Welcome to the brave new media world of elections, where hashtags are used to harangue opponents, the first election in the world where Twitter is a player.
On Election Day 2008 in the US, Twitter was just about a year-and-a-half old, now it has over 500 million users. The first
presidential debate this year logged over 10 million tweets. And Twitter gloated: "In the last 24 hours there have now been twice as many Tweets about tonight's debate than there were about all of the #debates in 2008." The second debate crossed the seven million mark.
There's plenty that's positive about Twitter crashing the political party. It allows people to voice opinion in real time. It generates engagement. It also forces campaigns to directly connect with constituents. It offers an insight into the sentiment driving the day, with its trending topics. And it's the motherlode of information in terms of instapolls or focus group results. In one place.
It has its problems too. Mainly, Twitters has far too many twits. There's plenty of wit out there, with barbs making their mark. But for every person that gets in the perfect jibe, there are a hundred that spew gibberish, the sort who should be enlisted in a witless protection programme. The tone, unfortunately, isn't just puerile mockery but often mawkery.
There was the brilliance of the Obama Dog Recipes meme, after a report revealed that the president had been introduced to dog meat (which he described as "tough") by his Indonesian stepfather. Among the offerings on Twitter were Eggs Rover Easy, Chicken Poodle Soup and Pup Tarts. When the Romney campaign released an app that sought 'A Better America', he couldn't escape ridicule either.
The 2012 cycle's probably seen far too much of these trivial pursuits. There are the never-ending memes. At the vice-presidential debate, incumbent Joe Biden flashed his teeth and scored the hashtag #Unhinged. A serious debate between the presidential candidates in Denver was hijacked by the invented, rarely inventive, fear of Sesame Street's Big Bird joining the unemployment line. The second debate gave rise to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's "binder full of women". The same people who gleefully revel in these gotcha lines tweet angrily about the candidates not delivering on substance.
And there are those flourishing commentaries on how the candidates lie, though both President Barack Obama and Romney actually forsake that word for milder terms like 'mislead'. The platoon of fact-checkers even has a Pants On Fire category. Given the number of trousers that have been incinerated in recent months, you could argue that the Washington political class has truly bottomed out. Actually, if you value the arguments and their counters, it isn't quite truth to power, more like lie to power. For the partisan, there's been a truth outage that shrouds the entire 2012 election cycle in murkiness.
Twitter also amplifies the truly ugly. After the second debate wrapped, one ugly soul, after using a racist epithet, described Obama as a liar. Another referring to Romney's binder, asked, if he was talking about "mail order Mormon brides?" That ought to be Mormon, but you can't expect any better from morons.
And from the ugly to the uglier is a short space in the Twitterverse. One Twitter user recently invoked Lee Harvey Oswald in a post targeting the president, while another referred to a "JFK insident" while threatening Romney. Though, ironically, those who have been flinging the word 'assassinate' around, mostly get that spelling right. These are regular features, though, and since the Secret Service has to take each threat against the occupant of the White House or his challenger seriously, that'll cut deeply into the time agents could have spent pursuing Colombian prostitutes.
That, of course, is an extreme subset of the Twitterati. But most enjoy the viciousness the medium generates. In effect, we are in the age, in America certainly, of 140 characters of character assassination.
Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal
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