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Twitter Nation

In 2012, Twitter has a force that it didn’t have during the 2008 election. What is its impact on political discourse, and does it motivate voters?

In 2012, Twitter has a force that it didn’t have during the 2008 election cycle. And its users have something to say about politics. When actor Clint Eastwood gave an unusual speech to an empty chair during the Republican National Convention, @ClintsChair and @InvisibleObama Twitter accounts popped up instantaneously. President Obama found it worthwhile to join the meme himself, tweeting a photo with the legend “This seat’s taken.” Republicans responded with the #EmptyChairDay hashtag campaign, taking to Twitter with their complaints about the Democratic Party. And politicians and media closely tracked the number of tweets per minute triggered by different Democratic and Republican convention speakers.

“On Election Day in 2008 there were 1.8 million tweets. Twitter is saying that now they get the same number of tweets every six minutes,” notes Karen North of the USC Annenberg School, an expert on social media and Internet communication.

“In 2008, the two major parties’ conventions drew a combined 365,000 tweets. This year’s Republican convention generated about four million tweets, and before its final night the Democratic gathering had already surpassed five million,” add Morley Winograd of the USC Annenberg School and scholar Michael Hais, co-authors of Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America and Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics. “Michelle Obama’s speech generated almost twice as many tweets per minute (28,003) as it was being delivered than Romney’s acceptance speech (14,289). President Clinton came close to the First Lady, with more than 22,087 tweets per minute at the peak of conversational activity.” And on the final night of the Democratic convention, President Obama’s tweet-per-minute rate doubled that achieved by the First Lady.

Twitter has a serious role to play as the election heats up, adds Johanna Blakley of the USC Annenberg School, an expert on digital technology and the media habits of liberals and conservatives. “Twitter provides a quick glimpse into the mindshare of its users, and so anyone who wants to find out how Bill Clinton’s DNC speech was being received (while he was giving it!) could glance at the public timeline and get a pretty good idea of what was catching on and what wasn’t.”

Winograd and Hais agree: “Twitter can give commentators and general audiences a very quick read on the reaction to events as they happen, thereby causing the conversation to take a particular direction rather than the one intended. … The volume and intensity of the comments on Eastwood caused Romney’s acceptance speech and reactions to it to be drowned out in the rest of the media’s coverage.”

President Obama’s “This seat’s taken” tweet demonstrates how well attuned his campaign is to the medium and its user ethos, according to Winograd and Hais. They add that Obama has a substantial advantage over Romney among millennial voters, and he’s hoping to reinforce their loyalty through the use of social media.

Twitter has a greater impact on younger voters, since they consume more of their information through social media, but its demographic appeal is broad, says North. “Americans are really social animals, and one of the things we like is the feeling that we know someone.” She says that social media is good at creating this sense of a personal relationship, making Twitter voters feel connected to candidates and their causes. “Now social media is the biggest tool in the toolbox for getting people out to vote.”

Winograd and Hais also feel that Twitter’s greatest political power is in driving people to the polls. “It’s hard to believe that anyone would make up their mind about who to vote for based on a tweet. But it is possible to imagine that receiving a large number of tweets from your friends encouraging you to vote would have an impact on your likelihood to vote.” They add: “In this election, Twitter’s impact will be felt more in terms of turnout than persuasion.”

While tweets per minute and #Eastwooding may get attention, Blakley cautions that social media is still just a part of the whole picture. “A lot of the information that’s disseminated through Twitter comes from or is sparked by content that originated on traditional media platforms, and so I think we have to be careful about assuming that we can draw distinct lines between ‘old’ media platforms and new ones like Twitter,” she says. “We live cross-platform lives, and there will be no escape from the election on any one of them.”

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