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Big Bird, in this April 2008 file photo, may be out of a job if Mitt Romney gets elected. The presidential candidate expressed a desire to cut funding to the public’s PBS during the first debate Oct. 3, 2012. (MARK LENNIHAN/AP)
Big Bird, in this April 2008 file photo, may be out of a job if Mitt Romney gets elected. The presidential candidate expressed a desire to cut funding to the public’s PBS during the first debate Oct. 3, 2012. (MARK LENNIHAN/AP)

A major moment for social media Add to ...

Wednesday night’s U.S. presidential debate, the first of three before election day, quickly generated more activity on the microblogging site Twitter than any previous event in U.S. politics. Indeed, the onslaught of roughly 10.3 million tweets over the course of the debate helped solidify the site’s status as a sort of simultaneous companion to major live events – something users turn to for context as they watch those events on TV.

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1. The Winner

Almost in real time, large swaths of the Web’s punditry declared Mitt Romney the winner of the first debate. The consensus, even among many Obama supporters, was that the President was far too passive and reluctant to call out his opponent on a number of issues that had set the wired world on fire over the past few weeks – chiefly, topics such as the video showing Mr. Romney’s infamous “47 per cent” comments. Twitter’s generally negative reaction to Barack Obama’s performance was especially surprising given that the President has almost 20 times as many followers on the site as his opponent.

2. The Spin

Dozens of accounts belonging to officials with both candidates’ parties spent much of the debate firing accusations back and forth. Mr. Romney’s team focused primarily on accusations that Mr. Obama will raise taxes, while the President’s “truth team” account fired back that Mr. Romney was not being honest about his policies during the debate. Indeed, Mr. Obama’s phalanx of Twitter accounts were often far more aggressive in their critiques of Mr. Romney than the President himself was during the debate.

3. The Bad Joke

In the most tangential blow-up on debate night, a kitchen-appliances company found itself battling a massive public-relations crisis because of a crass tweet. During the debate, someone with access to KitchenAid’s U.S.-based Twitter account sent out a snide remark about Mr. Obama’s grandmother, who died just before the President was sworn in. The tweet (“Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president’ ”) was quickly deleted, but not before thousands of people picked up on it. Within minutes, the company and its head were apologizing profusely, hoping to limit the damage to the KitchenAid brand. The KitchenAid Twitter account, incidentally, appears to have gained thousands more followers over the past 24 hours.

4. The Fact Checkers

Perhaps the most significant use of Twitter during the debate was as a real-time fact-checking tool. A number of organizations kept running tallies of the candidates’ claims, supplementing them with evidence and research. FactCheck.org, which presented context throughout and after the debate, saw some of its messages re-tweeted thousands of times.

5. The Muppet

As with virtually all high-profile Twitter events, there was a healthy dose of the frivolous in Wednesday’s reaction to the debates. The Web lit up shortly after Mr. Romney said he would cut the budget of U.S. public broadcaster PBS, even though he likes Big Bird – one of the beloved characters on the PBS-broadcast show Sesame Street. Within minutes, users had set up myriad parody accounts featuring an alternately despondent, angry or simply unemployed Big Bird. Twitter user Dan Brown also thought up a new descriptor for the Romney campaign: “Romney: soft on Wall Street, hard on Sesame Street.”

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