Tonight’s debate has been brought to you by Twitter

On Monday night, my boyfriend and I girded our loins and watched the first U.S. presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It was as simultaneously hilarious, terrifying and infuriating as anticipated, and much ink has been spilled in going over the nuances of each candidate’s performance. A couple of my favourites are John Doyle’s piece for The Globe and Mailand the following image/comments on an article on Jezebel.com:

airplane

Screenshot from Jezebel.com

As much as I already knew that social media now play a big role in the U.S. election cycle, it was while watching the debate that it REALLY hit me just how many resources both traditional and online news sources now devote to engaging readers/viewers over the various social media platforms.

Driving voters and viewers to social media

In the weeks and days leading up to the debate, many of the news sites and blogs that I follow were heavily promoting the fact that they would be live tweeting, fact checking, and otherwise providing commentary via social media during the event. I hadn’t consciously planned to watch the debate with any online accompaniment, but sure enough, over the course of the evening my boyfriend and I created something of a command centre in our living room. The TV was tuned in to NBC, I was reading comments on my Twitter mobile app, and my boyfriend was reading a live transcript of the debate while also flipping between fact-checking sites.

And it wasn’t just the media that had driven us online – Hillary herself encouraged viewers several times during the debate to visit her website to find real-time fact checking. We certainly did as we were told!

More engaged, or more distracted?

I’m still not sure of how to weigh the value of all the online interaction around this election. Does the high level of online engagement during the debate just emphasize that our culture has a limited attention span, and that our brains are now wired to seek constant novelty? Or is social media’s embracing of the presidential debate (and vice versa) a sign that American democracy is getting stronger, and the voters more engaged? The candidates and the networks seemed to suggest that listening to 90 minutes of political debate on its own is no longer possible, and yet I often (and happily) will sit and listen to a podcast for that length of time. Regardless, I certainly felt more engaged with this debate than I have in years previous – which I suppose says a lot, considering I’m not even an American voter.

What do you think? Should political debate stand on its own merits, or is it better that it have social media accompaniment? Is the marriage of political debate and social media a sign of distraction, or a sign of engagement?

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