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Insect Flies Above the Candidates in VP Debate

The Fly Tops Mentions of All Four Candidates on Twitter

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By New York University 

Newswise — The fly that landed on Vice President Mike Pence’s head during Wednesday’s debate received more mentions on Twitter than did any of the presidential or vice-presidential candidates, shows a new analysis of online activity leading up to, during, and immediately after Wednesday’s vice-presidential debate. 

The study, conducted by researchers at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, found that the fly was mentioned on Twitter over the studied period 29 percent more on average than the mentions of Vice President Joe Biden, Vice President Pence, President Donald Trump, or Senator Kamala Harris. 

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“While the exchange between the vice-presidential candidates may have produced some memorable moments, they couldn’t compete with the insect they shared, if only briefly, the debate stage with,” says Anasse Bari, a clinical assistant professor in computer science at the Courant Institute and the senior author of the study. “Our results make clear that online activity stemming from live events can be driven by the most inconsequential, and unpredictable, incidents.” 

The study included three measurements: 1) Tweets about Harris and Pence in the two hours leading up to the debate, during the debate, and the two hours after the debate; 2) Google searches of both candidates on the day of the debate as well as one hour leading up to the debate through the hour after it concluded; and 3) a transcript of the candidates’ words.

While the fly may have dominated Twitter mentions, the study revealed distinctions in how online users described the vice-presidential candidates. 

There was a notable difference in how the candidates were described on Twitter during the two hours after the debate, with tweets linked to Pence centering on how he performed relative to Harris (“won,” “dominated” were the most frequent words mentioned in the study’s Twitter data during the two hours after the debate) while those about Harris focused on what she said during the encounter (“Mr. Vice President, I am speaking” was one of the most frequent key phrases tweeted in during two hours after the debate). Interestingly, a term that neither candidate used during the debate, “top cop,” was used in a high number of tweets about Harris; it refers to her tenure as California’s attorney general.

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Among the study’s other findings were the following: 

  • On Twitter, Pence was mentioned more often than was Harris during (76.6 percent more) and after (82.4 percent) the debate—but there was little difference in pre-debate mentions, with the vice president receiving 5 percent more mentions.
  • Abortion figured into a large number of tweets about both candidates during the debate. For Harris, it was “I will always fight for a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body”; for Pence, it was “I’m pro-life. I don’t apologize for it.”
  • Harris interrupted Pence directly approximately seven times, while Pence interrupted Harris directly approximately 15 times. However, both candidates also spoke over each other and moderator Susan Page. In total, Harris did this approximately 20 times while Pence did so approximately 60 times. By contrast, according to an analysis by the research team of last week’s presidential debate, Trump interrupted moderator Chris Wallace or Biden approximately 100 times—an increase from the 51 times he interrupted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or moderator Lester Holt in the first 2016 presidential debate—while Biden interrupted Trump or Wallace approximately 10 times.
  • A review of the candidates’ transcripts reveals that Pence’s most-used words were “American,” “president,” and “Trump”; he also used the phrase “American people” 35 times.
  • Harris’s most-used words were “Joe,” “people,” and “will”; she used the phrase “the American people” 21 times.

The study’s other authors included Courant researchers Alankrith Krishnan, Aashish Khubchandani, Julia Damaris Yang, Daniel Rivera, Vikas Nair, and Matthias Heymann.

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