Trump vs Clinton: Debating reality in digital and analogue

Digital coverage of the Trump vs Clinton debate took many innovative forms but, depending on which medium you chose, a starkly different reality was on offer.

Trump squared up to Clinton in the first presidential debate this week (pic credit: AUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump squared up to Clinton in the first presidential debate this week (pic credit: AUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pick your poison wisely. Although coverage of the debate ranged from the New York Times' live cartoon, Bloomberg's fact-checker enabled broadcast, Google Trends' live search trackers, or the Washington Post's SMS discussion, it all boiled down to a tried-and-tested formula: two podiums, a moderator, and 100 million viewers watching the two leading presidential nominees slog it out over a 90-minute debate.
In a race often devoid of policy discussions, independent verification or direct confrontation between the apocalyptic and the optimistic assessments of America, the showdown seemingly carried added gravitas.
I was in the newsroom of the Daily Caller for the event. 

Prior to the first exchanges, consensus amongst the young team, hunched over their refreshing twitter feeds, was that Trump was ascendant, that this was his moment. 

When the adverts ran after the debate there was silence. One comment cut through the silence. The lauded political predictor Nate Silver tweeted:
During my nine days in America covering different aspects of the presidential campaign, I’ve heard one phrase above all: ‘The liberal mainstream media’ are accused by sneering Republicans of fixing the framework of the debate, of censoring Trump and dismissing contrarian opinion. 

Well-publicised ‘scandals’ about Facebook’s reported liberal newsfeed bias have led some to tell me, deadpan, that Google hides Hillary’s health records and buries Trump’s policy announcements. 

The Republican nominee has often argued that the election is rigged, and former candidate Newt Gingrich described Monday’s debate as a nothing more than a ‘glib liberal media (liking) glibness’. 

Bias and context are not new issues, but our situational awareness must evolve with technological advances. 

Social media and online platforms have shifted how we receive, interpret and evaluate information. 

Billboard ads define memories of previous elections; the complete fragmentation of information across multiple channels now makes it harder to contain and control a message. 

This provides new opportunities. 

Social media can prove a democratising, organising force to hold politicians accountable. But this atmosphere poses challenges for campaigning strategy and democracy alike. 

The communications world needs to cautiously navigate this new environment, if not for moral reasons, for campaigning imperative. 

Only by understanding voters’ experiences can policymakers and advertisers alike address their priorities. 

Whilst it might be funny when ads become viral memes, a more sinister politics waits in the wings.
Already, voters are reacting with incredulity to electoral decisions their Facebook feeds didn’t prepare them for. 

Rival broadcasters argue that the liberal media is a tool of Hillary Clinton; Trump himself claimed the vote itself might be rigged. 

Whilst scrutiny of electoral protocol is important, there must be at least some agreement on accepting the conditions and pitch markings.

The entrepreneur in Adriel Hampton sees an opportunity: ‘there’s room for a new kind of politician, one who focuses on real world effects at a local level’ (as opposed to contesting reality). 

Emerging non-partisan platforms like DoGooder attest this point. However, in the context of a presidential race, we must recognise the transformative power of new mediums in altering political debate. 

We are treading a fine line between enriching existing discourse with wider democratic engagement, and eroding the shared frameworks essential for reasoned debate.

Jack Barber is an Oxford graduate reporting on the US presidential campaign from Washington DC and the inaugural winner of Hanover Communications’ Mackay Award 

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