Last Wednesday’s presidential debate was hard to watch. Not because of moderator Jim Lehrer’s failure to control the debate or President Barack Obama’s lack of energy, although those things didn’t help. Instead, the problems lay with the Internet.
A recent trend that has emerged during the months-long election circuit is following debates online. Twitter has made it especially easy for people to watch debates and comment on them in real time. But though social media is beneficial in letting voters connect and converse with one another, it’s deeply detrimental in that it allows for snark and confusion to distract from the important election issues.
Wednesday’s debate was, according to Twitter, the most tweeted American political event of all time, outdoing both the 2012 Democratic and Republic conventions.
When Romney joked about Big Bird, saying he would cut government funds for public broadcasting, the Internet fired back with more than a dozen parody Twitter accounts for Big Bird and other Sesame Street characters. Simultaneously, sarcastic Tweets, comments on the fake accounts and jokes about the longevity of those accounts emerged. Actual level-headed discussion about the debate got lost in the mix.
This is not to detract from social media’s benefits. One of the best things about the Internet is that it allows people to fact-check candidates as they speak, calling out lies and providing factual context to the spin that all politicians tend to create. During live debates, this is useful more than ever. There’s also something to be said for being able to see actual voters’ unfiltered thoughts on the candidates.
The problem, however, is that while the media turns the election into a narrative, the Internet is turning it into a joke. This is not a sports game or a reality television show. This is the presidential election.
Whoever wins in November will take over a recovering but still weak economy, a huge deficit and a war in Afghanistan. Everyone from seniors to first-time student voters will be affected. We should be invested in these issues — but for some reason, we’re cracking jokes and coming up with debate drinking games instead.
Admittedly, politics can be a depressing field, and satire presents a great way to get even gallows humor into the mix and to allow a bit of comic relief. But allowing such comedy to oversaturate discourse leaves us with hyperbole and superficiality instead of truth. Lehrer did a horrible job as a moderator, and it was good for people to point that out — but for every bit of constructive criticism, there seemed to be some lowbrow, satirical mocking involved.
The Internet is an incredible world where we have the ability to create and laugh — but more importantly, it’s a place for voters to share information with each other and create a more educated public that can engage in civic participation.
With the election less than a month away, it’s imperative to recognize that humor has a time and place and a certain level of use. What happens on Nov. 6 will have major consequences for every single American. It’s time we encourage each other, both online and off, to focus on the serious issues.
Nicholas Slayton is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism and is the Daily Trojan’s multimedia editor.