"Media events" such as political debates generate conditions of shared attention as many users simultaneously tune in with the dual screens of broadcast and social media to view and participate. Are collective patterns of user behavior under conditions of shared attention distinct from other "bursts" of activity like breaking news events? Using data from a population of approximately 200,000 politically-active Twitter users, we compare features of their behavior during eight major events during the 2012 U.S. presidential election to examine (1) the impact of "media events" have on patterns of social media use compared to "typical" time and (2) whether changes during media events are attributable to changes in behavior across the entire population or an artifact of changes in elite users' behavior. Our findings suggest that while this population became more active during media events, this additional activity reflects concentrated attention to a handful of users, hashtags, and tweets. Our work is the first study on distinguishing patterns of large-scale social behavior under condition of uncertainty and shared attention, suggesting new ways of mining information from social media to support collective sensemaking following major events.
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