Historically it’s been the TV debates that have had a big say on who makes it to the Whitehouse. But this year we’re seeing campaigns fought online like never before – the internet and social media platforms have become key political battlefields.
And while campaign teams can focus solely on their delivering their candidate’s message, broadcasters have a responsibility to be even handed. This includes being balanced when managing user-generated content, like text-to-screen comments and live online Q&As.
But before we get to helping broadcasters ensure fair play, it’s worth recapping why the internet and social media are so important in the Presidential race.
More than half of US voters get their news online. So a candidate’s online footprint –specifically, whether they’re portrayed positively or negatively – is a very big deal. This week’s Presidential debate was reportedly the most Tweeted event in political history.
The Democrats have wasted no time in using Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Linkedin and Facebook to engage voters and mobilise volunteers.
The Republicans have also pumped serious resource into their social media strategy. The Party’s YouTube channel was the online hub for its convention, which they dubbed the “Convention Without Walls” – the idea being anyone can be part of it, no matter where they are in the country. And they offered behind-the-scenes coverage with an array of other connected platforms, like Facebook and Google+ Hangouts.
And it’s not just the Parties’ own output that racks up coverage. The electorate is playing a massive role in creating a buzz via social media channels. Take Clint Eastwood’s empty chair speech at the Republican National Convention – it prompted more than 11,000 posts.
So which Party is out in front? That depends on how you interpret the data. The stats suggest Obama rules Twitter. His 20 million followers trounce Romney’s one million. The President also smashed the Tweets Per Minute (TPM) record during his convention acceptance speech on September 6, reaching a whopping 57,757. Romney managed a mere 14,289.
But these stats paint only part of the picture (that’s stats for you). Take the TPM-to-followers ratio into account and Romney registers a score four times greater than Obama’s.
Over on Facebook, Obama trumps Romney by four to one in the ‘Likes’ stakes. But when it comes to the ‘Talking About This’ stats – a better marker of actual engagement – Romney leads by 300,000.
Politics being politics, it’s also worth pointing out that the digital dogfight isn’t always honourable – activism sometimes descends into rumours and badmouthing. Both the Democrats and Republicans have resorted to smear sites. And they’ve adopted some questionable tactics to get opposition-bashing articles on Google’s all-important first page.
With the stakes so high and the election likely to come down to small margins, it’s crucial that broadcasters stage fair debates.
Both candidates are entitled to equal air time – the exception being when a candidate is creating ‘news’ – and it’s equally important that any user-generated content around a debate is balanced. There are a number of ways broadcasters can achieve this.
Filter out biased staff
It’s a no-brainer, but if any staff have made it very clear which horse they’re backing, it’s probably best they don’t decide which content makes it on screen.
As professional as your staff may be, you can't train political bias out of people, so you just have to remove them.
Beware the extremists
Death, taxes and online extremists – one thing you can bank on in any discussion is an agenda-driven hardliner trying to narrow the debate to a single issue.
So keep a tight rein on the discussion and make sure it follows the format you want, otherwise the loudest voices will drive the conversation.
But make sure you take context into account. For example, pay close attention to immigration-themed topics. Comments about how immigrants impact the economy should be handled differently to those that are just plain race discrimination.
Balance things out
Live debates and Q&A-style chats – whatever the channel (Google Plus, Facebook Page, live Twitter streams) - need special handling because at any moment you might receive a deluge of comments that skew the debate in one direction.
Obviously, you want all arguments surrounding a topic to be explored, which means at any given time the conversation is going to swing in a particular direction. But be on the lookout for rebuttals and counter-arguments.
Inevitably there’ll be some subjects where there’s massive majority opinion about a topic. In these instances it’s fine to ‘over-represent’ minority opinion in the interest of presenting a balanced argument. But just don't let the ‘over-representation’ get out of control and shunt the debate completely the other way.
Offer equal access to all
Make sure you give everyone a fair shot. Think about separate channels for different parties, or separate channels for different topics.
Allow journalists and politicians to open the debate, then get the public involved and make sure the discussion stays on topic.
Be alert to ‘straw men’
Keep an eye out for spin and straw-man arguments, which are sometimes thrown in by professional campaigners to steer the debate in their favour.
Cut the abuse
Never allow abusive comments. Ever. And if your rules forbid swearing, don’t allow it even in an otherwise cracking comment (though if you have time to IM the sender and suggest they rephrase it, great).
And ban ad-hominem – contributors must attack the ball, not the player.
It’s also worth remembering that contentious subjects stir up strong feelings. Sometimes people just need reminding of the rules, and not to let passion give way to abuse.
Be prepared for accusations of bias
Remind people that with things like live chat there’s never enough room to post everyone’s comments, so inevitably only a proportion will be used.
But not everyone will buy this explanation. You’ll always be accused of bias and censorship, so have a plan to deal with complaints, including when you’re on air.
When you do remove or don’t publish a comment because it breaks some rule or other, the contributor will often assume it’s because you didn’t like the thrust of what they were saying, not because they used an expletive. Just be patient and explain the rules to them.
Also, don’t get drawn into discussing individual acts of moderation. Again, just refer them to the rules. They’ll get the message. Eventually.