WASHINGTON — Big Bird is endangered. Jim Lehrer lost control. And Mitt Romney crushed President Barack Obama.
Those were the judgments rendered across Twitter and Facebook Wednesday during the first debate of the 2012 presidential contest. While millions turned on their televisions to watch the 90-minute showdown, a smaller but highly engaged subset took to social networks to discuss and score the debate as it unspooled in real time.
Until recently, debate watchers would have waited through the entire broadcast to hear analysis and reaction from a small cadre of television pundits. Social media has democratized the commentary, giving voice to a far wider range of participants who can shape the narrative long before the candidates reach their closing statements.
“People still use old media to watch the debates, but they use social networks and other new media to have influence, voice opinions and be involved,” said Scott Talan, an assistant professor of communication at American University who studies social media and politics. “Old media is not dead; it’s growing. But now we have more people involved and engaged because of digital means.”
The political conversation plays out across a range of social platforms, especially on the industry giant Facebook and on Twitter, the social networking hub where opinions are shared through 140-character comments known as tweets. Reflecting the changing times, many television analysts now monitor Twitter and Facebook feeds and use information gleaned from those platforms to inform their punditry.
Twitter announced shortly after Wednesday’s debate that it had been the most tweeted event in U.S. political history, topping this year’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
With 11.1 million comments, Wednesday’s debate was the fourth most tweeted telecast of any kind, coming in just behind the most recent Grammy awards, MTV’s Video Music Awards and the Super Bowl, according to William Powers, director of the Crowdwire, an election project of the social analytics firm Bluefin Labs. The project found 55 percent of the social comments about the debate were made by women, 45 percent by men.
Unlike the wider viewing audience, debate watchers who comment on social media “are politically engaged in the strongest possible way,” Powers said. But, he added, “it’s a bit of a hothouse population. It does skew younger, and I’m not sure how much middle America is represented.”
Twitter scored Romney the debate’s clear winner according to Peoplebrowsr, a web analytics firm. The group found 47,141 tweets mentioning Romney and “win or winner” compared to just 29,677 mentioning Obama and “win or winner.”
Romney was also the top tweet in battleground states including Florida, Ohio, Nevada, and Colorado, Peoplebrowsr found.
In Ohio, a key swing state where polls show Obama has emerged with a lead in recent weeks, the top two debate tweets were “Romney” with 15,115 and “Mitt” with 5,446. “Obama” placed third with 5,328.
Search engine Google announced the debate’s four most searched terms: Simpson-Bowles (the bipartisan fiscal commission Obama appointed); Dodd-Frank (a democratic-backed financial reform law); Who is Winning the Debate; and Big Bird.
The debate, focused on domestic issues, was a numbers-heavy discussion of the economy, debt, and entitlement reform. It produced strong reactions on Twitter from its earliest moments, from the candidates’ attire and appearance – “Obama: solid blue tie with dimple. Romney: red tie with stripes, no dimple,” tweeted publisher Arianna Huffington – to Jenga, a stacking game Romney and his wife, Ann, were reportedly playing with their grandchildren before the debate began.
From there, the social chatter settled into a few major themes.
- Big Bird. Early in the debate, Romney said he would defund public broadcasting to bring down the deficit but added that he liked Big Bird, a popular character on PBS’ “Sesame Street.” Social networks immediately responded, with participants posting spoof photos of Big Bird and other “Sesame Street” characters on Facebook and setting up parody Big Bird Twitter accounts. During a lull in the debate, an ABC news executive tweeted, “avian life is outstripping human life in this debate.”
- Jim Lehrer. The veteran PBS newsman was widely panned as the debate moderator on social media, with viewers complaining he asked weak questions and did a poor job of keeping command of the debate’s time and tempo. Lehrer’s name became a trending topic on Twitter, and his performance drew jeers from countless participants. “Jim Lehrer is like the grandpa at dinner table who falls asleep and wakes up randomly shouting,” tweeted a woman with the Twitter handle of Bookgirl96.
- Romney’s big win. Social media participants marveled at Romney’s strong outing and pronounced Obama’s debate performance flat, non-energetic, and meandering – a dud. While Obama has been leading Romney in battleground state polls in recent days, the consensus on social networks was that Romney’s debate performance had breathed new life in to his campaign.
Obama supporters were some of his toughest critics. Andrew Sullivan, a pro-Obama writer for the Daily Beast whose Twitter feed, Sullydish, has a loyal following, declared, “This was a disaster for the president.” Joe Mercurio, a New York media buyer, wrote on Facebook, “It could have been worse.”