Viewers Are Following the Debates on Twitter Even When They’re Not

By Devon Glenn 

As the presidential election debates unfolded on live broadcast television, the second screen captured 11 percent of the viewing audience, according to the latest study from the Pew Research Center.

The opinions expressed on Twitter and analyzed by experts increasingly rival those collected through traditional gallup polls, according to analytics firm Topsy, which collaborated on the Twitter Political Index along with Mellman Group and Northstar Opinion Research. Announced in August, the Twitter Political Index tracks each candidate’s popularity from day to day.

By Twitter’s calculation, the conversation surrounding the vice presidential debates peaked on October 11 at 58,000 tweets per minute when Vice Presiden Joe Biden asked Congressman Paul Ryan, “Now you’re Jack Kennedy?”

Not that anyone needed to actually be on Twitter to see what was happening on the microblogging site. Turn to almost any news station and you’ll find Twitter highlights rolling across the bottom of the screen.

After Biden took on Ryan in the vice presidential debates last week, the reporters on Pix11 addressed the Twitter community directly to settle a seemingly minor issue that Americans were discussing at length: why the American flag pin that Ryan wore on his lapel was larger than Biden’s. (It turned out that the star on the flag that the Republican candidate was wearing is the emblem of the Secret Service.)

It was a surreal fourth-wall moment when the two-dimensional figures on the screen actually stopped what they were doing and responded in real time to the people who were shouting at them from their couches. But in this case, the people were watching one screen and typing into another.

The Washington Post also drew Twitter users away from Twitter with a newly launched WP Politics App for the iPad. One of its main features is a  Twitter “Forum”  that streams commentary from 300 key political influencers for people to read while they watch the live broadcasts. Crunching the numbers after the debate, the publishers noticed a 600 percent usage increase for the app over the previous day.

What does this mean for Twitter, the byte-sized news generator that combines headlines and viewer commentary into one continuous stream of chatter?

The Pew study also revealed that only one third of the people who followed the presidential debate online during the broadcast – who also made up only 5 percent of the entire debate audience – posted their reactions to it on social media.

Twitter provides a relatively small sampling of public opinion for others to digest. With broadcasters and aggregator apps delivering Twitter highlights to the public, viewers are following the debates on Twitter even when they’re not.