Panel Nerds: The Presidential Election Gets Social


Who: Dan Rather, Brian Stelter, Rachel Sklar, moderated by Ben Smith
What:Social Media and the New Political Landscape
Where: 92Y
When: October 21, 2012
Thumbs: Up

Brian Stelter said that he noticed a disconnect during the most recent presidential debate between the messages he was seeing on Twitter, where he follows mostly political-minded people, and Facebook, where he searched for the word “debate.” The people on Facebook were more cynical and angry, Stelter said. This point resonated most for us as we left the panel when we overheard someone comment, “I understand what Twitter is, and what people do with it, but it seems like a waste of time to me.”

Dan Rather, by far the veteran member of the panel, says that social media has created a method for candidates to play defense by going on offense. Before, we used to have newscasts and newspapers that would deliver the news of the day to us, but with Twitter people can get out in front and outline the talking points ahead of reporters’ accounts of the day. But Rachel Sklar is quick to point out that consumers will only see the news or memes or discussions coming from the sources they opt to follow. It’s easy then to miss out on a whole story, if nobody whom you follow was attached to it or intrigued by it.

Sklar says that it’s increasingly difficult to tell what will make it out of a fringe movement or smalltime feed and into the mainstream. When it hits, though, it goes off like a “firework,” to borrow Stelter’s term for the virality of the web. That’s what happened with Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” remark that exploded on Twitter and on blogs

One of the dangers of the fast pace of the web, Rather pointed out, is that reporters are expected to file a video or a tweet so often that there’s little time for actual reporting. Or thinking for that matter. On the plus side, the democratization of the news has benefited everyone, Stelter explained. It’s no longer just the big institutions that are breaking news and getting scoops — it can be just anyone with a camera secretly videotaping at a Romney fundraiser and then leaking it to a website.

As for the candidates’ use of social media, everyone agreed that Obama was way ahead of McCain in 2008, but the Republican Party has caught up if not surpassed Obama this time around with its use of Twitter to get its message across. At the same time, the cable networks have pursued ratings ahead of rational discourse. What we would use, they all agreed, is a way to know what is fact and what is spin. As it stands now, people are left to fend for themselves.

What They Said
“They’re trying to change the narrative in real time.”
– Brian Stelter says that campaign managers are trying to control the race in new ways

“There’s like separate worlds out there.”
-Rachel Sklar believes that we hear what we want to hear, and miss the rest

“Tweets are the new headline.”
– Ben Smith uses his experience as a reporter to tease his followers

“Television is the old order. The new order is not fully in place.”
– Dan Rather isn’t sure that there’s a place in the future for the nightly news

What We Thought

  • Smith did a nice job asking the right questions. “What makes it?” and “Who should we trust?” are two questions central to social media and the election and the narrative that comes out. Smith chose well.
  • We liked Stelter’s point on the noticeable absence of certain topics from the debates. Topics like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party, two things that a year or two ago would have seemed like major concerns heading into the election. More than ever, stories come and go.
  • The crowd seemed to favor Rather over the others, according to Smith’s announcement about who the index cards full of questions concerned. No surprise based on the crowd at hand, but the topic of the discussion was really more in the wheelhouse for the fast-typing, fast-thinking more youthful panelists.

Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

The hour flew by, and only a couple of questions were fielded. They were all stellar. No complaints or feedback necessary. Nice work, audience and moderator.

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