The Disconnect Between the Digital Spin Room and the Digital Sala

From clipboards to Periscope, candidates rely on the electorate to spread their message. Can translation help them too?

an xiao mina
Words About Words


written with contributions from Melisa Garcia, Tom Trewinnard and Marley-Vincent Lindsey

On Friday, the Nieman Fellows had a chance to visit a rally for Hillary Clinton supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire ahead of the second caucus in the Presidential primaries, a crucial time for candidates in the US to secure a Party nomination. Campaigning today strikes me as a series of concentric circles, rippling out from the candidate, whose key agenda items and talking points are repeated by co-presenters on stage, by rally-ers trying to rev up the crowd, by the crowd themselves — who received clipboards with checklists of messages and goals for their door-to-door visits — , and then by voters who then hopefully discuss the issue with their friends and family.

Social media platforms helps these ripples extend further, jumping across geographies and into digital channels. At the rally, people posted on social media about the event, their friends and followers posted about the posting, thus getting attention from their friends and followers. And so and so forth, extending much farther, more diversely and in many more directions than was possible in the more broadcast era of Presidential campaigning.

I realized during the rally that it was a perfect opportunity to join those concentric circles and try out Periscope, which I had downloaded many moons ago but had yet to find a reason to use. I made three broadcasts, and by the time I shared live video of Clinton addressing the audience, I watched as 50 people — mostly strangers — logged in to watch the stream, and, more interestingly, to start commenting on the video. I watched hearts bubble out, remarks/boos/shows of support come in, all while I was broadcasting from my phone.

These messages were not directed at me, as I was just a vessel for transmitting the event. Rather, they were directed at Clinton herself, and people from different parts of the world were responding to the substance of her speech to rally the crowd in this state, which plays such a key role in the primaries. My video was one way for this small group of people to share in this moment with me.

If social media is the new spin room, it’s also the new living room, one filled with friends and strangers alike. It’s on social media where we as citizens and non-citizens can tune into, discuss and share different moments in the US elections, which hold the interest of most if not all of the world. After the 2008 elections, I still remember the striking image of people collectively snapping photos of Barack Obama in his historic election as the nation’s first black President. What’s missing from those images, and what’s so difficult to convey visually, is what happens after they’re taken: they’re shared, commented on, and passed around. They’re a visual way to engage with people not physically present.

And while broadcast media certainly had a strong presence in New Hampshire, some 50 people chose to experience the moment through my grainy Periscope feed rather than television. perhaps they did so out of convenience (Periscope works pretty well on mobile), happenstance (they had the app open) or that they were personal friends of mine.

While I was Periscoping, other folks around me were Snapping, Tweeting, Instagramming, WhatsApping, WeChatting and otherwise capturing and disseminating the moment nearly in real time, while their friends in all parts of the world commented, reposted and hearted in response. It was a terrific example of the breaking down of the digital/physical divide facilitated by mobile phones and high speed connections.We were all pockets of gathering, interconnected and intermediated through networked devices.

Thursday night, the night of the debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, colleagues, beta testers and I used Bridge to translate Spanish-language social media from the debates, and we saw another living room, one that spoke Spanish rather than English. Many of the comments and jokes echoed what others were saying in English— “I’m feeling the Bern”, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep”, “pay for my college”.

But others responded directly to candidates’ efforts to engage with Spanish speakers with Spanish language Tweets. Here are a couple from Sanders and Clinton shared after key points in the debates:

While translating, a number of us noticed folks who were confused about the Sanders team’s use of establecimiento, which means, literally, “establishment”, but doesn’t quite sound right to a native speaker. As translator Melisa Garcia noted, it connotes an “establishment”, like a physical building, rather than “the establishment”, i.e., the people in power.

Here’s how some people online responded to those words:

What’s interesting is that the Spanish-first news outlet Univision paraphrased his words in much the same way, using establecimiento to represent the word “establishment”. But context and person mean so much in language, and there were no negative responses:

It reminded me of a smaller version of #NotMyAbuela, the satirical hashtag against the Clinton campaign that satirized her use of abuela”— Spanish for “grandmother” — to describe herself. The word, imbued with so many personal connotations of maternal affection, failed to resonate precisely because Clinton may be a grandmother but she’s not quite an abuela. As with the Sanders Tweets, the words were technically right, but the context was all wrong.

While it’s obvious that candidates aren’t livetweeting their own debates while they are speaking on stage, the origin of their Spanish language Tweets is particularly apparent. Everyone knows Sanders and Clinton don’t speak Spanish fluently, so their words online almost certainly came from staffers… or worse, some suspect, they even come from Google Translate (something I personally find difficult to believe). Yes, candidates officially sign Tweets that originate directly from them, but how many of their followers are aware of this?

These responses are an example of how social media, the so-called new spin room, might not spin so well in the digital salas (living rooms) of Spanish speakers when it’s disconnected with the reality of candidates’ language abilities. It’s one thing for a Tweet to respin a candidate’s words from television; it’s another to translate it to another language and present it on social media as if coming directly from them.

A critical question is this: is it better for US Presidential candidates to engage online in another language in a way that might come across as pandering to a target demographic, or is it better to simply ignore that language altogether? And while many panned some of Sanders’s and Clinton’s Spanish language engagements online, it’s difficult to ignore the many positive responses as well:

Can candidates reach multilingual audiences gracefully and authentically? Both the US electorate and global citizens who pay attention to US politics can benefit from a broader engagement across languages. Like tax forms, passport machines, voting information and bus signs, we already live in a multilingual country. As the country diversifies even further, candidates will perhaps face pressure to post in Chinese, Korean, Tagalog and many other languages, and no one candidate can possibly be expected to learn all of them. Will their online efforts come across as a legitimate attempt to reach a broader audience?

Which brings me back to Periscope, and all those concentric circles rippling out from a single candidate— like all social media, Periscope is a tool for mediation and amplification. I was able to share Clinton’s speech with people who weren’t able to attend physically, and therefore more people heard her speech (whether they agreed with her words or not).

But what would a Periscope of translation look like? In other words, what does a model for translation look like that involves attendees and followers, rather than just broadcasters? Maybe there’s a world where others can share her words with people who aren’t able to understand English. Already, that happens through broadcast media, like Univision and El Pais, who livetweet the debates in Spanish. Can supporters do that too, on behalf of the candidates? Is there a different way to reach a multilingual electorate that relies less on a singular source of translation and more on a distributed form?

VoterVox is one compelling example, as are Get Out the Vote initiatives in other languages, and we’re working on figuring this out at Meedan. Noticiero Móvil is a compelling example of bilingual, community-engaged journalism around the elections. Spanish is just the start of this question, because in this increasingly diverse nation, there will inevitably be more languages. And democratic elections in countries like India and the Philippines must already contend with very linguistically diverse populations. As citizens come online and engage via social media, candidates will need to start developing more authentic ways to spread their message beyond simple translation. Maybe they can rely on their communities to do just that.

See more translations of Spanish language reactions to the Democratic Debate on Bridge.