22 percent of the 1,006 people surveyed reporting that practice. But Christopher Arterton, professor of political management at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, said it may effect how politicians try to deliver their message.

With the public, as well as journalists, following and engaging with social media as debates occur, there can be a practically instantaneous consensus and rush to judgment about a debate’s winners and losers, Arterton said.

Journalists and political strategists disseminate that instant analysis in newspapers and through online news sites — where Pew found that 61 percent of respondents said they received information about the debate.

“Social networking is recasting the nature of the relationship between candidates, their supporters, voters and journalists,” Arterton said. “We used to talk about political managers being on the supply side of making information available via social networks and reporters being on the consumer side. But now what’s happened is that so many journalists are now blogging and voicing their opinions … and those distinct lines have broken down.”

The fading of that line will likely change how politicians deliver their message, Arterton said, giving credence to the talk in the political sphere about the importance of “zingers” in political debates.

“I think it will be a test for the candidates to speak to several audiences simultaneously — to speak both to supporters and uncommitted voters first off, and also to speak to party people and reporters who are on social networks,” he said.

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