THE BLOG

Fact-Checking the Debate in the Twitter-verse

10/04/2012 03:30 pm ET | Updated Dec 04, 2012
  • Heath Brown Assistant Professor, City University of New York, John Jay College

FACT, @mittromney and @barackobama debated and live-tweeted for an hour and a half last night. How neither candidate paused to turn on their smartphone or laptop and remains a factual mystery.

Time magazine leads this week with a cover titled, "The Fact Wars". Last night at the first presidential debate, facts fought as did the "fact-checkers." Both campaigns used social media to do real-time fact-checking, perhaps the first time this has been incorporated in such a public and instantaneous way during a presidential debate. Rather than taking their debate reactions just to the press pool -- recall that scene in The War Room when, following the first Bush/Clinton debate, George Stephanopoulos runs ebulliently to the press room to begin spin -- both campaigns used Twitter to rapidly deliver rebuttals, correct factual errors, and spin to the Twitter-verse... all in real-time.

Fact-checking and rapid-response are intrinsically related, but seem to remain distinct tasks of the campaign team. Each campaign has someone who is listed as having authority over "rapid response": Lis Smith (@lis_smith) Director of Rapid Response for Obama, and Leonardo Alcivar (@alcivar) Online Rapid Response Director for Romney. There are numerous deputies of rapid response assigned as well, plus dozens of press secretaries, communications directors, and other emissaries who have been tasted with rapid response responsibilities, at least last night during the debate. One clever approach taken by the Romney team was to create a quick-follow page for the debates where a Twitter user could "follow" a dozen Romney staffers with a single click.

Fact-checking appears more spread out on each campaign; no staffer has an obvious title that includes that responsibility. Yet, fact-checking was a big part of the Twitter activity last night. Tweets were prefaced with "FACT," "FACT CHECK," "True Fact," and "TRUTH," more times per minute than one could easily keep track. These fact-based tweets often referenced internal campaign websites with prepared statements on issues. On occasion, the tweets linked to external research by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Department of Labor, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other times, fact-checking was done with simple assertions of factual differences, sometimes with unattributed quotes. Take this tweet from @alcivar: "FACT: Obamacare's cuts will cause enrollment in Medicare Advantage to 'plummet by about 50%". Who made this statement in quotations is unclear, and perhaps attribution is beside the point in this context.

Once things got started, @lis_smith was relatively inactive in Twitter. She posted: "If @mittromney finds the facts of his plans so objectionable... ", "Get the facts: @mittromney... ", and a handful of other posts in real-time. But it appeared as though the Obama campaign focused more of its Twitter fact-checking energy on @truthteam2012: "This account is run by #Obama2012 campaign staff. Get the facts. Fight the smears." This account began most of its posts with "FACT" -- always in ALL CAPS -- then asserted some fact about Governor Romney's record or evidence from the president's views. @truthteam2012 also frequently linked to Politifacts, a non-partisan fact-checking operation, and on one occasion to the The Hill: "The Hill: "The architect of Romney's health care law said it's "the same" as President Obama's. http://OFA.BO/AfsABt"

It is not altogether clear who the audience was for this fact-checking: the political press? Dissatisfied supporters? Undecided opponents? Simply trying to follow the rapidly scrolling posts, while simultaneously watching the debate was exceedingly difficult and confusing. In this evolving campaign tactic, one can imagine that both campaigns will refine their approach between today and the next debate. As the candidates hone their arguments for their next encounter, so too will the fact-checkers.