by, Sophia Sakellariou, Senior Writer
Presidential debates serve as a platform for candidates to speak directly to the public on where they stand on key issues. Based on the candidates’ performances in the first debate on Sept. 29, and the out of the ordinary town halls that replaced what should have been the second debate on Oct. 15, there has been much discussion on just how effective the standard debate format is, at least with a candidate who routinely attacks his opponent through unwarranted interruptions and bullying tactics.
According to The New York Times, presidential debates rarely cause major shifts in the polls. The town hall events that took place on Oct. 15, a result of Trump’s refusal to participate in a virtual debate, only reinforced that idea as the audiences for each were likely dominated by the candidate’s respective supporters. These events don’t serve to gain a greater following for each candidate, but to reinforce their image with the support base they already have.
There exists a common link between this phenomena and the public discourse surrounding politics on social media. The notion of confirmation bias explains how the public follows individuals and social media accounts that enforce their own political beliefs. As such, their beliefs are constantly reinforced by the media they consume, strengthening their belief that they are educated and in the right with their opinions. However, this weakens the citizenry as the nation grows increasingly polarized by not seeking out differing perspectives to make informed decisions.
These mediums not only offer a place for people to connect with others they agree with and attack those they don’t, but for presidential candidates to have a direct link to the people who hold the power to elect them. Historically, when a president wanted to speak to the public, a statement was made. Now they have the power to send out a message to millions through a 280 character tweet.
I sat down virtually with students in COMM 400: Political Communication to reflect on candidates’ performances in the first debate and to discuss how modern media such as social media have altered that connection between candidates and the people they serve. Headed by Dart Westphal, director of environmental studies, the class spoke on points ranging from how social media may influence the effect of debates to its role in highlighting key takeaways.
“What was shown in the last debate is that [debates] are going to start meaning less and less,” C. Garrett Keidel, a senior communication major and social media editor for The Quadrangle, said. “I’m not sure that right now they mean absolutely nothing. There’s a significant portion of the voting population who are not that active on social media and get campaign messaging through ads on television and the presidential debates. But with the performance that was put on by the Trump campaign in the last debate, I think it’s going to show that at least if he is on stage, the debates are going to mean less and less.”
Trump’s bullying tactics extend beyond the debate stage to his Twitter account, where he is notorious for calling out individuals he disagrees with. He has faced much criticism for the tweets he shares as well as backlash from Twitter itself in regards to false claims. The debate stage was an opportunity for him to be more clear in his policy agenda, but it did not play out that way.
“Social media is such a relevant tool for the candidates to express their opinions and the people to [share] their opinions,” Molly Prior, a senior communication major said. “Based on how disastrous and disorganized this past [debate] was, I think that eventually they’re going to fade out.”
Social media not only serves as a source of information, but an opportunity for people to discuss the more memorable moments. During the vice presidential debate on Oct. 9, a fly landed on Vice President Mike Pence’s head and remained there for nearly two minutes. The incident went viral, was turned into memes, and later made into a skit with Jim Carrey on Saturday Night Live.
“I think with social media it’s easy to forget the bigger picture,” Cristian Forletta, a senior communication major, said. “People focused on the fly, that’s all they kind of remember from what Pence said or did. In the media surrounding the debate in general, that’s all they remember.”
Even though social media serves as a platform for the public to engage in discussion surrounding these events, that doesn’t mean that they are having the right conversations. However, this isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon.
“This isn’t something that hasn’t happened before,” Keidel said. “There’s always going to be things that are seen on the presidential debate stage that become more memorable and maybe even more influential to people than what’s actually spoken. You can look back at Nixon and his sweating on tv which made him look like he was nervous and that’s what people were talking about rather than what he was actually saying. I also believe George H.W. Bush was the one who looked at his watch during a presidential debate which made it seem like he was looking forward to getting out of it rather than actually being a part of it.”
There was a common consensus among the class that yes, social media has an effect on public discourse, but that Trump’s personality has a heavy hand in how that discourse unfolds.
“What’s really unfortunate is that his performances in 2016 looked respectable compared to what he did two weeks ago, but if you look at videos online, if you look at the rallies, [Trump supporters] are not changing their opinions,” Keidel said. “I think what it actually would do is drive more Democrats to the polls if he continued to attack that way. I don’t think it would necessarily attract anybody to the Trump campaign as much as fuel the Biden campaign.”
Trump’s supporters were drawn to him in 2016 for his outrage tactics on the stage, but those same tactics are now turning voters away.
“I think we have to think about how some of these things going on in the campaign keep people away from voting,” Westphal said. “That is the thing about all the social media controversy of targeting people to make them not vote for somebody. I think that what the class is saying is that at this point it’s turning people off, it’s keeping them away from voting. It’s not about who’s going to support you, it’s about who might have supported you but decides to stay home.”
Editor’s Note: C. Garrett Keidel is a member of The Quadrangle masthead.