Following the third and final presidential debate in Florida earlier this week, conservative pundit Ann Coulter called U.S. President Barack Obama a "retard" on Twitter, prompting a barrage of angry criticism about a term considered derogatory.
The president, meantime, used the term "bulls----er" in an oblique reference to Republican rival Mitt Romney during an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
"You know, kids have good instincts," Obama said. "They look at the other guy and say, 'Well, that's a bulls----er, I can tell.'"
In response to both slurs, the Twitterverse, in particular, almost instantaneously erupted with outrage and high fives, depending on the political perspective of those sending the tweets.
Indeed, Twitter has become a major force this election season, providing a platform for immediate spleen-venting. Others argue it's also shaping media coverage of major political events like debates, television interviews and conventions.
But is it a positive force?
"It's just a massive network of vitriol," Marty Wiseman, a political science professor at Mississippi State University, said Friday.
"If you look at it literally as a free speech and democracy issue, Twitter has got to be a good thing, because now everyone is having their say. But the overwhelming negativity to it — it's further dividing us, and it's reflected in the coverage of the race, and that carries over into real life."
Few people on Twitter or other social media platforms are outlining what their candidate stands for, Wiseman added.
"You have much less rhetoric out there that favours a candidate and much more vitriol against a candidate. There are people who really become exercised about the other guy without making a case for what their guy would do. It's all about hating the other guy."
Pundits have been calling the 2012 vote the "Twitter election" for months. It's easy to see why — more election-related tweets are sent every two days this year than were sent out entirely in the leadup to the 2008 vote, Twitter officials say.
Indeed, the tweet volume for the election four years ago represents only about six minutes of tweets in 2012.
Twitter has undeniably exploded over the past four years to become a forum for civic debate, with almost 110 million users in the United States.
That's made it an invaluable resource for many political reporters given it allows them to watch real-time reaction and heated political arguments that only four years ago were limited to dinner tables, drinking establishments or coffee shops.
But given those on Twitter tend to skew liberal, and young, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, some have warned the media against using it as a stand-in for genuine public reaction.
"If Twitter were a leading indicator, Ron Paul would be the Republican nominee," Tom Rosenstiel, director of Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism, said of Pew's examination of Twitter users.
"Ron Paul got far and away the most favourable attention on Twitter during the caucus/primary season."
The first presidential debate on Oct. 3 was the most tweeted political event in Twitter's six-year history. Juan Williams, a longtime U.S. political reporter, wrote this week of his astonishment at seeing how addicted his fellow journalists have become to Twitter and Facebook as he covered the Denver showdown.
"I was genuinely surprised that so many of my colleagues — honest, solid, hardworking journalists — were not actually watching the debate on television or their computer screens," he wrote in a column on the Fox News website.
"Instead, their eyes were perpetually glued to their iPads, Blackberrys and iPhones reading what other people were saying about the debate in Twitter feeds and Facebook posts. That instantaneous scoring distorted the reality of the debates for the journalists and the surrogates in the spin room."
What's more, argues Wiseman, that type of rapid-fire, often nasty feedback influences political campaigns.
"Even the politicians themselves won't state their positions clearly, it seems, because they don't want to give their opponents any ammunition in this hyper-active era of social media," he said.
"Once it gets rolling on Twitter it just mounts; it becomes punch, counter-punch."
Blogger Imani Gandy, a Twitter afficionado who tweets under the handle AngryBlackLady, agrees that the social media platform has sometimes unfairly shaped the national dialogue in the aftermath of some major events this election season.
"The freakout over Obama's first debate performance — I thought that was over the top and it actually hurt his campaign," she said in an interview from Los Angeles on Friday.
But Gandy, who rarely backs down from a Twitter fight, also believes the social media platform is an educational force.
"It definitely gets ugly sometimes," she said with a laugh.
"But if there's a person on the right with a lot of followers challenging me then yeah, I am going to challenge them back. My whole mode of operation on Twitter is knowing I am not likely going to change the mind of the person I am arguing with, but I might very well influence and educate the people who are reading our exchange."
Wiseman, meanwhile, said he's skeptical.
"Overall, I think Twitter is good for democracy. But that fact that it is far and away more negative than positive is something we still have to get a handle on."
Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, wonders what is truly setting the tone of the national political debate with just 11 days until the election.
Are posts on Twitter and Facebook merely reflecting the tenor of the campaign in the midst of an intense, hard-fought horse race, he asks? Or are teams Obama and Romney being influenced by the bare-knuckled brawls breaking out on social media?
"If you look at those three debates, in particular, they became increasingly aggressive and in your face as they went along," he said of the prime-time showdowns watched by tens of millions of Americans.
"I believe social media could simply be following along, and getting nastier and more aggressive in recent weeks because the campaigns have gone in that direction too."Suggest a correction