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Twittering the election… and wondering if this is the right tool

Many of my friends who are following the US election intensely are supporting Twitter Vote Report. It’s a very cool mashup designed to let people report voting irregularities by sending a message to #votereport on Twitter and using a restricted syntax to report on the experience. The website will visualize the reports as they come in and will be able to store reports of slow voting sites and polling places that experience complaints of malfunctioning machines or people preventing voters from accessing the polls.

A sample report:

Syd Sallabanks: #votereport #early Boise 83716 zip. #good experience to vote early. Boise friends follow http://twittervotereport.com/how-to-help

I can’t help comparing this laudable project to some of the projects I’ve seen in African countries designed to increase voter transparency. Some of those projects have used SMS. Election monitors in Nigeria used Kiwanja’s SMS gateway, FrontlineSMS to monitor the recent presidential election. And SMS likely helped the opposition MDC insist that it had won the first round of presidential balloting this year – election reports were posted outside each polling place, and MDC activists used SMS to report each tally to a central office, where they were tallied and revealed an MDC victory, if not a majority.

But the most effective vote monitoring projects I’ve seen are in countries with a free and thriving indepedent media. In Ghana, talk radio is by far the most important medium for discussing politics. During the 2000 elections, citizens who had trouble at the polls – groups trying to intimidate voters or prevent some people from voting – called talk radio stations and reported their troubles. This was probably more effective than calling election officials or other authorities – since the obstacles to voting were reported live, the radio stations could continue reporting on the situation until authority figures intervened and ensured people could vote. (It’s possible that election authorities might have ignored calls to their offices and claimed they’d never been received.) As it turned out, the 2000 presidential election in Ghana was peaceful and put the opposition party in power for the first time in decades.

The mobile plus radio system works very well for monitoring for two reasons – it’s easy for citizens to use (they just call a radio station, something many of them do frequently to participate in call-in shows) and the reports are immediately available to a large audience (everyone who listens to talk radio, which is, basically, everyone.) I’m not sure that TwitterVote covers the same bases, at least by itself. It’s easy for Twitter users, and certainly possible for those who don’t use Twitter regularly to participate by texting to a shortcode. But the messages directly reach a fairly small audience – there aren’t very accurate numbers for active Twitter users, but Techcrunch estimates the number at under a million, which certainly includes some non-US users. So TwitterVote needs to be thought of as collection mechanism for reports, which can be disseminated through other media.

This, for me, raises the question of why Twitter is the right tool to use for this project. Is it because it’s easy to crate mashups around? Because it’s the tool-du-jour for the digitally experimental set? Or is it a reflection of how impenetrable mainstream radio and television appears to be for most American citizens? The media that continues to be disproportionately important for most American households is still local, broadcast television news, despite declines in recent years and increase in web usage. When we design tools for election monitoring, are we ignoring local news because we expect it to be uncooperative and impenetrable? Or are we just playing with the tools we know and like, whether or not they’re the best way to reach a broad audience?

13 thoughts on “Twittering the election… and wondering if this is the right tool”

  1. I think Twitter is a weird tool for this. The total audience just isn’t big enough, and too many people have no idea what Twitter is. I think submissions to a high-profile website might have been a better choice.

  2. National Public Radio, the closest thing the US has to the BBC, is asking for reports of voting difficulties by whatever means. This might be closer to the model that Ethan describes, though it is at a national level, and lacks the local specificity that would be desirable.

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  4. Thanks Ethan for this article.

    Zambia has just come from an election following the death of President Levy Mwanawasa.

    While all ICT tools are great to use Zambia has monitors places at all polling centers to check for irregularities. For me i think it these monitors who need to be armed with an ICT tool that can collect central information on their reports on how an election was conducted.

    Otherwise i feel the use of an SMS TOOLKIT would work well in times like this because the toolkit would have a generic form which could be filled in by the monitors so that we have a standard report.

    in the developing world we have many radio stations and most homes have at least a radio and chances of them listening to the radio are very high compared to going using the internet which is not accessible to them.

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  6. Twitter Vote Report was a sort of (but not entire) misnomer for the project. They did offer options for people who fell into the “Don’t Twitter and Don’t Care To” category, publishing phone numbers that people could call into (text/hashtags transcribed, call audio published to the site), SMS text options, and an iPhone app. I fear that the name of the project may have deflected people who weren’t on Twitter from participating, even though the non-Twitter options were listed on the home page front and center. On the other hand, I do think there was a broad audience of users on this, even people who’d never used Twitter, and that speaks to the fact that even average web users are becoming increasingly curious and savvy about using all sorts of tech.

    That said, I think that there were many efforts by many outlets to track what was going on with the election this year more than any election previous, mostly because this is the first election in the age of social tech. Media outlets were looking for user-generated stories (NPR asking for voter problem reports, CNN iReport, etc.), but on a certain level that still follows the old model of traditional media as filter and editorial vs. the model of raw, unfiltered content from the web that’s been growing for many years now. That’s not to say that the new model is here to stay, or perfect, for that matter, just that the dichotomy creates an interesting, muddled situation.

    Twitter Vote Report is the type of raw data reaction that higher-level web users are craving, and that more average web users will begin to crave (like the auto-updated CNN, AP, and other electoral maps that everyone endlessly refreshed online while they watched the news). However, there were some bumps and bruises in the reporting, mostly due to user error, such as people not using hashtags correctly, so the data wasn’t being mashed up onto maps and charts as a result.

    While it wasn’t a perfect system, it was an excellent first crack at the idea. If nothing else, it gives excellent food for though on your question, and raises the bar on improving the solution.

  7. I am a Ghanaian political scientist who has been studying Social Media almost from its beginning. Very interesting article, Ethan. Talk Radio, now in vernacular, is the bomb in Ghana. Social Media is big but largely used for fun and/or fraud. The export of naked Ghanaan flesh via the Web is now a major non-traditional service export. Twitter is not yet important for within Ghana dynamics. I have been studying Ghana on Twitter carefully recently. Not even yet important for Ghanaian diasporic dynamics. The Ghana traditional internet giants myjoyonline.com and ghanaweb.com both have specific election operations. The reputable Ghanaian think tank Institute for Democratic Governance has launched a carefully crafted operation to link old media and new media with major governance institutions for transparency in the elections of Dec. 7.

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