Electionland: What an Experience for Journalism Students

Learning social newsgathering, verification and collaboration on a massive scale

When my brilliant friend Claire Wardle of Columbia University approached me and fellow journalism professor Damian Radcliffe at the University of Oregon this summer about a sweeping national project to have students use social media and other sources to monitor voting problems across the United States, our first response was: Holy s*%t, this is going to be complicated and a TON of work to coordinate.

Our second response was HELL YEAH, this is going to be an awesome opportunity and so much fun.

And it was.

In all my years in journalism, I’ve never seen a collaboration on this scale.

We tracked everything from long lines to intimidation at the polls to recent changes in voter ID laws in some states. We used a variety of different technologies to search social media for reports of voter issues across the country, and tips poured in via text message as well. We then used verification techniques established by our First Draft partners to authenticate posts, weeding out the deliberate deceptions and inaccurate misinformation that can spread so easily online. Finally, experienced editors looked at all the data to identify patterns, and connected with local reporters on the ground to further investigate what we found.

The most exciting aspects of Electionland that made it all worthwhile to me were:

  1. As our resources have shrunk, the need to tackle important national stories TOGETHER becomes all the more vital. This project offered an important model of how to make that work. We learned a lot that I believe we can apply to future endeavors.
  2. Students got the opportunity to learn and practice vital social newsgathering and verification skills alongside some of the best journalists in the country. The hub at CUNY-J, which was in close communication with everyone else on the project via Slack, was packed with folks from ProPublica, WNYC, Univision, The New York Times, Google News Lab, First Draft News, and more.
  3. While we didn’t find massive, widespread incidents of voter suppression, we were watching and reporting, and we identified a number of important issues with one of our nation’s most fundamental rights, such as lack of access for disabled voters, lines that stretched for blocks in some precincts, fraudulent fliers and other misinformation.
  4. We added to the evidence that social media is not just a way to distribute information or a frivolous space for selfies but also a valuable reporting tool. Yes, nothing ever completely supplants on-the-ground, “shoe-leather” reporting — hence our partnership with so many local journalists — but at the same time, we now can monitor and verify breaking news at scale. When I was a reporter, I never felt that a series of banal “man-on-the-street” interviews on election day offered much insight, as by then most minds were made up and just awaiting results. Electionland felt like such a more satisfying and significant use of time.

But rather than just jabbering away about what *I* think we learned, I asked my social journalism students to share their smart thoughts about Electionland. My group did double duty, serving not only on the “feeder” desk that was performing the social newsgathering and verification tasks, but also working a shift on the “outreach” desk, where we helped to raise awareness of the project, engaged voters in conversation as appropriate around the issues at hand, and encouraged them to report their experiences at the polls. Hear what they have to say:

Allen Arthur: “It’s impossible to talk about my experience of Electionland without acknowledging and showing gratitude for the absolutely insane amount of work done by all the organizations involved…The day wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without a truly dumbfounding amount of preparation.

First and foremost, I learned about collaboration. If any one of these organizations had set off on this path alone, it would never have gotten very far off the ground. Not only did the project find and/or debunk dozens of issues, it also made a number of people personally happy by being there to acknowledge their voting issues. Multiple people I spoke with were simply thankful someone cared.

ProPublica’s Terry Parris Jr., socialj student Allen Arthur, and ProPublica’s Adriana Gallardo on the outreach desk

I also learned about the value of social media dexterity. I have seen this at Storyful too [Allen is working as an intern this semester at Storyful.]. If you are working with a broad topic (such as an election or criminal justice), each unique aspect of it could be talked about in different ways on different platforms. People might talk about one thing on Instagram and another on Facebook. They might hashtag here and not there. They might be having uninformative threads on Facebook and productive ones on Twitter. Being able to figure out what is happening where and how is so huge to communicating on social.

It was also liberating to be able to tell friends (or anyone) what is and is not genuinely happening. When my liberal friends claimed widespread intimidation, I could say that this wasn’t really being reported. When conservative people talked about rigged machines, I/we could intervene and say, this simply isn’t true. I’d like to think that contributes something, and that the reporting on the less nefarious issues will help other elections become smoother going forward.”

Noa Radosh, an international student from Mexico, felt more personally involved in the election than she had expected when Trump began talking about his proposed wall and calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.”

