Oct. 2, 2012 at 6:32 AM ET
When you're watching the first presidential debate Wednesday night, don't believe what you see. Online, that is. As Mitt Romney and Barack Obama make their inevitable slip-ups and fact-challenged assertions, bring your well-trained skepticism to every computer, cell phone and tablet screen near you.
Jokes that seem to catch fire on their own -- remember Clint Eastwood's invisible Obama from the Republican convention? -- might not be quite so organic. Twitter themes that seem to be everywhere might not be popular so much as purchased. And stinging one-liners that show up in your streams and news feeds might make you chuckle, but they are probably half-truths, and most definitely not a great tool for picking the leader of the Free World.
Even if you aren't on Twitter, virtually all political reporters are, and they increasingly take their cues from it. This is the first presidential election in which social media will play a mainstream role, and it's important to remember not everything is as it seems online.
Four years ago, Facebook and Twitter had only just begun to capture the world's imagination (Pew says that 10 percent of the electorate used social media in 2008 to research candidates, and Twitter was scarcely 2 years old on election night). But with this election cycle, the social media giants are now key outlets for candidates to transmit their messages to voters. While social media may appear to offer unfettered, uncontrollable discussion of candidates and their positions, the campaigns are hard at work learning how to manipulate the tools to their advantage. And there's added spice to the Internet element of this season's presidential campaign -- because social media is so new, rules of engagement are lacking.
For example, Barack Obama famously held a surprise virtual town hall on Aug. 29, offering to take questions from Reddit.com users, embracing that site's standard "Ask Me Anything" (AMA) format. The event was unusual because it occurred during the height of the Republican National Convention, breaking the well-established convention that candidates don't upstage each other during their opponent's convention. Obama almost certainly wouldn't have held a traditional press conference that day -- but a Reddit AMA? Who's to say that was a violation of unwritten politicking rules? When suspicion arose that questions from the AMA might have been less spontaneous than they first appeared, many observers chimed in with cynical reminders that real-world town halls and press conferences also include plants. Who's to say what rules should apply on Reddit?
About the same time, Romney's campaign made what is believed to be the first major campaign purchase of a "sponsored hashtag," attempting to corral discussion on Twitter around the topic "#AreYouBetterOff?" Simultaneously, a parody Twitter account named MexicanMitt was temporarily suspended. A month or two earlier, Romney's number of Twitter followers shot up by a surprising amount. Are such hashtag purchases tasteful? Was suspension of the account coincidental? Is it fair to purchase followers? Again, the online rules aren't clear.
There is little argument that Obama's campaign, which held an exclusive on grass-roots Internet campaigning last time around, holds a major advantage over Romney on Twitter and Facebook. Some of that is pure demographics -- new Web tools skew younger and more liberal. But some of it is the result of well-timed sarcasm campaigns. Each time Romney trips over his tongue, you can be sure a cascade of social media comedy -- a "meme," in Internet lingo -- will follow. Sometimes, that's an organic outpouring of creativity. Sometimes, that's the work of an Obama supporter like Matt Ortega. He told Salon earlier this year that he was behind a website named "EtchASketchMittRomney.com," which appeared almost immediately after top Romney aide embarrassingly said that the candidate's campaign positions in the GOP primary could be easily changed, as if they were written on an Etch-A-Sketch. Ortega said he owns dozens of other similarly sarcastic websites, all powered by the pickup they get on Twitter and Facebook. Ortega is a Democratic consultant, but swears the sites are unpaid hobby work.
Turning candidates into punch lines
There's certainly nothing wrong with being funny. Obama's Reddit chat didn't break any rules; neither did Romney's Twitter advertising. But is social media a free-for-all? Perhaps, said Brad Phillips, a media consultant who runs MrMediaTraining.com. But he's not convinced that social media has made things worse. Campaigns have always stretched the rules -- and the truth -- to get any advantage possible, he said.
"Think about the Willie Horton ads (pillorying Michael Dukakis in 1988). So many others," Phillips said. "If the Internet existed in those campaigns, would they have used online tactics? Of course." Nor would campaign managers from elections past have fretted about scheduling a virtual press conference during an opponent's convention, he said. In some ways, he's surprised there hasn't been much evidence presented yet of "dirty tricks" online, such as the whisper campaign during the 2000 primaries alleging that John McCain had an illegitimate child.
On the other hand, Twitter and Facebook have created one huge new avenue for attack, Phillips said -- the power of humor. Once upon a time, the biggest threat to a candidate could be a misstep so bad that it became fodder for late-night TV humor on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show."
While that's still true -- an unplanned appearance on David Letterman's Top 10 List can really hurt -- Twitter and Facebook allow campaigns to create their own late night butt-of-joke moments without needing a comedy writer to see it their way. It's easy to argue that the real damage from Clint Eastwood's halting Republican Convention speech came from the hours of sarcastic Tweets and Facebook discussions that began before Eastwood even finished speaking.
"In the past, you knew a crisis had jumped the firewall when it appeared on late night TV as a joke....that meant the issue had gone beyond being just a story for political types," Phillips said. "You wonder if same dynamic is played out now online. If you can make a candidate a punch line (in social media) you've scored a hit."
Phillips also said sarcastic memes could slowly but surely wear down a candidate's chances, cumulatively building and impression that "a candidate is a joke," which would be hard to counteract.
"Is that clean (campaigning)?" he asked. "I don't know. But in future political cycles, I believe candidates will have to pay a lot more attention to this."
Clean or not, University of Virginia professor and presidential politics expert Larry Sabato has been sharply critical of both campaigns -- and political reporters -- for getting caught up in what he calls the "Gaffe Game." Hunting for the next one-liner is a poor way to evaluate presidential candidates, he says.
"When we tire of Gaffe Game, let's have a POTUS Spelling Bee. Would be about as revealing," he said recently in his own Twitter feed.
Scoring points through sarcasm is hardly new, but Sabato believes social media has indeed accelerated the gaffe obsession in this election cycle.
"Many people are on (Twitter) for hours every day. Do they make it worse? Is the pope German? They drain every gaffe of every ounce of meaning and political advantage," he said. "Every time a candidate has a blunder or tongue-twister, Twitter explodes with commentary defending and deriding the candidate."
On the other hand, there is hope, Sabato thinks. Social media seems to accelerate the news cycle, too, meaning that gaffes come and go quicker than they would in the past.
"They … destroy the gaffe quickly -- it burns itself out on Twitter faster than it would otherwise," he said.
Campaign zingers now 140 characters?
So does social media help or hurt the election process? Naturally, it's impossible to say. But it's important to note that voters shouldn't be fooled by what might seem like more personal connections offered by candidates through Facebook "Likes," "personal" e-mails and Tweets. In Phillips' impression, candidates are far more sterilized and prepackaged than ever.
"The candidates are so carefully controlled, access to them is controlled, they are trying to prevent any kind of YouTube moment. (Candidates' moves) are planned within an inch of their lives," he lamented. It's hard to believe that only five presidents ago, reporter Sam Donaldson and President Ronald Reagan sparred during fairly spontaneous press conferences. And vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro spent two hours answering reporters' questions about her tax returns.
Today's candidates usually hide behind carefully orchestrated digital personas, lobbing one-liners over the wall in an attempt to slowly move the needle on the small number of undecided voters who will swing the election.
"Candidates are giving away the ability to have a knockout fantastic answer," he said. "They are just trying to advance in inches not in yards," he said.
That raises the discouraging possibility that the key to who wins and who loses on Nov. 6 could be which candidate comes up with the best joke that fits in 140 characters or fewer.
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