How Social Media Tools are Changing this Election

There is a great article up at the PBS Mediashift , about how citizens and the media are using new social media tools to monitor this election. From TwitterVote and the Voter Suppression Wiki (that I posted yesterday) to Video the Vote (featured in the video below), this election is being monitored from the bottom up - starting with folks like you. [youtube =]

In a YouTube video uploaded on October 24, a husband and wife couple from Oregon sit at their kitchen table and fill out their mail-in voting ballots for the 2008 election. The wife explains to the camera that Oregon has had mail-in voting for "about the last 10 years," and the two walk the viewer through the entire voting process, at one point announcing that Barack Obama was their "candidate of choice."

The video was created for Video Your Vote, a joint project between PBS and YouTube that encourages citizens across the U.S. to document their own personal experiences at the voting booth by shooting and then uploading the video onto YouTube (not to be confused with Video the Vote, a similar project). The effort is just one of many examples of citizen journalists utilizing crowdsourcing and Web 2.0 tools to monitor the voting practices -- and problems -- from an on-the-ground perspective. The groups that are monitoring campaigns said they will help create a much more transparent voting process, and in doing so, hopefully target and solve any voting problems before it's too late to fix them.

Laura Hertzfeld is the content manager for PBS' Vote 2008 and has done much of the legwork behind the Video Your Vote project. She told me in a phone interview that it's a collaboration across multiple PBS stations and shows and that some of the content will likely end up on air, possibly on "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer."

[Note: PBS produces this blog, and Hertzfeld has done guest blogging for MediaShift from the political conventions.]

"So basically YouTube and Newshour came to us and we started talking about how we could make it a system-wide project," she said. "And it just kind of snowballed from there; we were all really excited about the idea, about getting user-generated content and then putting it through the PBS filter and possibly getting it on the air."

In addition to encouraging participants to use their own cameras to video their vote, PBS has distributed hundreds of Flip cams that had been donated to Youtube to several of its local stations, which then redistributed them to people before their trek to the polling booths. Hertzfeld said PBS hopes to be able to return to those who have received these cams for future projects, in effect creating a vast network of citizen journalists that will be able to feed content for PBS' newsgathering.

After issuing the caveat that those who intend to take part in Video Your Vote should adhere to any election laws pertaining to video recording near polling stations, Hertzfeld said PBS is open to various kinds of content.

"So you can take it at the polls, or you could interview someone on the street," she explained. "You can talk on camera about what your day was like or you can interview friends."

After shooting the video, you upload it under your own account name on YouTube, and then visit to submit the footage to the project. From there, it will go into a pool of other user-submitted videos, at which point human editors step in and choose which ones are appropriate for a PBS audience.

Hertzfeld told me that "Video Your Vote" isn't necessarily a way of creating more user-generated content, but a better way to aggregate it. After all, if previous elections are an indicator, it's not atypical for citizens to take cameras to the polls in order to try to catch instances of voting problems.

laura hertzfeld vote suppress.jpg

Laura Hertzfeld


"People are going to be doing this anyway," she said. "They're going to go out to the polls and everyone is on YouTube, everyone has a videocamera or a camera on their phone at this point. You don't need a special camera to go do this. You don't need any special equipment from PBS to go do this, and I think we really see it as creating a way so that people are more informed than they would be about election laws and about what's going on, and to also give people [who are uploading video] a little higher profile."

Twitter Vote Report

Nancy Scola, a Brooklyn-based journalist, first got the idea to aggregate election-related content after covering the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. She noticed that many of those who were protesting at the convention were using micro-blogging tool Twitter to organize, at some points even utilizing it in avoiding police or to reach out to the press.

"There was one person in particular that was tweeting where the police were, giving out information on how to get legal aid, directing press to different places, which is certainly a particularly good use," Scola told me. "There were some people who were being arrested and he tweeted that something is going down on this street corner, and Jim Lehrer's producers tweeted back 'OK what's the exact address we're sending a crew there.' And I thought that was kind of cool."

After the convention, Scola tried to track the person down and found out that he had been in Arizona, far away from where the protests were taking place. This fact helped her realize that Twitter may be an effective tool for "streamlining projects in such a chaotic situation." It was this concept that led to her and others collaborating to create Twitter Vote Report.


Given that Twitter has seen some of its most vibrant activity during widely covered events -- the presidential debates being a good example -- it goes without saying that thousands of users will be using their mobile devices to live-tweet their experiences at the polls. And like Video Your Vote, Twitter Vote Report will offer a way to aggregate and efficiently organize that data so that it can be analyzed and widely distributed in real time.

A few weeks ago, Scola started reaching out to those who were interested in collaborating on the project, and in the process teamed up with a few election watchdog organizations and programming gurus who would help in creating the site. In addition to streaming tweets that use the hashtag "#votereport," the programmers have developed a number of data-visualization tools to find order in the chaos.

"The common denominator in all the reports ties back to the #votereport hashtag," she said. "We also want people to include more data and we make suggestions for what that data might be. We ask for their ZIP code. If you have a machine problem, we ask that they use the hashtag #machine. If there's a long line, rather than just saying there's a long line ...just tweet 'wait' and then the number of minutes."

Twitter Vote Report will then be able to take this data and feed it into tools like Google Maps, making it so that users can measure wait times by region and location.

"And then the other thing we're doing is partnering with the Election Protection Coalition," Scola said. "We're using the hashtag #EP, and then your two character state code. And they're having volunteers monitor those and respond to them."

Voter Suppression Wiki

Though many of these tools will be utilized in locating instances of election problems, Voter Suppression Wiki was created almost exclusively for that purpose. Baratunde Thurston, co-founder of the blog Jack and Jill Politics, came up with the idea after brainstorming with a number of bloggers and activists. (Another wiki, Election Protection, employs similar tools). Using the Wetpaint platform, Thurston hopes to tackle voter suppression in three parts.

voter suppression wiki.jpg

"One is to define what voter suppression is," he said. "Whether it's false information, voter ID intimidation, allegations of fraud. And then we want to start tracking and reporting incidents of voter suppression; we have this form we put up where you enter where this happened, how many voters were affected, in what county did it occur. But most importantly was action. How to actually prevent or limit the amount of suppression."

Most of the battle in fighting voter suppression, Thurston argued, is empowering the voter before he or she heads to the polls. To that effect he's using the website to help promote a number of election protection phone numbers and resources. Thurston said that he hopes that the wiki can be used in real time; analyzing the data after the election can be useful in record keeping, but without quick and efficient action it will do little to protect the integrity of the election.

I asked Thurston about the nature of these election tools and whether they represent a new step in the utilization of online media in politics. In an election year when Barack Obama has been labeled by some to potentially be the "first Internet president" (much in the same way that FDR was the first radio president, and JFK was the first television president), have citizens created a new level of interactive politics?

"The long answer is that this effort, this project -- the Twitter project, the video project, and more -- are a kind of a next step in the evolution of online political participation," he replied. "Initially what you'd see on the web is a lot of opinion. 'I have a thought, I have an idea.' 'I disagree strongly with this policy.' Then you saw Howard Dean tap into donations, and now with Obama tapping into that as well -- the concept of the web as being a kind of ATM machine. But what we see now is collaboration and constructive confrontation."

How quickly these organizers are able to channel that "constructive confrontation" will determine how effective these election monitoring tools are in creating a more transparent and, ultimately, fair election. Because of potentially massive participation in such efforts, the main challenge will be to find a consistent, clear message in a web full of noise. And that's perhaps where filters or editors might aid us in unearthing the serious problems from the minor complaints.

Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate blogger for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at]