Will Twitter, Facebook bring new viewers by livestreaming debates?

Twitter and Facebook have both announced plans to stream the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump live on September 26. The viewership will likely break records on traditional TV, and may herald a new era in social media political coverage.

In this Oct. 21, 1960 file photo, Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., right, speaks and Vice President Richard M. Nixon listens during the fourth presidential debate from a New York studio. The fall debates are always a big part of any presidential campaign. But with many 2016 voters underwhelmed by both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, this year’s debates could well be more influential than usual.

The year 1960 saw the first televised general election debate between presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

For many viewers, it was the first time they had seen the candidates outline their views in an in-depth manner to their political rival, influencing many voters in a fundamentally new way and changing the course of politics in the United States.

Fifty-six years later, the debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has the potential to be one of the most-watched events in the history of American politics. Now, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are set to livestream the debates, perhaps signifying an important new era in terms of how US voters process the presidential race.

Twitter's stream is the result of a deal with Bloomberg Television, and ad revenue will be split between them, according to The Wall Street Journal.

"By leveraging the power of Twitter’s enormous real-time platform for reaction and analysis, this partnership will provide viewers the opportunity to watch and interact with the news coming from this fall’s debates as they happen live on smartphones, computers and TVs," said Bloomberg Media CEO Justin B. Smith said in a statement.

"What is unique about experiencing a live event through Twitter is the potential for viewers to combine traditional lean-back viewing with the lean-in interactions that are commonplace on social platforms," Thomas Ksiazek, a professor of communication at Villanova University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "More and more, TV viewers are multitasking on their connected devices, primarily engaging on search and social sites while watching TV. By live-streaming the debate, Twitter is hoping to create a single platform for doing both – watching the debate and reacting to it – all in real-time."

The new way of watching and reacting to the debates evokes the 1960 presidential debate. Media historians dispute the role that television played in Kennedy's victory by a slim margin, but according to Time magazine, the young candidate himself acknowledged the role of the new medium, saying four days after the election "It was the TV more than anything else that turned the tide." 

Donald Trump's rise, by comparison, is largely credited to his adeptness on social media platforms, particularly Twitter, in a way that has not been matched by any previous presidential candidate.

On social media, points out Mark Grabowski, associate professor in the department of communications at Adelphi University, opinion is largely driven by fellow users rather than traditional political commentators.

"What's happening with election coverage this year reflects the broader paradigm shift that’s been going on in media coverage since the internet became the primary way Americans get news," says Grabowski in an email to the Monitor. "No longer is the media setting the agenda, but, rather, media consumers are."

"That said, Twitter is not always a reflection of public opinion, and we should take trending reactions to the debate with a grain of salt," he adds.

Patrick Miller, associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas, also doubts that the social media livestreams will change the perception of the public at large, since most debate viewers have already decided for whom they will vote for.

"Swingish, undecided voters largely are not watching debates and won't do it on social media either," Miller told the Monitor via email. "But their attitudes may be influenced in the short term to the extent that they see coverage of debate highlights in the news or see friends spin it on social media in status updates."

Monday night's debate is expected to shatter TV viewing records for a political event. There could be more than 100 million people watching on television, a big jump up from the average of 66.4 million viewers for the first two debates in the 2012 election. But despite the projected numbers for the upcoming debate, traditional TV coverage of events like this may be in trouble in the near future, especially with platforms like Facebook and Twitter throwing their hats into the ring. According to Pew Research Center, 81 percent of adults get news online, compared to 12 percent 20 years ago. While TV is still a favorite medium for news, younger consumers in particular are increasingly turning away from traditional television and towards social media.

Twitter and Facebook both hope to capitalize on internet-savvy younger viewers, providing them with an interactive angle that traditional television can't provide.

"Instead of having some 55-year-old journalist telling us who won the debate after it's over, we can use social media and get a pulse of what the public thinks as it's happening," says Grabowski, "Which is a lot more important."

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