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Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton through the eyes of Snapchat users

In first debate, Snapchat wins the night

A presidential debate offers candidates the opportunity to present their unfiltered selves to the American public -- 90 minutes or so of unobstructed television face-time.

But for some viewers, filters were a big part of the appeal. 

“If you didn’t watch the debate and put a Snapchat filter on either of the candidates, are you even an American?” one viewer tweeted. 

Slapping a picture-perfect filter on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump put a new social media spin on their first showdown Monday night.

A Twitter user uses a deer filter while Snapchatting during the first presidential debate on Monday. Twitter/@MEmmerso

While Twitter remains Donald Trump’s preferred social media platform, 140-character missives are no longer new and shiny novelties for the American public.

So, if pundits and cultural critics deemed 2012 the “Twitter Election,” 2016’s race, they say, is firmly in the grip of Snapchat. Our ever-dwindling attention spans are whittled down to 10 seconds or less, and the platform’s emphasis on amateur, in-the-moment photo and video documentation feels wholly appropriate for an insurgent election cycle.

Scrolling through one’s Snapchat​ updates on Monday night, the debate was inescapable, even if many posts just depicted the candidates through the prism of silly filters. Make no mistake: a general election debate is a sober occasion -- mostly. Viewers are not merely watching for gaffes or insults; they’re judging a candidate’s aptitude and world view, his or her fitness for the most powerful job on earth.

The use of Snapchat filters, however, adds a new dimension to the viewing experience. Over the course of the night, users found infinite amusement in Donald Trump wearing a flower crown, or Hillary Clinton sporting bunny ears. And few things could prove to be more visually jarring than the “face swap,” in which the faces of the respective nominees are superimposed onto one another’s. 

It’s a curious phenomenon, but one that ultimately makes sense: in the context of a presidential debate, the filters offer a juxtaposition of formality and whimsy. Two baby boomers are arguing behind lecterns on a sparse stage. The snarky symbolism of turning them into two feuding puppies, ears wagging and tongues askew, resonates.   

Call it goofy or inane, but in a sense, the prevalence of these Snapchat distortions is a rebuke of the age-old “young people are unengaged in politics” charge. Social media feeds -- especially those of young people -- were flooded with debate content. Perhaps, until now, they simply didn’t have the tools.