Twitter changes the conversation during leaders' debates

With the leaders of the three main federal political parties set to face off in another debate tonight, many viewers will also be tuning into twitter to gauge public reaction when the sparks fly.

Watching political debates is increasingly a "two-screen" experience, say experts

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, left, NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Conservative leader Stephen Harper, right, take part in the Globe and Mail leaders' debate Thursday, September 17, 2015 in Calgary.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

With the leaders of the three main federal political parties set to face off in another debate tonight, many eyes will turn to TV screens -- but many will also be focused on their smartphones and tablets.

The Munk Debate on Foreign Policy will pit the leaders of the Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic parties against each other.

And thousands of Canadians will fire up their Twitter accounts to follow along, and comment on what they're seeing.

"We're seeing a thousand tweets sent every minute of every debate so far," says Cam Gordon, head of communications at Twitter Canada.

Laura Penny, Contemporary Studies professor at King's College University.
"It's become second-screen viewing. It really is a compliment to these events in the culture, whether it's a debate during an election or if it's the Academy Awards, or a big sporting event as well."

Gordon says there are many reasons people are tweeting during debates. Some are simply boosting their candidate's talking points, he says. Others try to add details not talked about.

Adding spice to the debate experience

And many people are simply trying to add spice to what can sometimes be a fairly boring experience -- like King's College University communications professor Laura Penny. She tweets as @TheUselessCoin -- a play on words on her last name. She says Twitter helps lighten the mood of the constant message tracking of the federal leaders.

"Absolutely. I mean, part of it is the spoonful of sugar that make the medicine of being part of a democracy go down," she says.

In addition to being entertained by Twitter during debates, Penny says the social media platform can also provide insight into how others are reacting in real time.

Social media enhances shared experience, highlights issues

Mark Coffin agrees with that. He heads a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization called the Springtide Collective, which aims to engage more Canadians in the political system.

He says in many ways, Twitter is just an amped up version of a small get-together around the TV.

"We're all experiencing the same thing," Coffin says. "And people are putting words to feelings that I might not have been able to put words to yet, but capture sort of exchanges in things like the leaders debates that land with me. And then I'm like, 'Okay, great. Retweet.'"

Mentions of federal party leaders during the Sept. 24 leaders debate: @justintrudeau: 11,299 @thomasmulcair: 3,258 @elizabethmay: 3,413 @gillesduceppe:  2,769

Number of tweets from leaders' accounts during the Sept. 24 debate: @justintrudeau: 55 @elizabethmay: 41 @thomasmulcair: 12 @gillesduceppe: 0 @pmharper: 0

(Source: Twitter Canada)

And Laura Penny says Twitter picks up on things mainstream media might otherwise have missed, such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper's comment about "old-stock Canadians" during the September 17 leaders' debate.

"Did I just hear him say that?" Penny recalls asking. "Within seconds, my Twitter feed was full of people posting pictures of a malt liquor called Old Stock."

Twitter can also provide interesting data on what's being talked about during the debates. For example, according to Twitter Canada, the the hashtag #niqab was used 1,200 during last Thursday's French-language debate.

By way of comparison, the top hashtag of the evening -- #debatdeschef -- was used more than 36,000 times during the debate.

Twitter's Cam Gordon says it's analytics like these that could become useful in predicting what's important to Canadians during elections.