Social media and presidential debates

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Crews are now in the process of putting up a large security fence around the University of Denver’s Ritchie Center, the site of the first presidential debate, but come Oct. 3 nothing will be able to contain the explosion of political chatter on social media channels.

If the volume of tweets on Twitter regarding Mitt Romney’s recent “47 percent” comments is any indication, social media is becoming more and more important for presidential candidates.

According to Mark Knight, a public relations consultant for the London-based PR company Broadgate Mainland, this began several years ago.

Mitt Romney and Pres. Obama have increased their usage of social media to reach a wider audience of voters. Photo by Jamison Metzger

“The previous contest for the White House in 2008 went down in history as the first election to be heavily influenced by the new social media phenomenon,” Knight wrote in an article published by the Huffington Post.

“Many voters,” he said, “especially those who were voting in a political election for the first time, used social media sites to talk to their friends about the voting process as well as posting a record of their experience in pictures and video. Nowhere was this more evident than on social networking site Facebook, where users sent each other virtual Obama or McCain buttons, or pledged their support to either candidate with wall posts on their respective pages.”

Fast forward to today’s presidential election where, following Obama’s example, Romney has amped up his use of social media. His Facebook page has almost 7.5 million likes. However, when it comes to Facebook, he is still playing catch-up to Obama, whose page has almost 29 million likes.

There are two main reasons why Obama’s presence on Facebook dwarfs that of Romney’s: first, Obama has had a page since last election, and second, the Obama campaign has recruited Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook.

Obama’s dominance carries over to Twitter. As of Sept. 26, 2012, Obama’s Twitter account boasted 20, 188, 239 followers. This compares to Romney’s mere 1,186,030.

But Romney does not seem daunted.

On an episode of PBS Newshour, Lauren Ashburn, the founder and editor-in-chief of the DailyDownload.com, said, “Romney is so active, especially on Twitter. He’s taken to it like a duck takes to water. It gives the campaign the opportunity to do things it wouldn’t do on television or in print.”

Howard Kurtz, also a journalist for DailyDownload.com, explained that these “things” include a minute-by-minute repartee.

Kurtz further explained the importance of hashtags on Twitter, describing them as weapons in the political battle unfolding over social media.

Both handles and hashtags have allowed both presidential campaigns to send direct messages to each other. For example, David Axelrod, a prominent political adviser to President Obama, said in a tweet to Mitt Romney’s advisor, Eric Ferhn, “@EricFerhn Dude, none of my business, but shouldn’t you be in debate prep instead of trying to explain yourself to me?”

Ferhn responded, “@davidaxelrod Haha! Believe it or not, the economy is an issue where we don’t prep Mitt, he preps us.”

Facebook and Twitter, though the major social media channels for reaching voters, are not the only forms of social media with which the candidates are experimenting.

Knight described Obama’s experiment with “hangouts.” He told how “Over 200,000 people recently tuned in to Reddit to see Obama take part in what’s know as an ‘AMA’ — Ask Me Anything. He personally answered over 1,000 questions (no minions intervened) ranging from politics, to philosophy, to Washington’s secret beer recipe.”

Traditional and social media alike will converge on Denver for the presidential debate, but undoubtedly, social media is a time bomb set to explode during the debate over each candidate’s comments.

And The Universe will be right there at the epicenter.  Equipped with Wi-Fi and electronic outlets, a staff of Universe reporters will be able to provide live updates, side-by-side with reporters from major national newspapers and news organizations like CNN and Fox News.

Follow the Universe on Twitter at @universemetro to get these live updates during the debate and Debatefest, an outdoor activity sponsored by the University of Denver that will include food, live music performances and activities. The event will run from 3 to 9 p.m. and is expected to draw a crowd of over 5,ooo.

To get more information on the debate, you can also follow the University of Denver on Twitter @uofdenver, or visit its Facebook page. To get more involved in the debate, you can also use the Twitter hashtag #debatedenver.

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