Chat the Vote: New report highlights how chat apps reimagined civic engagement in the 2016 election

NEW YORK — Jan. 18, 2017 — The 2016 presidential election was the first time that chat applications were used to register voters and spark political conversation. A new report released today explores these experiments in voter engagement, offering an in-depth view into the role of chat apps in promoting civic participation during the election and getting people to the polls.

The report “Chat the Vote” examines the ways in which chat platforms – including Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Kik, LINE, Viber, Amazon Echo and others – delivered voter information and election news, and helped people register to vote. It also explores the use of chat apps by election candidates, revealing how Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump used these platforms to attract support and encourage turnout.

Produced by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and authored by digital media consultant and Block Party CEO Eytan Oren, the report provides important lessons for journalists, media companies, technologists, civic leaders and politicians exploring new methods of leveraging technology to inform and reach voters. It also provides an early look at emerging experiments in voter engagement with a view to the future.

“As the nation grapples with ways to improve voter turnout and increase engagement around key issues, chat apps are emerging as an important avenue to connect with an audience of millions,” said Luz Gomez, Knight Foundation director for learning and impact. “This report documents the growing influence of these chat platforms on our politics, revealing their ability to inform and engage audiences, and also their potential as spaces to experiment with new ways of strengthening civic participation.”

Much of the report focuses on Snapchat as a leader in voter engagement efforts. Snapchat’s partnership with online voter registration platform TurboVote, allowed voters to register through online forms simply by “swiping up.” It tapped celebrities including Ryan Seacrest, Jimmy Falon, Ciara, Jared Leto and others to appear in interactive videos that encouraged users to vote. It also covered debates through its “Live Stories” feature and created politics-focused shows through Discover, its network of media and entertainment companies. Many of the candidates used its geofilters—location-based overlays that users apply to their snaps—to encourage turnout and even take aim at rival candidates.

According to the report, election activity on other chat apps such as Facebook Messenger and Kik played out on a smaller scale, largely using chatbot technology, which allows users to access services or obtain information through auto-generated, intelligent text message conversations. The report highlights some of the more successful bot experiments, including HelloVote and GoVote Bot, which helped users register to vote using a bot accessible through Facebook Messenger; HelloVote also unrolled its bot on chat app LINE. Further detailed in the report are experiments by news organizations, including The New York Times, The Huffington Post, CNN and Mic, that used chatbots to connect with audiences around election topics.

“The social media landscape completely transformed between the 2012 and 2016 elections. There are now more people using chat apps than traditional social networks, and tremendous opportunities to register and engage voters on apps like Snapchat. We’re also in the early stages of an artificial Intelligence revolution, so platforms like Facebook Messenger and Amazon Echo became perfect testing grounds for emerging tech to reach voters,” said Oren.

Key takeaways from the report include:

  • Chat apps can spread election information to millions: The report points to Nielsen data that found that Snapchat reaches 41 percent of all U.S. 18- to 34-year-olds daily. In the election context, Snapchat’s Live Stories captured debate footage, political rallies and other events, and received millions of views; its political geofilters were also seen by millions. Kik leveraged its base of 300 million users to experiment with political-focused chatbots, as did Viber, which has 800 million global users.
  • Chat apps open new ways to foster political dialogue: Leading up to the election, Kik created a chatbot, which asked users for their opinion on a political issue and shared polls on how other users responded. Similarly, Viber created a chatbot, which queried users on their favorite candidate and engaged them in a global conversation around the election. 
  • News organizations can use chat apps to engage a captive, younger audience: On Viber, The Huffington Post launched a custom elections sticker pack, which users downloaded free in exchange for following the official HuffPost News Viber account. The page has accumulated nearly 195,000 subscribers and features election analysis and articles. The New York Times launched a bot through Facebook Messenger, sending users a daily push notification from political reporter Nick Confessore featuring election analysis that they could explore by clicking suggested response buttons. CNN launched a bot on Kik to provide real-time election results on Nov. 8, attracting hundreds of thousands of subscribers; 5 million messages were sent and received with the bot.
  • Political candidates are leveraging chat apps to connect with voters: In September 2015, John Kasich became the first presidential candidate to run a Snapchat geofilter campaign—a bacon-themed design that ran during breakfast hours. During the primaries, Sanders leveraged geofilters more than any candidate, encouraging voter turnout across multiple states. And the report cites a Politico article, which highlights that national Snapchat geofilters purchased by the Trump campaign were viewed 80 million times on the day of the first presidential debate. Correspondingly, the Clinton campaign launched several chatbot experiments leading up to the election, including a satirical SMS-based bot that shared Trump quotes.

In addition to the above, the report explores voice-based chat as the next frontier for civic engagement. It highlights experiments with voice-activated digital personal assistant Amazon Echo, showing how organizations such as NBC News and CNN used it to inform people on election issues and encourage interaction (i.e. ask the Echo to fact-check candidate statements).

This report is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to increase civic engagement, inform communities and create a stronger democracy. Knight has made many investments in this area, including its $3 million News Challenge on Elections, which funded ideas to better inform voters and increase civic participation before, during and after elections.

To read the full report visit:

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit


Anusha Alikhan, director of communications, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 305-908-2646, [email protected]