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The Online Response to the Big Debate Reveals Just How Influential Social Media Is

While social media played a role in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, the influence of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in previous election cycles pales in comparison to this year.

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If it feels like this election cycle has been more heavily covered, discussed and heated than any previous election, you aren’t alone in your sentiments. While the personalities involved in the election -- and the fact that there is no incumbent running for reelection -- certainly have played a role in the hoopla around the race for the White House, there’s something much more influential at the root of the excitement: social media.

Getty Images | Drew Angerer

While social media played a role in both the 2008 and 2012 elections, the influence of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in previous election cycles pales in comparison to the impact that’s been felt over the past 12 months. This was made quite clear in the days leading up to the first one-on-one debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, during the showdown itself, and in the hours after the debate.

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In order to understand the role social media played in the most recent debate, let’s review the five biggest storylines:

1. Pre-debate blows.

Before the debate even started, social media was the unofficial battleground -- not only for support of the candidates, but also for the candidates themselves. Most notable was celebrity businessman Mark Cuban’s threat that he would sit in the front row at the debate in an attempt to psyche Trump out. 

Never one to take criticism silently, Trump lashed out with a quick one-liner of his own, saying, “If dopey Mark Cuban of failed Benefactor fame wants to sit in the front row, perhaps I will put Gennifer Flowers right alongside him!” (The Flower reference referring to a model and actress who gained notoriety after reportedly having sexual relationships with former President Bill Clinton.)

Neither Cuban nor Flowers sat in the front row, but this little feud was indicative of how times have changed. Candidates and their supporters are now bypassing the media and using a direct-to-voter channel to drum up attention.

2. Individuals and companies respond to claims.

More than 80 million people tuned in for the debate on Monday night -- an astounding and record-setting figure by all accounts. With so many people watching, the stakes weren’t just high for the candidates -- they were high for everyone involved. This included companies and individuals mentioned in the debate. Here’s how two responded:

  • One of the more notable segments of the debate occurred when moderator Lester Holt alleged that Trump was once in support of the war in Iraq and then later backtracked to save face. Trump claimed he was adamantly against it and named-dropped Fox News host Sean Hannity as someone who could verify his stance. Hannity confirmed during the debate in tweet form saying, “Yes I heard. Omg we did have huge friendly arguments. Many!!”
  • One of Trump’s major talking points of the night was the fact that he would bring jobs back to America. When pushed for examples of companies moving operations overseas, he mentioned Ford’s small car division. Ford immediately sent out a tweet that read, “Ford has more hourly employees and produces more vehicles in the U.S. than any other automaker.”

In the past, companies, brands and people referenced in a debate setting had minimal opportunities to defend themselves -- at least in a timely fashion. Not anymore.

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3. Hillary’s camp fact-checks in real time.

With two candidates who voters perceive as being incredibly dishonest gracing the stage for more than an hour and a half, the idea of fact-checking was a big deal leading up to the debate. People had their opinions on whether Holt should play referee in addition to moderating. While he didn’t, Clinton’s camp decided they would.

During the debate, Clinton had a team of individuals fact-checking every claim Trump made and sharing those findings via her website and various social media profiles. This was the first time this has ever happened on such a large scale and allowed viewers to not only listen to what the candidates were saying but also separate fact from fiction.

4. Twitter exit polls.

For decades, groups of voters have been polled after presidential debates to gather some intelligence and opinions on who people think “won.” The problem with these polls is that they represent an incredibly small sample size.

Something interesting happened in the minutes and hours after the debate concluded. Voters, media members, websites and news outlets began posting Twitter Polls and asking users one simple question: Who won?

While these polls aren’t scientific, and the results are largely determined by who sees them, they did provide some fascinating insights. Whereas most of the official exit polls showed a decisive victory for Clinton, the social media polls tended to favor Trump. There could be any number of reasons for the disparity, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.

5. Periscope live streams.

During the last election cycle, live streaming social media didn’t exist. So this is the first year that we’ve seen the impact and utility of platforms such as Periscope and Facebook Live. Interestingly, celebrities and media personalities used live stream technology to voice their opinions both during and after the debate.

Professional tennis player Andy Roddick live streamed the entire debate experience, voicing his opinions on what was happening. Controversial media figure Clay Travis hosted a reaction show to the debate, which came on minutes after the coverage ended. There were certainly dozens of other streams, which proves just how useful live streaming can be in situations like these.

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The role of social media in the 2016 election cycle.

The ways in which social media influenced and people responded to the first debate between Trump and Clinton is indicative of something much larger. It’s proof that social media is playing a critically important role in this year’s election cycle.

Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook or Periscope, social networking platforms have become an integral part of how news is delivered. These platforms are also, for better or worse, giving a voice to anyone who wants one. While we’ll have to wait years to realize the full impact social media had on this election, the history books will certainly look back and tell us that, in the words of Donald Trump, it was “huuuge.”

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