Social journalism students Nancy Spiccia and Noa Radosh await to join CUNY-J Prof Jeff Jarvis on Facebook Live

Noa writes:

“In a newsroom filled with experts and professional journalists, we felt equally responsible in the struggle for justice and equality. We had access to the most powerful tools to dive into the monstrous world of social media…Being part of Electionland helped us advance our efforts as social journalists, creating a space for the voices of many to rise and report on any attempt to silence them….

As a member of the Latino community, I tried to find ways to integrate the audience, communicate and be empathetic in order to better know how to make them part of the process. We had to apply what we learned in class about empathy and trust building to all communities. We need to listen more and talk less.”

Katelyn Gillum compared Electionland with the movie Avengers, given the number of journalists and students across the country that joined forces to monitor the democratic process. She writes: “online conversations were monitored by using cutting edge tools such as Banjo, Dataminr, Tweetdeck and Facebook Signal, which allowed us to quickly find issues as they were happening in real-time….we relied heavily on CrowdTangle as a tool to help us further our conversations and outreach. By the time I arrived to the [outreach] desk in the afternoon, Electionland was receiving a large amount of direct messages on Twitter, and that quickly became our focus. We were able to respond directly to those who were writing in and experiencing problems, which felt like important and valuable work.”

Katelyn also did a lovely job creating simple graphics we could share via social, like this one:

nancy.spiccia wrote that “ It’s one thing to learn about verification tools in school, but to actually use them while working alongside a team of professional journalists during a historic election was an extraordinary privilege.” Check out her description of how the team used Tweetdeck:

“Tweetdeck is a social media dashboard application for management of Twitter accounts. Tweetdeck allows you to set up a series of customizable columns to monitor specific search criteria. We were instructed to set up a series of columns using specific search words. One column was established to search for Periscopes in the specific location we monitored. Other columns were set up with specific hashtags and words that would help us identify voting issues in a specific region….We also set up a tab for Dataminr, a data analytics tool that provides real-time social media alerts about specifically defined criteria for a defined location.”

Anna-Michelle Lavandier helped to monitor social media posts in both English and Spanish; Electionland was a bilingual project from start to finish. Assigned to West Virginia, she also helped out when reports of long lines in New York started to explode, illustrating the personnel flexibility required to make a project like this work. She writes: “Now, more than ever, we need social journalism to be at the forefront; we need journalists to remember that we serve the people.”

Gloria Medina said she was surprised to find fewer voting problems than expected. “When I saw posts about long lines, they were not complaints. People were happy they were voting and didn’t mind the waiting. There were many positive posts in social media about the voting experience.”

Gloria also did her first Facebook Live from the Electionland HQ. “I was very happy about it, especially because they let me do it in English and Spanish. I was shy at the beginning, but I did it and I liked it. It was fun.”

Martika Ornella writes eloquently about how she saw the purpose of the project: “to incentivize an acquiescent American public in taking control of their democratic right to vote. The best way to push back against passive non-engagement is to embolden the non-engaged by giving them an outlet to engage with…Participation is contagious. I told friends and family members about the project and on Election Day my phone was buzzing with texts about long lines in Parkchester and Bed-Stuy… Instead of embodying the cool, detached demeanor often prescribed to folks in the media, Electionland asked for the public’s attention and communicated back to them.”

Ashley Smalls helped classmates Sasha M Fountain and Colin-Pierre Larnerd with an “old-school” Facebook Live that involved monitoring the results and coloring in states on a whiteboard in red or blue. She wrote: “Having the audience tell us we had a more interesting FB live then some major publishers was definitely the highlight of my night.” She added: “one positive aspect of election night was working with a room full of mostly journalists of different backgrounds. We all came together to do a service to the entire country, and that’s really saying something.”

Social journalism students Ashley Smalls, Colin-Pierre Larnerd, and Sasha Fountain. Photo by Terry Parris Jr.

Colin-Pierre Larnerd writes about what he learned from trying a number of creative approaches to Facebook Live and Periscope on Election Day. From working with Univision to interviewing journalists working on the project, Colin did a great job, and got to experiment with using the Mevo camera to boot.

Social journalism students Sasha Fountain and Colin Pierre Larnerd.

Simon Galperin calls Electionland “an ideal that journalism schools should reach towards when developing curriculums based on hands-on skill development in real world environments.”