If the discussion had been between two politics majors or really any two people slightly less hungry and slightly more knowledgeable, I assume the conversation wouldn’t have ended there. Perhaps a heated debate charged with liberal biases and conservative ties would have ensued. Obama was distracted and unenthusiastic. Romney didn’t offer specifics. Obama looked like this. Romney shouldn’t have done that. But CNN’s Twitter feed made it clear that Romney had won, so what would be the point? My mouth was full anyway.
Instead, I wondered if I, too, could spare myself the hour-and-a-half-long debate video by only reading political tweets. However, after looking at news outlets’ tweets from Oct. 3 and subsequently watching the debate footage, I felt that only by watching did I consider myself truly “informed.” And yet, after watching the debate, I came to the same conclusion that the tweets had. Romney had won. Moreover, if you’d asked me to give summaries of the most important points, I probably would have given you answers quite similar to the tweets I’d read. There’s only so much that stands out in a full hour-and-a-half, and it turns out most of it can be reiterated in 140 characters. I hate to admit it, but my 10 minutes on Twitter and my 90 minutes of TV had left me with uncomfortably similar results.
I suppose there is something to be said for the speed and ease that Twitter provides to its users. Instead of having to set aside an hour-and-a-half in the place of that paper or sports practice or dance rehearsal, I can get short updates to my phone and still fulfill my other comitments. In the end, we all come away with the same quotations and statistics. It’s a paring down of information, no more than a brief overview, that brings politics into the realm of popular social media. With constant pushes to increase voter participation, the young vote in particular, modern technology is an obvious means of attracting an audience that would be otherwise alienated by the length and, often, the lack of entertainment intrinsic to a presidential debate. Twitter remedies these deterrents.
Television surpassed radio coverage of presidential debates in much the same way. In 1960, the year of the first televised debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, television was the new technology. The debates moved from solely discussion to a comparison of appearance and demeanor. Thus, it was no surprise that those who heard the debate on the radio believed that Nixon had won while those who saw the young, handsome Kennedy pitted against his sweaty, sickly counterpart thought otherwise. The debates were no longer about policy or position, but the people touting them.
Now, as the presidential debates move to the Twittersphere, there may indeed be a parallel shift. Primarily with the younger set, Twitter does stand as a source of information on the long and monotonous back-and-forth performance that is the presidential debate. But with Twitter, we move even further from the policies, past the people touting them and into short, provocative statements. News outlets are limited to 140 characters, leading them to pick only those short statements that are the most memorable and, all too often, these statements are the ones that ignite passions rather than explain political plans. After all, these outlets want to entertain viewers. With references to Big Bird at their disposable, why go with a been-there-done-that quote about health care? Where it was appearance that began to matter 50 years ago, it is now pithy, entertaining simplicity that points to a winner.
Despite the speed and ease of this mode of political engagement, we must consider the disadvantages that come with this impending shift from the original policy first mentality. Appearances began to overshadow what was being said in 1960. And now 140 characters threaten to pull us even further from the big picture by leaving us more vulnerable to media bias. In Philip Mooney’s recent column, Televised debates, he suggests that debates have already lost their intrinsic value as they have become only what the pundits make of them. Twitter, if it is used as one’s main source of coverage, grants these media pundits even greater control over what information is passed to the voter by their choice of what is and what is not tweet-worthy. I am by no means claiming that Twitter will usurp television as the main platform for debate coverage as was the case 50 years ago with the radio. I suggest only that it will shift our attention away from a fair judgment of the proposed policies once again.
The difference between the debate of 1960 and this year’s, however, is that there is little discrepancy as to who won, unlike the outcome of the Kennedy/Nixon debate. Despite media bias, then, is it possible that Twitter is as successful in focusing attention on the facts as TV was, and is? Both my watching TV and my reading Twitter left me with the same conclusion — that Romney had won — and with the same memorable details.
Perhaps my resistance to Twitter comes only from habit and a misconstrued, inflated perception of what it means to be “informed.” Is Twitter maybe “good enough?” In this fast-paced, technology-driven society, will 140 characters suffice? I’d like to say no. But 10.3 million tweets over the course of 90 minutes, as reported by Forbes, may suggest otherwise.
Chelsea Jones is a sophomore from Ridgefield, Conn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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