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Twitter Offers Some #Answers on Who #Dodged Debate Questions in S. Carolina

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, January 17 2012

Mitt Romney's Not So Artful #Dodging

Of all the tech companies that have gotten involved with big media players around the Republican primary debates, Twitter continues to show the most genuine interest in producing something meaningful out of what, for the most part, appears to be co-marketing opportunities. Which is only saying a little--the media bigfoots running these events really don't appear to care about online user input and feedback much, and just want a little of that internet buzz to rub off on them. But that's of a piece with the media's general approach to this cycle's juggernaut of debates. (See Republican Mark McKinnon's excellent new discussion paper, "Gone Rogue: Time to Reform the Presidential Primary Debates," for a chapter-and-verse dissection of just how bad the process has become.)

It's telling that during last night GOP debate in South Carolina, Fox News made only the briefest mention of Twitter's role in the debate as a vehicle for collecting viewer feedback on whether a candidate answered or dodged a question (the hashtags were #answer and #dodge). Co-host Bret Baier did read two questions from the Twitter stream, but they both were days-old submissions, not real-time responses to the live give-and-take on stage. But given that the TV networks running these debates are just interested in producing a show, rather than something that might actually illuminate the issues or the candidates' positions, this isn't a surprise either. (Fox also made no use or mention of the still running Google Moderator section of its website, which is titled "Your Questions -- Fox News Debates" and has collected nearly 80,000 votes on almost 2,000 questions.)

After the debate ended, a Fox reporter appeared on air to briefly show a few generic charts condensing the Twitter feedback in a way that was essentially meaningless. Basically, Ron Paul had the most tweets saying he had #answered the questions, but all this showed was that Ron Paul's fan base won the stuff-the-Twitter-box contest.

But despite Fox's failure to do anything remotely meaningful with the Twitter data, Twitter itself took the time to analyze the real-time flow. Late last night, the company blog posted some interesting visualizations that demonstrate that it is possible to tease some signal from all the noise. This first chart shows that Newt Gingrich had the most trouble convincing viewers that his attacks on front-runner Mitt Romney weren't hypocritical, but that he recovered later with his broadsides on poor people.

And this second chart shows that Romney wasn't exactly scoring many points with the viewing audience. Most interesting is the large number of people who viewed his refusal to release his tax returns as a #dodge; it will be interesting to see if this issue gains in prominence in the coming days.

Overall participation in the #dodge/#answer feedback loop, however, appears to be dropping. According to Trendistic, there were roughly 30% more uses of those terms around the last Fox-Twitter debate in December.