At some point during tonight's last presidential debate, some snarky comment on Twitter will likely go viral, seen by tens of thousands of people. And it is likely that major news organizations writing about this viral "meme" will have played a role in launching it.
During the Republican convention, various news outlets - including USA TODAY - wrote about a new Twitter account, @InvisibleObama, that appeared and went viral during Clint Eastwood's odd dialogue with an empty chair, ending the night with tens of thousands of followers. But the news stories didn't mention the role the news media apparently played in creating the viral phenomenon.
Within 15 minutes after the first tweet by @InvisibleObama, the account had been mentioned on Twitter by Mental Floss magazine, the news website Salon, and Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza and columnist Ezra Klein, according to data supplied by social media analysis firm Radian 6. Those four media accounts have more than a million followers combined.
Cillizza and Klein both tweeted about the account again less than 10 minutes later, and in a story posted on the Post website at the end of the night, Cillizza declared @InvisibleObama one of the "winners" of the GOP convention. Cillizza did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
The pattern repeated itself during the first presidential debate in Colorado this month. Mitt Romney endorsed cutting support for public broadcasting despite his love for Big Bird, and a @FiredBigBird twitter handle was launched. Within minutes of the first @FiredBigBird tweet, the account had been mentioned on Twitter by The Atlantic (170,000 followers), ABC World News (120,000 followers) and Good Morning America (1.8 million followers).
During the town-hall-style debate Tuesday at Hofstra University, the owner of the @FiredBigBird account changed the handle to @RomneyBinders, to capitalize on Romney's comment that he had "binders full of women" he was considering for Cabinet positions in Massachusetts. (This account had also been changed the week prior to @MalarkyJoe to capitalize on Vice President Biden's allegation during the vice presidential debate that Rep. Paul Ryan's responses were "malarkey.")
Various "binders" riffs on Twitter got early retweets by Cillizza, the Chicago Sun Times and BuzzFeed Politics reporter McKay Coppins, who suggested people follow one of the several parody "binders" accounts. By Wednesday morning, the post-debate media coverage was full of discussion about how the "binders" comment had gone viral in social media.
"Big media has always been the way things blow up from the grass-roots into the culture," said BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith. "One step in the process is the mainstream media catching on," he said, but that doesn't mean that the interest is inauthentic. At BuzzFeed, a news organization steeped in social media, "we try to create memes and also try to curate them, but we don't get to decide what goes viral," Smith said.
Ian Schafer, the CEO of digital marketing agency Deep Focus, created the @InvisibleObama account and says "I am pretty sure" that media retweets had a lot to do with the explosion of interest in the account.
Schafer said it is hard to tell what happened in what order because "it happened so fast" -- the account amassed more than 20,000 followers in less than an hour.
"Are we reporting in an echo chamber?" asked Len De Groot, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley. "To a certain extent that is what we are doing -- but that doesn't mean it is without value."
De Groot noted that reporters participating in a social media platform "tend to think of it as 'broadcast' and it's not -- it's a conversation."
By tweeting, reporters are participating in the conversation that they are also reporting on. "But does that necessarily mean that we are doing something irresponsible? I'm not sure," he said.
There is little research on how media tweeting affects the Twitter conversation content in general, said Derek Ruths, assistant professor in the school of computer science at McGill University in Montreal. With @FiredBigBird, for instance, it is hard to tell whether it became very popular because it was a clever account "or because all these big media outlets picked it up and gave it their weight," he said.
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