How the internet reacted to the first presidential debate

This year’s first presidential debate aired on September 26, the anniversary of the first televised presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. It was expected to draw a record viewership, with ad buyers predicting a 20-50% increase in viewers from the 67 million who tuned in to watch Obama and Romney in 2012, and some predicting as high as 100 million viewers — a Super Bowl-sized audience.

Every election year, technology changes and evolves, affecting how viewers engage with the presidential debates online. Americans aren’t just listening – they’re also taking action as the debate unfolds. A glance, word, or silent gesture can elicit a massive online response within moments as viewers react: tweeting, commenting, and donating in real time.

As a CDN, we’re in a unique position to view traffic patterns on the web. Fastly powers tens of thousands of websites, including top publishers and social media platforms like BuzzFeed, Vox Media, Twitter, Wenner Media, and Condé Nast, giving us key insights into how users react to the debate online – and this year’s election is clearly driving record levels of online engagement.

Here are a few of the traffic patterns we’ve observed leading up to and during the first presidential debate of 2016:

When Emmy Award-winning comedy website Funny Or Die aired their popular “Between Two Ferns” interview with Hillary Clinton last Thursday, the video was retweeted over 28,000 times, viewed more than 30 million times during the first 24 hours (breaking their previous viewership records as the highest first-day viewership in Funny Or Die history) and their site saw an increase in online traffic of over 1,000% — double the amount of requests they saw after airing the 2014 interview with Barack Obama.

funny or die between two ferns 2

The Hillary Clinton campaign website is also behind Fastly, which gave us unique visibility into the Democratic candidate’s site traffic patterns during the debate.

Traffic to surged during the debate as viewers reacted to both candidates, spiking most notably when viewers were first directed to Clinton’s website, with an increase of 4,600%. debate 1 2016

Traffic went up again when the race segment of the debate began, going up about three times normal traffic, and it went up by 3x again when Trump mentioned that Clinton “chose to stay home” and she responded that she prepared for the debate, and “to be president.”

An hour before the debate began, traffic was up by almost 140% versus the same time last week, and spiked by 6,500% after the debate started. After the debate ended, traffic remained high, with requests at 2,000% above normal.

Top moments from the debate

  • We saw spikes of up to 3,000% to sites with fact checkers when Hillary Clinton referenced her own website and its fact checkers

  • On average, traffic to media sites increased 63% between 8:40 and 10:50 PM ET

  • 22% increase in media traffic when Trump claimed he “did not say” climate change is a Chinese hoax

  • 20% increase in media traffic when Lester Holt interrupted the debate to clarify that courts declared stop-and-frisk illegal

A special thanks to our customers who collaborated with us during the event, and stay tuned — we’ll continue to recap traffic patterns during the 2016 election season.


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Tyler McMullen is CTO at Fastly, where he’s responsible for the system architecture and leads the company’s technology vision. As part of the founding team, Tyler built the first versions of Fastly’s Instant Purging system, API, and Real-time Analytics. A self-described technology curmudgeon, he has experience in everything from web design to kernel development, and loathes all of it. Especially distributed systems.

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