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There's an old news business phrase that's used to denigrate articles that are little more than collections of excerpts from previous stories. They're called "gluepot" stories -- meaning they are basically a cut-and-paste product.

Although they didn't use that term that's what a group of scientists at Cornell University and elsewhere found when they studied more than 290 million "tweets" emitted during the 2012 presidential nominating conventions and debates.

Instead of original observations and illuminating insights based on personal experience, they found little creative thinking, and a slavish blitz of retweeting "elites" like @billmaher and @seanhannity.

Eyes on the stars

"Frankly, we're rather disappointed," said Cornell University's Drew Margolin. "Social media has so much potential to improve the diversity of voices and quality of exchanges in political discussion by giving individuals the technological capability to compete with the mass media in disseminating information, setting agendas and framing conversation."

Instead, says the Cornell assistant professor of communication, "during live media events when the largest number of people are paying attention, people move away from this deliberative potential by replacing existing interpersonal social dynamics with increased collective attention to existing 'stars.'"

Those stars would be Twitter users like the liberal comedian Bill Maher, the most retweeted in three of the four candidate debates, and Sean Hannity, the conservative media personality who popularly opined, "Middle class crushed last 4 years" during the third debate.

Most study subjects were so mesmerized by erudite elites they forgot to think for themselves, the researchers lamented. The social media tide of public discourse did not rise far in the 2012 campaign, the social scientists agreed, but a few stars' fortunes did.

In defense of the retweeting masses, the authors wrote: "The uncertainty of live events may predispose users to seek information from authorities and their expert sensemaking processes rather than from their peers."

Not that there's anything wrong with that … or is there?

"Combined with our findings about concentrated attention to elite voices and diminished use of interpersonal communication," the researchers wrote, "these factors could combine to create ideal conditions for rumor persistence, belief polarization and the dissemination of misinformation that can – intentionally or unintentionally – undermine deliberation."

The complete report is published in PLoS ONE, an online academic journal. 

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