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Big Bird endangered? The real-time tweets and Facebook reaction to debate

The Obama vs. Romney presidential debate was the most tweeted event in U.S. political history. Hot Facebook and Twitter topics: Big Bird, Jim Lehrer, and Mitt Romney's victory.

By Beth FouhyAssociated Press / October 4, 2012

President Barack Obama walks past Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, in Denver.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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Washington

Big Bird is endangered. Jim Lehrer lost control. And Mitt Romney crushed President Barack Obama.

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Those were the judgments rendered across Twitter and Facebook Wednesday during the first debate of the 2012 presidential contest. While millions turned on their televisions to watch the 90-minute showdown, a smaller but highly engaged subset took to social networks to discuss and score the debate as it unspooled in real time.

Until recently, debate watchers would have waited through the entire broadcast to hear analysis and reaction from a small cadre of television pundits. Social media has democratized the commentary, giving voice to a far wider range of participants who can shape the narrative long before the candidates reach their closing statements.

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"People still use old media to watch the debates, but they use social networks and other new media to have influence, voice opinions and be involved," said Scott Talan, an assistant professor of communication at American University who studies social media and politics. "Old media is not dead; it's growing. But now we have more people involved and engaged because of digital means."

The political conversation plays out across a range of social platforms, especially on the industry giant Facebook and on Twitter, the social networking hub where opinions are shared through 140-character comments known as tweets. Reflecting the changing times, many television analysts now monitor Twitter and Facebook feeds and use information gleaned from those platforms to inform their punditry.

The social chatter settled into a few major themes.

— Big Bird. Early in the debate, Romney said he would defund public broadcasting to bring down the deficit but added that he liked Big Bird, a popular character on PBS' "Sesame Street." Social networks immediately responded, with participants posting spoof photos of Big Bird and other "Sesame Street" characters on Facebook and setting up parody Big Bird Twitter accounts. During a lull in the debate, an ABC news executive tweeted, "avian life is outstripping human life in this debate."

— Jim Lehrer. The veteran PBS newsman was widely panned as the debate moderator on social media, with viewers complaining he asked weak questions and did a poor job of keeping command of the debate's time and tempo. Lehrer's name became a trending topic on Twitter, and his performance drew jeers from countless participants. "Jim Lehrer is like the grandpa at dinner table who falls asleep and wakes up randomly shouting," tweeted a woman with the Twitter handle of Bookgirl96.

— Romney's big win. Social media participants marveled at Romney's strong outing and pronounced Obama's debate performance flat, non-energetic and meandering — a dud. While Obama has been leading Romney in battleground state polls in recent days, the consensus on social networks was that Romney's debate performance had breathed new life into his campaign.

Twitter announced shortly after Wednesday's debate that it had been the most tweeted event in U.S. political history, topping this year's Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

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