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Watching the Debate on Twitter Only Made It More Surreal

It made a night of partisan shouting seem even more divisive.
September 27, 2016

Cord-cutters had no problem tuning in to the slugfest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton last night. This year’s first meeting of the candidates was broadcast live on more than a dozen websites, from the Wall Street Journal’s to BuzzFeed. Snapchat ran a Live Story throughout. Hofstra students were broadcasting on Facebook Live.

I watched the 90-minute debate stream live on Twitter, which seemed appropriate since Twitter has become a big platform for both candidates. @realDonaldTrump has more than 11 million followers; @HillaryClinton has nine million.

As it does with broadcasts of NFL games, Twitter ran the video in a box and a stream of comments alongside, with a common hashtag, #debatenight. As is typical of Twitter, the commentary ranged from truly witty to utterly confusing. But it was hard to compete with what was happening onstage.

Clinton and Trump clashed almost immediately. On the stage things seemed to be spinning out of control. NewsBusters’ Brent Bozell deemed moderator Lester Holt biased against Trump, but I found him to be mostly silent.

Fact checking was a persistent theme in the thread. Early on in the debate, Clinton directed viewers to her website, where her staff would be setting the record straight, but plenty of news organizations were tweeting their own assessments. With my laptop buffering, at 10:10 p.m. I took a detour over to the New York Times to see what its fact checkers might be digging up. Not too surprisingly, they determined that Clinton couldn’t have been “fighting ISIS for her entire adult life” as Trump had said, since ISIS has only existed since 2003. I admired the effort, but I felt a little sad that Charles Savage had to spend his Monday evening this way. 

With my livestream streaming again, I was back to the broadcast in time to hear Clinton and Trump duking it out over whether or not Trump was originally in favor of the war in Iraq or against it. At 10:22 Trump declared that he has a much better temperament to be president, and the tweets began flying. @noahshachtman, executive editor of the Daily Beast, wrote a little poem about it. A few minutes later, Clinton brought up Twitter, which felt a little meta. “A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his hands near the nuclear codes,” she declared.

With 10 minutes to go, the buffering returned, so I checked in on the Washington Post’s fact-checking endeavor, which seemed more balanced. When Clinton accused Trump of making racist statements, they linked to a poll showing that 45 percent of voters also think Clinton is appealing to prejudice. Still, there’s only so much they can do. At 10:25 they seemed to surrender, with this post: “Trump claims he runs his business cautiously. We don’t really know.”

When the debate ended, the post-analysis began on Twitter, just as it did on the networks—except instead of talking heads, it offered rapid-fire commentary from a slice of the general populace.

I went hunting for partisans on Twitter, looking for people who didn’t use the approved hashtag but who have been identified by researchers as having a high degree of influence over election discussions on the platform.

@TBoBrewdog, who now goes by “Deplorable Steve” (presumably a reference to Clinton’s comment about putting half of Trump’s supporters into “the basket of deplorables”), thought it went well for Trump, who was “hammering all the right nails.” Actor @realjameswoods made a point about Clinton not knowing how to run a fax machine but thinking she can fight cyberterrorism. Comedian @pattonoswalt made a big deal about the fact that Trump was sniffing quite a bit.

Radio talk-show host @mitchellvii sent people to vote for the debate winner on the Drudge Report. As of 11:09 p.m., 90 percent of respondents (17,424 people) thought it was Trump’s night. Business Insider’s Henry Blodget, @hblodget, began watching the world markets rise, and attributed it to Clinton’s having done well.

In the end, for me tapping into the Twittersphere mostly made a night of partisan shouting seem that much more divisive. I certainly didn’t see much evidence of anyone being converted to a new point of view, or even being open to one.

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