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Twitter To Help Provide Context To Moderators In Monday's Presidential Debate


One thing is certain - millions of people watching the debates are also going to be talking about them on social media, which has become something that cannot be ignored in politics, certainly not in presidential politics. Social media didn't just become important this year. The line binders full of women that we just mentioned became a trending topic in 2012. But Donald Trump's mastery of the form all but ensures that what happens on Twitter will be as much a part of the analysis as anything else.

New this year, Twitter will actually be inserted into the debates themselves. Twitter will be feeding debate moderator Lester Holt live tweets and questions during the debate which he can use at his discretion. The man tasked with looking through those tweets and deciding which trends to feature will be Adam Sharp, Twitter's head of news and government. He joined us from his home in Stamford, Conn., and I asked him how he sees his role in this year's presidential debates.

ADAM SHARP: My role is to help provide context to the moderators, to the media covering the event and to the audience around what the Twitter community and overall electorate are talking about, the trends of discussion, what issues are dominating the discussion this week, this year. We'll be looking at tweets from users from across the country, trying to identify those tweets that stand out as the voice of the crowd as opposed to a random voice in it.

MARTIN: You know, it is no secret that supporters of different candidates organize and make certain points. Is this, in fact, a test of your ability to organize on Twitter?

SHARP: I think when we help curate questions for the moderators of these debates, as we did for several debates in the primaries, we try to look for a cross-section of voices, try to find those voices that are undecided voters or those from the political center, as well as some of the perspective from voters on each side, showing their criticism or questioning of the opponent. That's very common for a moderator to form a question of one candidate in the frame of the opposition, in that frame of people on the other side aren't convinced of your candidacy and voting for your opponent because X, and they're asking why. Sometimes it's better to frame the question in the form of that undecided voice, that neutral voice.

MARTIN: Some people feel that the tone that sometimes people adopt on Twitter is particularly alienating to certain people, like there's kind of a bullying factor that sometimes people feel takes hold. But on the other hand, some people feel, well, you know, that represents a particular point of view. And who is the one who decides what particular point of view or tone is the right one? And I just wondered how are you going to address questions of tone?

SHARP: While certainly there are loud voices in that room, those who contribute substantive thought generally tend to have the broader reach. We did some research where we found among political voices on the platform, tweets that contained facts - you know, numbers, tweets that contain links to supporting material - on average saw a greater reach than those that were just voicing a piece of political rhetoric. Now, that does not take away from the fact that there certainly are a number of loud voices in the room, and politics draw out those passions. And that's why we've rolled out several new features in just the last few months to help combat that kind of abuse and harassment and have more to come.

MARTIN: One criticism of social media is that despite the fact that there's this huge number of people using it that a lot of times the people that you connect with often fall along your same sort of ideological spectrum. So do you have some advice for people who really do want to get a range of views?

SHARP: Well, what I would encourage people to do is don't just follow people you agree with. One thing I did a while ago was I searched Twitter for other people who had my same name. And I found some that were far-left Democrats, some that were extremely conservative Republicans. And that on its own started introducing some fresh new voices into the timeline.

MARTIN: That was Adam Sharp, head of news and government at Twitter. He was kind enough to join us from his home in Stamford, Conn. Twitter, like Facebook, will be live-streaming the debates on their platform, giving users the opportunity to comment in real time. The hashtag is #Debates or #Debates2016. Adam Sharp, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SHARP: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And NPR is following the candidates as they get ready for their first debate on Monday September 26. Live coverage of the debate will air on many NPR stations, and we hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.