We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom before: In this digital age of infinite access to a variety of online opinions, social media tools like Twitter are reshaping journalism for the better by wresting control of the narrative from the hands of a few media elite, and placing it firmly in the hands of everyday citizens. As a result, now more than ever, professional journalists need to carve out their own unique niche, approach stories from a different angle, or be the first to break news – or risk getting lost in the digital ether.
At least this is what we keep hearing ad nauseum from media critics. But is it true?
A closer look at how journalists use Twitter during the presidential campaign – and the debates in particular – shows just the opposite: rather than leading to more diverse coverage, social media is fostering a level of groupthink – or rather, Tweetthink – among our nation’s top political analysts.
There’s no doubt that Twitter is the tool of choice for any self-respecting journalist looking to share information or follow the latest stories – especially those covering the hyper-competitive beat of electoral politics. Nearly every reporter covering this election has an active Twitter account – and they use them, particularly during high-profile events like debates or conventions. After Tuesday’s debate, Twitter reported more than 7.2 million tweets, just three million shy of the first presidential debate – the most-tweeted U.S. political event in history. A great deal of that conversation was from reporters tweeting to other reporters, begging the question: were they even watching?
Even if they were, they couldn’t possibly have had the opportunity to develop their own thoughts on the proceedings in between re-tweets and banter with their reporter colleagues. For those watching from the outside, it was a cycle to set your watch to: one journalist tweets an insightful or witty observation and everyone else re-tweets it until it becomes conventional wisdom.
Thanks to Twitter and a ravenous political press corps looking for something – anything – to latch on to, within five minutes of the start of the debate, it was decided: Obama was “combative.” An off-hand comment by Romney about “binders full of women” – something the average American watching at home probably didn’t even notice – became a hashtag-sensation and the latest Internet meme. Romney’s failed attempt to criticize the President’s response to a terrorist attack in Benghazi became a gaffe of epic proportions and according to Twitter, a “game changer.”
Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank put it best after the first presidential debate when he said to Howard Kurtz on CNN (live on television, I should add), referring to the media consensus that Obama had under-performed in the first debate:
“This idea gelled early on [Twitter] that Mitt Romney was having a big night, Obama was having a lousy night, which was generally true, but it accentuated it, and basically there was a groupthink going on there that was – that was that this is a really big bad thing for Obama, and I think that we probably did our readers and viewers a disservice.”
As Computer World said, Twitter has become “the new spin room.” Buzzfeed reported both campaigns have given up on the traditional post-debate spin room in favor of a so-called “pre-wash” prior to the debate – they know that by the time the debate is half-over, the story is already written.
And while this phenomenon is most pronounced during the presidential campaign, it’s happening across all beats, all the time. Reporters talking during sports games, reporters speculating on the iPhone before its even officially unveiled (and declaring in unison that Apple Maps is obviously the worst decision the company has ever made).
This makes it all the more critical that brands and companies have a strategy that takes this new conversation cycle into consideration – that means monitoring and responding as the conversation unfolds in real time, parallel to whatever messages your brand is broadcasting.
If you wait until your presentation, speech, or event is over… you’re going to be about 1 million tweets too late.