If you’re like most politically minded Americans, you’ll be grabbing some popcorn and sitting down to watch the first Republican debate tonight at 9pm Eastern.

With ten contenders, most of whom are masters at the art of making provocative and outrageous statements, and all of whom are desperate for the precious attention and donor dollars that will keep their fledgling campaigns alive, it promises to be a lively, entertaining evening. But the debate’s impact on policy or on the ultimate outcome of the race? Negligible. With the election more than a year away, it’s way too early to declare a winner. For now, it’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

There’s one winner we can declare, though, even before the debates start: Social media.

Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign proved that having a savvy grasp of social media can help a candidate win an election, and Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign proved you could easily lose a campaign by failing to grasp the power of social media (including its ability to turn surreptitiously filmed videos into viral sensations). Nobody is going to take social media for granted this time around.

All of the candidates have social media strategies, and most of them are doing pretty well at the game. Their campaign managers understand that it’s not enough to tout policy positions and broadcast the same tired campaign slogans; you have to project an image of humanity and warmth. You have to have a ‘voice.’

And for tonight’s debate, social media sites will be where a lot of the action takes place. Facebook is co-hosting the event with Fox News, which seems like a symbolically significant achievement for Facebook, in light of its bid to be taken seriously as a news channel. Unfortunately, you can’t watch a live stream of the debate on Facebook, but you can watch clips, and chatter to your heart’s content, on the Fox News Facebook page.

On Twitter, you can find the hashtag #GOPDebate, which, despite questions about Twitter’s ability to surface interesting discussions and relevant links, actually does a pretty good job of pointing you to highlights of the coverage. Follow that hashtag, plus a few reliably snarky news pros, and you should have plenty of fun using Twitter as a second screen.

Or consider taking to Instagram to get a look at how the candidates are presenting themselves. VentureBeat got an intriguing list of early highlights from the Instagram media relations team today, which included Jeb Bush name-checking LeBron James, Rick Santorum going to Mass, Ted Cruz posing on the plane with his daughter, and the Fox News crew prepping their best curve ball questions.

If you want to get a bit more substantive than Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, you might check out Flipboard. It’s not really a social network but it’s powered by a network of sorts, using the social signals of its 70 million users to assemble relevant news that’s customized for you. Its Election Central channel promises to provide “insightful political coverage and the best campaign moments.”

So, social media has established itself as a key player in campaign coverage in the U.S. Congratulations, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest.

Now my question is: What are these networks going to do with their new-found political power? Sponsoring an early debate and highlighting hashtags is one thing. Capitalizing on the American public’s desire for ever-more strident points of view and ever-more-outrageous statements is fine, too.

But is there a way that social media could empower people to make more informed and smarter choices? Or is it always going to be a large-scale version of the shouting match that we’ll see on stage?

Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo noted last year that the company could do a better job at handling abusive comments. You could say the same thing about Twitter’s — or any social network’s — ability to foster intelligent debate. The same dynamic that propels people toward name-calling and threat-making in their personal disputes can make political debate an exercise in futility and frustration.

I wouldn’t want social networks to put any significant restraints on the ability of their users to say whatever they want, however asinine it might be, but it would be interesting to find some intelligent debate in these vast social webs.

Then again, maybe that’s asking too much.

Originally published on VentureBeat: Social media will ‘trump’ tonight’s GOP debate winner