Laboratory for Social Machines building an alternative to horse-race journalism

William Powers, a journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” is a research scientist at the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab. Today Knight Foundation is announcing support for a campaign analytics project at the lab, The Electome, to advance excellence in journalism and increase civic engagement. Photo: Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., by Nam June Paik at Smithsonian American Art Museum, credit: angela n. on Flickr. 

The world has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Across every imaginable industry and sector of society, digital technologies have flattened old institutions and hierarchies.

The change is evident in the public sphere, long dominated by the powerful and the journalists covering them. In the past, most voters didn’t have a real voice in the democratic conversation. They just listened, or, in many cases, tuned out.

In the months preceding a national election, there was one place where the public’s views could be heard: opinion polls. But polls were used mainly to track the political competition rather than the issues and policy questions – the ideas – at stake in elections.

Today everyone with a computer or mobile device has a voice and so many different platforms on which to use it, from Twitter to Facebook, Instagram to Snapchat. Yet when it comes to the most important political and policy decisions, are those millions of voices being heard?

While the 2012 presidential election was widely viewed as a turning point for digital democracy, the advances were principally in two areas: 1) on the campaign side, data-mining by political professionals, and 2) on the journalism side, predictive analysis of the election’s outcome, most notably by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog via The New York Times. In short, the same forces that always held sway in the public sphere – the politicians and the media – leveraged the new technologies to focus on one question: Who’s winning the horse race?

At the Laboratory for Social Machines, we believe technology can help us move beyond the horse-race fixation. We think it’s time to listen more closely to all those citizen voices, to better understand what they’re saying about the big questions of our time, and to see if the candidates and the journalists are responding to those concerns.

To that end, we have launched a new campaign analytics project called The Electome. Drawing from areas of computer science including machine learning, natural language processing, and network analysis, we plan to explore how three separate forces – the campaign journalism, the messaging of the candidates, and the public’s response in the digital sphere – converge to shape the presidential election’s most important narratives as well as its outcome. Revealing the dynamic interaction of these forces, heretofore largely invisible, is one goal of the project.

A key source for detecting the public’s voice will be social media. Thanks to a gift from Twitter, our lab has access to the entire database of tweets, with 500 million new ones added each day, and the social graph of Twitter. 

Another aim of the project is to use the resulting analytics to drive election coverage produced in collaboration with leading media outlets. The ultimate objective is to offer an alternative to the horse-race journalism that has dominated election news for the last half-century. Instead, we’ll surface and track the issues the public cares about, or what we call “The Horse Race of Ideas.”

The Electome is an example of what Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has called social machines, next-generation technologies “that will empower humanity in new and transformative ways.”

There appears to be widespread agreement that our political system is overdue for some transformation. With support from Knight Foundation, we’re building out The Electome with a simple objective: to help revitalize democracy by enlarging the role played by the public in the new public sphere.

Contact William Powers via email at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @hamletsbb.

The MIT Media Lab building, Cambridge, Mass. Photo credit: Andy Ryan.