The social election: Did that really happen?

The social election: Did that really happen?
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If it isn’t mentioned on social platforms the next morning, did the debate really happen?

One of my absolute favourite things about political campaigning is the series of debates between the candidates.

In the States, these events have really evolved over the past decade into a quite a spectacle.  News channels plan day-long debate coverage that offers the most seasoned pundits and political junkies alike an opportunity to get in their debating fix.

Over the past few years in particular, participation via social media has exploded to the point where the debates themselves have a dedicated hashtag (ie. #CNNDebate) and moderators pause to source questions from cyberspace.

To show the depth of social media’s spillover into the American political system I can point to the fact that this past cycle saw questions submitted from YouTube, instant polling on Twitter, and even one debate that was co-sponsored between NBC News and Facebook.

What I’ve witnessed in Australia over the past few weeks feels very much like a shift toward an even more US-centric debate model where the stakes are bigger, the spotlights are brighter, and the social media amplification machine is ready to activate at a moment’s notice. 

Now, more than ever, social media plays a role prior, during, and after each event as the debaters try to leverage their most fervent supporters to paint themselves as the victors of the evening. I believe that victory can now happen on the debate floor itself, or in the digital halo that is created around the debates and in the social wake that is left at their conclusion.

To me, the intersection of social media and political campaigning has fundamentally prolonged the avenue where the candidates (and their virtual armies of supporters) can throw one-liners, land (and get hit by) political punches, or make that campaign-ending gaffe.

So in spite of the fact that Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott will actually only debate each other three times in a short four-week period, it feels like if you’re seeking a debate fix for political or entertainment purposes, you can certainly find it.

Last Wednesday’s performance was no different – and was thoroughly entertaining to this political outsider. 

I’m not sure if it was merely watching Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott circle each other like boxers while addressing each other much more directly, or if it is the fact that there was no podium or notes to hide behind, but of all the possible debate formats, the quasi-formal, smaller, ‘let’s have the audience ask the questions’ spectacle that we witness earlier is my favorite. 

Direct audience participation notwithstanding, I have a feeling that if all debates were structured like Wednesday’s, viewership and engagement levels would certainly increase – and so would the use of a host of conversations that I was monitoring during the debate.

But what I am most looking forward to in the next few days is seeing how much traction Abbott’s “Jeez, does this guy ever shut up?” comment gets in cyberspace. Because it if doesn’t really get mentioned, it will be like it really never happened.

Yianni Konstantopoulos is group managing director of Social@Ogilvy.

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