How social media is revolutionizing debates

Story highlights

  • Dan Pfeiffer says a half-century of conventional wisdom about debates has been turned on its head by the rise of social media
  • Candidates and their teams look for moments that will play well and aim to shape the Twitter conversation, he says

Dan Pfeiffer is a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama and served in the White House in a variety of roles, including communications director. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Presidential debates have been governed by the same norms since the first televised debate in 1960: look good, don't make a mistake, stay solid for the entire debate, and then have your campaign spin like hell as soon as it ends.

Dan Pfeiffer
Most of the political world has thought about the debates the same way since John Kennedy used a smoother TV performance to best Richard Nixon in that debate, but we have now reached a tipping point, where social media has changed how debates are conducted, prepared for, judged and spun.
Here are four ways the Internet and social media have changed presidential debates.

    1. Social media makes the debate a communal experience

    Because debates don't have live commentary like sporting events, debates were watched essentially in a black box. Viewers and journalists formed their opinion in isolation. Judgments from the "experts" on who won or lost or made mistakes wouldn't come until after the debate for some and not 'til the next morning for most.
    Social media has changed all that. Opinions are now formed communally, and people are now seeing real-time analysis on social media from political pundits, reporters, partisans, and their friends and neighbors. How these influencers react on social media can cement and exacerbate initial impressions.
    In 2012, during the first general election debate, in which Barack Obama famously performed less than well, we saw a distinct difference between people who were watching in focus groups without access to their mobile phones and the general public. The focus group participants thought Obama wasn't great, but those who had seen experts and even famous Obama supporters like Andrew Sullivan give their downbeat appraisals thought the President was terrible.
    What is said on Twitter and Facebook during the debate is almost as important as what is said in the debate.

    2. It's about the moments

    Smart campaigns are spending as much time game planning moments as they are drilling answers. The goal is to have the moment, the exchange, or the pithy one-liner that everyone is tweeting about, sharing on Facebook, and generally discussing on social media. Campaigns aren't just thinking about how the press will respond, but how the Internet will respond -- how can they go viral?