Communication Currents

Digital Democratic Voices: Intersecting Student Research, Twitter, and Presidential Debates

April 1, 2015
Political Communication

A common observation on college campuses today is “students do not look up when walking on campus.” It is often thought that such attachment to our communication devices demonstrates a lack of connection to the “real world.” This perspective exemplifies the need for faculty to connect with the “digital generation” and do so on students’ terms. The following semester-length activity offers one way such a connection can be made. In conjunction with the American Democracy Project (ADP), this activity was designed as a collaborative classroom experience between two classes (Mass Communication and Public Opinion [MCPO], taught by Tyma, and Political Communication [PC], taught by Pickering) to introduce and discuss literature focusing on both political communication and public opinion, host a DebateWatch (DW) event on campus with a real-time social media component, and engage members of the university and surrounding community in the political process. 

We decided the courses would: a) be scheduled at the same time during the semester; and b) meet together during the first two weeks to conduct a “Research Boot Camp,” ensuring that all students had a baseline understanding of various methodologies and theoretical groundings, particularly those that would be relevant both to the courses and DW12. Student research projects would then extend from these meetings throughout the semester. Though students in both MCPO and PC went through the joint “Research Boot Camp” together, specific methodological approaches were not given preference, allowing students to construct and conduct their own studies.

Curriculum DesignA key part of the course was the “Research Boot Camp,” which occurred during the first two weeks of the semester. As a research methods course is not a prerequisite for their courses, we provided this two-week mini-curriculum, using information from Joann Keyton’s Communication Research, Donald Treadwell’s Introducing Communication Research, and personal experience, to introduce the process to students who may not have had previous research experience. Ultimately, the boot camp provided opportunities for both the students and us to develop research strategies, questions, and agendas for each of the classes. We then tailored the course content towards potential research trajectories during the project while also ensuring that the objectives of the course were still being met.

Research project design. Students were given the opportunity, but not required, to use the DebateWatch event as a data collection site for analysis/critique. In the week following the Research Boot Camp sessions, students brainstormed research project ideas in class. Referencing the lists developed during the Research Boot Camp, students constructed their preliminary introduction as a way to inform us of what they intended to look at and how the project was going to be done. Revisions were completed and the document was returned to the research teams. At the same time, students were developing preliminary literature reviews to be submitted, evaluated, and returned with recommended revisions. The same process was completed with the methods section. During week eight (of a 16-week semester), the revised introduction, literature review, and methods sections for each of the research projects were combined into one prospectus submitted for review and approval. 

The completion of the first parts of the research project by mid-semester guarantees that the research teams will have time to collect data, analyze, write up, and report back on overall research experience. It also allows the instructor to ensure the discussion during the Research Boot Camp is reflected in the document. Undergraduate students worked in teams, while graduate students worked independently. After the survey instrument was completed, it was submitted and approved for use by the campus Institutional Review Board. After the surveys were completed, students entered the data they had collected and entered it into the statistical software they chose to use. We both have found that large events like DebateWatch are excellent opportunities for students to learn survey design and experience the process of data collection.  

Once the data were collected, survey results were distributed to students based on a) questions they had created and b) research questions proposed in various research projects. Students who did not study the Debate Watch events specifically were still able to draw from the events for their research projects. Findings from student research projects then were reported in final papers submitted at the end of the semester.

DebateWatch Event 

In conjunction with the courses, two DebateWatch watch parties were organized on campus. The DebateWatch events revolved around the first and third presidential debates. The events were held in a large lecture classroom. Participation for past Debate Watch events (2004 and 2008) has ranged from 125 to more than 400 students. The first event attracted more than 400 students, while the second, more targeted event attracted between 50 and 100 students.

The night of the event. For each event, a welcome provided the “rules” of the event (holding your applause until the end of the debate, keeping side conversations to a minimum, etc.). In addition, as the use of social media was of primary interest to the teachers and some students, the session offered a quick “how-to” on Twitter, specifically addressing the content to be associated with the DW12 hashtags. Audience members were shown how to create a Twitter account and utilize smartphone applications, Web, and texting to post a comment. They were encouraged to be specific in their comments (keeping in mind the 140 character limitation of the system), to insert hashtags into their “tweets,” and track both individuals and comment threads within Twitter. Audience members also received surveys as they entered. A portion of the survey was completed prior to viewing the debate; the remainder was completed once the debate concluded. Data collected examined variables we had identified as well as questions specifically designed by students to be used for their own research projects. 

The lecture hall is equipped with dual projectors and screens up front, with the ability to display unique images, graphics, and media streams. Both projection screens were used during the debates. On one side, the debate was shown via CSPAN’s broadcast. On the other screen, the Twitter aggregation software Tweetdeck was used to display multiple Twitter feeds and hashtags: #ADP12 (the American Democracy Project’s feed), #UNODW12 (the Twitter feed to which we asked students to submit comments), #DNC, #GOP, and others as they became relevant. While one of us monitored the debates, the other monitored the Twitter feeds, in particular paying attention to and making note of those that had the particular hashtags assigned for the event.


Based on the above-stated objectives, we drew the following conclusions. For objective one, students demonstrated their ability to use literature in class discussions as a lens through which they could better understand campaign and political strategy. Regarding objective two, students successfully developed, conducted, and completed research projects that were directly or otherwise influenced by the event. Although we did not collect specific data regarding civic engagement (objective three), a number of possibilities emerged. Adding a Twitter conversation after the debates concluded might have provided additional data about whether participants continued to follow the campaign and/or voted in the election.

Regarding the overall classroom project, the experience provided students with a context for understanding political campaigns and how citizens engage in discussion about campaigns (both through classroom discussions and the DW events). This information served as a foundation for discussions that continued throughout the semester in the Political Communication (PC) class. In terms of teaching research methodologies, anecdotal comments from our students suggest they have had minimal exposure to the research process when they enter these upper-division classes. Interactive activities during the research boot camp ensured that all students achieved a fundamental understanding of how to conduct research. 

Event attendance by both students and community members far exceeded our expectations, engaging all in the electoral process. Participants were exposed to political messages from both the presidential candidates and voters alike. Students in both classes debriefed the event. In MCPO, students discussed how Twitter—in particular, the use of hashtags and memes—could serve as an Agenda Setting structure (e.g., salience and how it is manipulated within this particular social media space). Students also examined ideas about public relations, marketing, branding, and message design through the social media lens they were able to develop by participating in the event and civic process. In PC, students discussed how emerging forms of communication (e.g., Web-based campaigns, email, Social Media) have changed the landscape of the political process. Students thought that such changes in campaign strategies have potential impact on civic engagement for both younger and older voters. 

We hope this event sparked increased interest in political participation by all involved. DW events clearly contribute to the university’s strategic mission of community outreach. The second event was created to specifically target Twitter users. Unlike the general audience membership for the first event, this was a smaller, select group. This allowed us to compare post-DW survey responses across the two groups.

Overall, the events were considered a success by students, faculty, and administration alike. With proper planning and curricular alignment, a semester-length research program using social media can be successfully executed. We hope our essay demonstrates one way such an endeavor can be implemented.

About the author (s)

Adam Tyma

University of Nebraska

Graduate Program Chair

Barbara Pickering

University of Nebraska