This is bigger than Big Bird or even binders full of women.
The first two presidential debates and vast public reaction have raised too many media-related questions to be addressed in one column. But the ones involving huge conversations in social media demand a closer look — especially in terms of who's doing the talking and how representative or biased they might be.
Tuesday's town hall showdown generated 12.24 million comments on Twitter and Facebook, making it the top political event of all time in social media. Before the debate had even ended, a phrase uttered by Romney, "binders full of women," had 20 Facebook pages and its own Twitter account with more than 12,000 followers. One of the Facebook pages had 136,000 likes, according to the Associated Press.
Romney's words were intended to support his claim that as governor of Massachusetts he had made an effort to find qualified women for Cabinet posts. But on social media, they became a target of ridicule. Big Bird went viral the same way when Romney said in the first debate he would cancel funding for "Sesame Street" if elected.
The media metrics have been widely reported, but we in the news media haven't gone inside the numbers to explore what social media conversations might say about the state of politics, media and the way we communicate today.
How "authentic" is that conversation, for example, and could some of it be generated by party operatives? Might there be an ideological bias to such social media talk? After all, the two big conversations so far have been loaded with anti-Romney snark.
The clearest change noted so far by researchers studying social media and the role it's playing in the 2012 election is the way in which it is further compressing the news cycle.
"In the pre-Internet era, you had morning-after polls," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.
"But now, we've got these new tools where you can watch millions of people have real conversations ... in real time, and the feel of this is so much greater than with a morning-after poll," he adds. "Here, you can instantly see what millions of people are saying rather than just sticking your microphone or notepad in a single person's face as they're walking by The Baltimore Sun building and saying to them, 'What did you think of the debate?'"
William Powers, director of The Crowdwire, a Boston-based project analyzing the role of social media in the 2012 presidential race, sees a "new symbiosis between Twitter and the news media" in the use of hashtags based on things said in the debates.
The result is a near-instant news cycle driven by editors seeing hashtags go viral and then ordering up stories based on the hashtags — in effect, validating those hashtags and shaping the news budget.
"In the old days, when something took off like 'Morning in America' [a Ronald Reagan campaign slogan], you had to have a poll done a week later to see if people had noticed the ads, and it was this much longer, more drawn-out process," says the former Washington Post reporter who now works for Bluefin Labs, a pioneer in social media metrics. The Crowdwire is a Bluefin project.
Now, "when one of these takes off, and people are using it in large numbers on Twitter, that's a very delectable morsel for the media, because they can actually see the impact in a quantifiable way and have confidence reporting it," he says.
"It's like a new cycle is happening that we don't even have a word for yet," he says. "It's changing the whole process."
A snapshot of that symbiosis can be seen in C-SPAN's coverage of the debates. C-SPAN2 now shows the pool feed of the debates in split-screen with real-time tweets from 270 political reporters.
"The showing of tweets during debates is a natural evolution," says Howard Mortman, communications director for the cable industry's public affairs channel. "There's definitely a huge volume of tweets from big-name, top-shelf reporters. ... For us it's just part of sharing the full story of the debates — and the ongoing transformation of the media."
Mortman points to the changing nature of the Spin Room, a campaign-trail institution, in explaining that transformation.
"It used to be all the campaign spokespeople would show up in the media rooms after the debates, and the reporters would huddle around them and furiously jot down notes," he says.
"The Spin Rooms don't really exist any more," he says. "The facilities are there and the structure is there for the spokespeople to show up. ... But for the most part, the spinning is done by the campaigns on social media during the debates."
That raises questions as to who is saying what in social media, where it's easier to mask identity and harder to know the origin of themes and memes.
Campaigns "obviously" are trying to drive social media conversation, says Rainie, because they know those metrics are a factor "reporters, supporters and donors are now going to pay attention to — it's a new metric the political community is anxious to exploit."
"But at the same time, there are too many people doing it to think it's all manufactured," adds Rainie, co-author of the 2012 book "Networked: The New Social Operating System."
"If you've watched your own Twitter stream or your own hashtags, you saw stuff that was institutionally affiliated, but it was probably overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that came from individuals."
Rainie says that even if some tweets are the result of people responding to calls from "parties or partisans," that doesn't necessarily make them "any less authentic." Social media are giving people who "have already picked a team" a way to articulate that choice and try to influence the election.
"These are new ways for citizens to pitch their voices into the fray. In the pre-Internet era, what could they do? They could stand on street corners, write angry letters to editors, and that was about it."
A bigger concern to Rainie is the possibility of placing more value on social-media data than is warranted.
"Because it's measured, people invest a lot of value in it that might not be there," Rainie says. "For example, the composition of the social media sphere tends to be a little bit more liberal than conservative. So, the conversation you're going to see on social media ... might skew a little bit more liberal."
Rainie says it's crucial to understand that social media "is not a representative sample of the whole public."
Instead, "It's a very distinct sub-population of a sub-population," he explains. "Twitter users are 16 percent of the Internet. So, Twitter doesn't even represent the whole Internet. And the people who talk about politics on Twitter are a subset of Twitter — not everybody talks about politics."
What appears on Twitter "shouldn't be seen as the sum total of how people are reacting to the debate and how they're thinking about voting," he says. "As my colleague, Tom Rosenstiel at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, says, 'If the Twitter vote were representative, Ron Paul would be the Republican nominee.'"
The final presidential debate airs at 9 p.m. Monday.
CORRECTION: An earlier version misidentified Bluefin Labs as Blue Fin Labs.