Does social media affect the way we watch political debates?

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U.S. President Barack Obama (R) debates with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as moderator Bob Schieffer listens at the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University on October 22, 2012 in Boca Raton, Florida.

What if a tree fell during a televised presidential debate and Twitter and Facebook weren't there to record it/share it/mock it for its inability to remain upright?

Would viewers have a better sense of the forest?

Those aren't exactly the questions researchers set out to answer in a recently published study by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, but they might as well have been.

In an article published online in the journal Political Communication, the Penn researchers concluded that people who used social media knew more about the 2012 election than nonusers, but that those who multitasked while watching the debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney didn't learn as much. Surprisingly, what they didn't learn tended to be information favoring the candidate they already supported.

So what did social media focus on in 2012? Romney's name-checking Sesame Street's Big Bird while saying he'd cut funding for PBS, his allusion to having "binders full of women," and Obama's reference to "horses and bayonets" to make a point that defense priorities had changed.

Which pretty much sums up what I remember from those debates.

But I've sat through a lot of candidate forums since, and I'm not sure how many I'd have even remembered to watch if not for my Twitter feed, which has been known to lure me away from an episode of Scandal or my Saturday-night Netflix fix to join friends and strangers for yet another evening of political theater.

Since August, the Republicans have had a dozen televised debates - not counting the second-tier ones, in which lower-polling candidates squabbled separately - and the Democrats have had 10, including a town-hall-style appearance.

Some have been wildly entertaining, disaster movies unfolding in real time, and some have been made bearable only by 140 characters of reassurance that I am not the only one who wonders whether Candidate A realizes we can see how childishly he/she behaves when Candidate B or C is talking.

So although I'd love to be able to counter Penn's study by saying social media has made me smarter about the 2016 race, all I'm sure of is that it's helped me show up.

Yet, because Twitter for me often doubles as note-taking, I wondered whether live-tweeting a debate might improve my focus instead of stealing it.

To test this, I turned to something I'd never seen: the first-ever televised U.S. presidential debate, which took place on Sept. 26, 1960, between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy.

It was an eye-opener.

Here's what I did: I kept myself to the 140-character Twitter limit. I paused only to check the time, and otherwise "tweeted" in real time. I have slightly reworded some of the original tweets.

I wasn't actually on Twitter (because live-tweeting an event that took place nearly 56 years ago might call my sanity into more question than usual). I also wasn't engaging with others as I watched a sometimes fuzzy black-and-white recording on YouTube. But my real-time reactions led me to question what I'd read and heard about the debate often credited with helping JFK win the presidency.

I was struck, for one thing, by how little effect the candidates' appearance had on me.

We know the historical talking points: Nixon's five o'clock shadow, Kennedy's tan, the way the two men's contrasting on-camera demeanors reportedly led TV viewers to give Kennedy the win while Nixon scored with radio listeners.

Twitter and Facebook, I assumed, would have gone crazy as Nixon started to sweat.

Except I didn't notice the perspiration. (I'd imagined something like Albert Brooks' flop sweat in Broadcast News.) What I saw, mostly, was how civilly the candidates engaged each other and how often their differences on issues - staying ahead of the Russians, higher teacher pay, health insurance for seniors - revealed what seemed like bridgeable gaps.

Here's what I noted about demeanor:

They just cut again to @JFK, taking notes like a diligent student. #debate

Is @VPNixon watching a tennis match? Head on a swivel right now, eyes shifting back and forth. #debate

Don't care what you say: Veep's got a nice smile. #debate

Viewers on Twitter - or Facebook friends of Nixon - would have been all over JFK's mistakenly saying Democrat Harry S. Truman had become president in 1944. In 1960, even the youngest voters, at 21, were old enough to remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt's death on April 12, 1945, just a few months into an unprecedented fourth term.

So @JFK shoots back on Harry-Ike comparisons, noting Truman took over a nation at war, but then flubs date - it was '45, not '44. #debate

I noted, Twitter-style, Nixon's weak response to a question about President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The president had told a reporter asking him to name a contribution his vice president had made, "If you give me a week, I might think of one - I don't remember."

@VPNixon on Ike's "probably facetious" diss: Would be "improper" for POTUS to disclose contributions by members of his "official family." #debate

Pretending to tweet even kept me alert during a not-so-scintillating discussion of farm supports:

Without farm subsidies, there'd be "economic chaos," says @JFK. Notes '20s showed what "free market could do to agriculture." #debate

Just me or does Kennedy's Boston accent make "farm" and "foreign" sound like the same word? #debate

Nixon wants to get "surpluses off the farmer's back." #debate

We can't know whether viewers with real-time outlets for their reactions would have responded differently to Nixon and Kennedy in 1960, but watching while tweeting, I found them more evenly matched than I'd expected.

And though I'm not holding my breath, if fall's presidential debates prove even half as civilized as Kennedy and Nixon's, we might come away with a few thoughts actually worth sharing.

graye@phillynews.com
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