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Social media’s effect on voters hard to read

Will votes follow tweets?

Big Bird, bayonets, and binders full of women.

Those were big moments in the 2012 presidential campaign that produced an avalanche of tweets, Facebook comments, Tumblr posts, and other social media outbursts.

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When Mitt Romney said he would cut funding for public TV — but qualified that by saying “I love Big Bird” — the Twitterati reacted with 135,332 tweets per minute. Parody Twitter accounts @SadBigBirdand @FiredBigBird followed.

And when President Obama mentioned “horses and bayonets” in the last debate, Twitter roared again. Comedian Dane Cook tweeted, “Fact: Iran has been stockpiling horses & bayonets.”

Social media platforms have been influential sounding boards during this presidential campaign not only for political satire, but as vehicles for Republicans and Democrats to push their messages and promote their candidates.

“These tools are really powerful as a way to unleash your super fans and give people who are particularly passionate about an issue the ability to pound the digital pavement,” said Aaron Smith, a research associate at the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life ­Project. According to Pew, 39 percent of American adults have used social media to push political or social issues.

And with all the politically charged data spilling across the Web, the researchers who track the attitudes and whims of today’s social media users are trying to divine deeper insights from commentary on Twitter and Facebook.

For instance, what was the impact of Romney’s now­famous “binders full of women” remark? Was it simply a fleeting Internet meme? Or did it create a lasting impression and change votes?

That comment during the second debate generated 350,000 opinions on Twitter in five days, according to the Boston Web analytics firm Crimson Hexagon.

And while the comments began as humor, the “binders” meme quickly turned political.

“In the days following the debate, Twitter users asked whether the binder statement indicates that Romney lacks sufficient policy plans for women,” executives at Crimson Hexagon wrote on the company’s blog. “The lively and humorous conversation generated and supported continuing political conversation about Romney’s track record and plan for women.”

Even though researchers use sophisticated analytical tools to gauge sentiment based on what’s being posted on social media, David Rothschild, an economist at Microsoft Research, said the data are still too messy to be a reliable barometer of popular opinion.

“People go onto social media when they have something to say,” he said. “They are most vocal when they are the most passionate.”

And politics isn’t always the motivating factor behind social media sensations.

Veronica De Souza, a 23-year-old social media professional who lives in Brooklyn, created a Tumblr page called Binders Full of Women because she thought it would be funny, not to influence votes.

Romney “said the whole binders full of women thing, and I said, ‘Wow, that’s a really dumb thing to say on National TV,’ ” said De Souza, who created the pages within minutes of Romney’s uttering the phrase. Twenty minutes later, it was all over the Web.

The blog is attracting tens of thousands of daily visitors and has grown to include 515 posts, which mostly include pictures of women wearing binders as costumes. She’s received more than 20,000 submissions.

It’s still too early to tell whether the chatter on social media will influence the election one way or the other, said William Powers, a journalist who is running Crowdwire, a project by the Cambridge social media analytics firm Bluefin Labs, to analyze social media data around the election.

But it’s certainly giving people a platform to wield influence unlike in any other election season, he said. Even if a Twitter user has only 50 followers, he said, “you are in the conversation in a way that was not possible . . . before as an average citizen.”

In fact, the volume of online comments around the second political debate was greater than the 2012 Super Bowl, Bluefin said.

Part of the reason the debates and this year’s campaigns are generating so much social buzz is that many people watch TV with smartphones and tablets nearby and are just a few clicks away from making a fresh posting, said Tom Thai, Bluefin’s director of marketing. The phenomenon, which the company tracks for major television networks, is known as social TV.

“Everyone now has a smartphone,” Thai said. “Instead of having a water-cooler conversation the next day, they have these tweets and Facebook conversations.”

Michael B. Farrell
can be reached at
michael.farrell@globe.com.
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