Digging for political dirt? Twitter could be the source for you.

As the presidential race picks up the pace, Twitter has become the go-to meeting place for those dealing in political dirt. A Pew center study finds it a far more negative medium than blogs or the mainstream press.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Republican presidential candidates businessman Herman Cain and Representative Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota listen as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks during the CNN GOP National Security debate in Washington on November 22.

As the presidential race heats up, Twitter is turning into the water cooler for more and more Americans to dish about the dark side of a candidate, according to a new study of social and traditional media sources released Thursday by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Noting that some 13 percent of Americans are now using Twitter, Mark Jurkowitz, the project's associate director, says, “this is fast becoming the country’s vox populi.”

The Pew study surveyed some 20 million Twitter tweets, blog postings and traditional news stories filed on the election from May 2 through Nov. 27, and examined them for the tone of the commentary.

“The political conversation on Twitter is noticeably different than that on blogs, and both are markedly different than the political narrative presented by the mainstream press,” he says.

Tweets tend toward the negative far more than both blogs and mainstream media, he says, and they are also far more event-sensitive. “People will be sending tweets as top-of-mind comments as an event is actually going on,” Mr. Jurkowitz says.

The discourse is also far more volatile on Twitter than the other media, he adds. “Blogs tend to be the least sensitive to events and news of the day,” while the traditional news media still remains a steady bastion of more objective and neutral information, he says.

The sole exception to Twitter’s critical tone for candidates are those relating to Texas Congressman Ron Paul, whose profile is unexpectedly positive despite lagging in both polls and overall media coverage, says Jurkowitz.

The other GOP hopefuls are receiving negative commentary at a ratio of more than two to one. Obama is not faring particularly well, either, he notes, adding that negative tweets on the President outnumber the positive by three to one.

What this means for the candidates is they need to pay even more attention to the narrative in social media, points out presidential scholar Charles Dunn, who says, “they need to have teams of people managing and tracking both the negative streams of comments as well as countering them with the positive.”

New media pundit Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media,” points out that “never in our history has there been less distance between the synapse in our brains and our ability to share that with the entire world.”

While conventional wisdom about social media often holds that they function independently of more traditional media, the Pew study found that the negativity of the Twittersphere often tacked alongside the level of candidate scrutiny in the mainstream press.

“The level of attention and vetting that gets done by the mainstream media tends to turn up a wider range of information for the social media landscape to comment on,” points out Jurkowitz.

Indeed, says Professor Levinson, far from trending away from each other, “traditional media and social media are very intertwined with each and, in fact, feed off each other in important ways.”

Candidates may not welcome a negative narrative in the digisphere, points out Jurkowitz, but he suggests that the attention that produces it may be a silver lining. “More scrutiny can sometimes be an indication of more presumed viability for the candidate’s future,” he adds.

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