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Four things to watch for in the first presidential debate.

Four Things to Watch for on Social Media During Tonight’s Debate

The first presidential debate is the Super Bowl of the long campaign season. The candidates’ performance will set the tone for the next week as the news media declares a winner, and the public contemplates who they want to be the next president.

The Illuminating 2016 project has been watching this campaign from the beginning. Our social media analysis of the campaign suggests these four things to watch for in tonight’s debate.


1. Twitter has been working with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to develop official hashtags, which will be #debates and #debates2016.

Twitter has been listening on their platform for comments and questions. We will likely hear the journalists ask a question or two from Twitter users.

And be prepared for Twitter to provide their own “social listening” metric of the volume of talk about the two major party candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. This volume of talk will likely be referenced by journalists and pundits as they speculate about who won the debate.

Be skeptical. Social media companies don’t make public the methods they use to generate that metric. Check out our own social listening measure of talk on Twitter about the candidates, which provides users a clear understanding of how we measure volume of talk about the candidates.

2. Jill Stein, the Green party candidate, and Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate, have both been denied access to the debate stage for failing to poll at 15%.

Jill Stein’s campaign is planning a major protest at Hofstra University where the debate will be held with some intention to be arrested. Gary Johnson garnered 1 million signatures to petition the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to allow him to debate. For his part, he isn’t urging major protests.

During the debate, be prepared for both third party candidates’ supporters to be active on Twitter using the debate hashtag (now with its own emoji!) to protest  their candidate’s absence and to counter the major party candidates’ messages with their own take on policy.

3. In the primary debates, Donald Trump’s campaign only took to Twitter or Facebook after the debate was over.

Conversely, Hillary Clinton’s campaign frequently posted to social media while Clinton was on the debate stage, highlighting quotes and reinforcing her positions, even going so far as to create infographics and visuals to help her messages get more attention.

Strategically, campaign staff use social media on behalf of the candidate to try and shape the way the public and the news media interprets the debate. They also post to social media to reinforce messages the candidate is making on the debate stage. They use their social media accounts to fire up their base as well and mobilize them to further amplify the campaign message.

Trump’s campaign missed that strategic moment during the primary debates. We expect his campaign staff won’t pass up the opportunity this time. Be prepared to see messages that mimic Trump’s unique communication style while also doing what the other candidates do on social media.

4. Expect to see an uptick in negative messages during and after the debate.

We already know that Clinton is more negative than Trump on social media. Expect to see both candidate’s negatives jump.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. When the candidates attack each other’s records and policy positions, the public gets to learn more about their policy positions (or lack of). Now is when that small segment of undecided swing voters will pay attention and contemplate which candidate will best sere their interests and that of the country. For that reason, debates are an important aspect of the campaign process because people learn more about the candidates.


Tonight’s debate is the first of the three encounters that Clinton and Trump will have. Next week, Vice President candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine will debate on October 4th. Trump and Clinton will debate again on Sunday, October 9, and Wednesday, October 19th.

In addition to Twitter’s #debates hashtag, our Illuminating 2016 team at the iSchool will be live-tweeting the debate using the hashtag #Illuminating2016 and analyzing how campaigns will be using social media for strategic communication during tonight’s debate.

Jenny Stromer-Galley

Jenny Stromer-Galley

Dr. Jenny Stromer-Galley is a Professor in the School of Information Studies and Director of the Center for Computational and Data Sciences at Syracuse University. Her book Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age provides a history of presidential campaigns as they have adopted and adapted to digital communication technologies. Jenny has been studying “social media” since before it was called social media. She is an expert on human interaction through digital media, and has written extensively about political institutions’ uses of the Internet for governance and for campaigning. She’s developed measures of influence, leadership, and discussion quality through social media. She’s on Twitter as @profjsg.)

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