The clearest change noted so far by researchers studying social media and the role it’s playing in the 2012 election is the way in which it is further compressing the news cycle. “In the pre-Internet era, you had morning-after polls,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. “But now, we’ve got these new tools where you can watch millions of people have real conversations … in real time, and the feel of this is so much greater than with a morning-after poll,” he adds. “Here, you can instantly see what millions of people are saying rather than just sticking your microphone or notepad in a single person’s face as they’re walking by The Baltimore Sun building and saying to them, ‘What did you think of the debate?’” William Powers, director of Crowdwire, a Boston-based project analyzing the role of social media in the 2012 presidential race, sees a “new symbiosis between Twitter and the news media” in the use of hashtags based on things said in the debates. The result is a near-instant news cycle driven by editors seeing hashtags go viral and then ordering up stories based on the hashtags — in effect, validating those hashtags and shaping the news budget.