McFeatters: Twitter, Facebook crashing GOP, Democratic conventions

Workers set up for the Republican National Convention Workers set up for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. (Aug. 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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This week's Republican National Convention in Tampa will be the first such political gathering with blanket coverage by social media; indeed, some enthusiasts are calling it the first convention of the Social Media Age.

The prime-time portions of the conventions have become overly scripted commercials for the two parties and absent any spontaneity, let alone a real fight. The last one was Ronald Reagan's challenge to Jerry Ford in 1976, and the planners will go to any lengths to prevent another such display of party disunity.

In part to forestall any disruptions by Ron Paul's 160 delegates, voting on the nominee will begin Monday instead of Wednesday, as is customary.

Thus, the major TV networks have cut back to four hours of coverage over three nights. Into that gap, social media have swarmed: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Flickr. YouTube, for example, will live-stream the entire proceedings as well as content generated by its followers.

The Republican Party -- and presumably the Democrats, too, when their turn comes -- are desperate to exploit social media, seeing it as a way to get their message out without the filter of newspapers and broadcasters.

The GOP has set up a Social Media War Room at the convention center to generate content favorable to the candidates and their followers and to instantly rebut negative stories appearing on the Web.

As the Chinese and Russians have learned, the two parties may find their efforts to direct and control social media content are an exercise in futility.

The GOP says 15,000 journalists are coming to Tampa. That's more than triple the 4,411 Republican delegates and alternates. Many of the newspeople are mainstream media. But a number are lone wolves with iPhones and laptops, hoping to make a name for themselves by posting something newsworthy, sexy or scandalous on their blogs or Twitter accounts.

The older political hands in the parties may find themselves looking back fondly on the days when a relative handful of major newspapers, the three networks and the wire services, operating by traditional rules of journalism, dictated the content and tone of the coverage.

Social media was not a factor at the conventions four years ago. According to Twitter, the number of Election Day tweets that year was equal to about six minutes' worth today, the Associated Press reports.

The Social Media Age, if such there really be, will change the political conventions in ways no one can predict -- or control.

Dale McFeatters is a senior writer for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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