New elections project developed by the MIT Media Lab will unlock social media data to track voter perceptions with $648,000 from Knight Foundation

Project seeks to develop new tools to help journalists and candidates better understand public views on important issues, increase civic engagement

MIAMI — Oct. 29, 2015 — The Electome, a new project developed by the Laboratory for Social Machines at the MIT Media Lab, aims to use data science to help journalists, the public and candidates capture and analyze social media conversations around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation today announced $648,000 to support the project, as well as the research group’s efforts to rethink political journalism and share lessons learned.

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“The hope is that Electome project will help journalists, the public and candidates listen to and present what people are discussing on social media amid the clamor of a campaign, providing a window on the issues that voters care deeply about,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism.

In development since last spring, the Electome is designed to create real-time, comprehensive map tracking election-related content and show the connections between three main information sources: the media and journalists, messaging from the candidates, and public conversations on social media. It will look to use computer science tools, such as machine learning and natural language processing, to trace the election’s narratives as they form, spread, morph and decline – identifying who and what influences these dynamics and outcomes. The Laboratory for Social Machines plans to use data from Twitter, Reddit and Facebook, as well as Google searches.

Researchers at the Laboratory for Social Machines will work directly with news organizations, starting with The Washington Post and Mashable, to help inform reporting in real time. The collaboration will help researchers understand how experienced field journalists use social media data, including Electome data. Together, researchers and journalists will generate insights and story ideas, surface important conversations, identify trends and help inform election reporting. For important conversations and connections, the team will work on the development of data visualizations, making them available for use by news organizations. Beyond these news collaborations, researchers will seeks to determine how responsive candidates and the media are to voter preferences and concerns during the 2016 campaign.

“A robust exchange of ideas in the public sphere is central to a healthy democracy and the elections that drive it,” said Deb Roy, an associate professor at MIT and director of the Laboratory for Social Machines. “With Knight Foundation’s support and collaboration with these news organizations, we look forward to helping fuel a national conversation about the issues most important to the public in election 2016.”

“Combining the Laboratory of Social Machine’s ability to access, analyze and visualize data at massive scale with a network of news media collaborators offers an opportunity to promote more responsive journalism and civic engagement around elections,” said Preston.

“The kind of deep, thoughtful analysis the Social Machines group can provide filters out the noise of social media and offers The Post and its readers an opportunity to understand the election in unique ways,” said Marty Baron, executive editor for The Washington Post.

“We’re very excited about the potential of the Electome project to better understand the campaign dynamics among candidates, the media and voters – and to learn about it in real time. We look forward to working with the Social Machines group, and are grateful to the Knight Foundation for their support,” said Jim Roberts, chief content officer for Mashable.

The Laboratory for Social Machines is primarily funded by Twitter. Knight Foundation support represents the second major funding it has received, and reinforces the research group’s commitment to its goal of helping ensure that the new public sphere created by digital technologies is open, democratic and responsive to society’s true needs.

Support for the Laboratory for Social Machines’ Electome project is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to advance excellence in journalism and increase civic engagement. Knight has made many investments in this area, including its recent Knight News Challenge on Elections, which offered $3.2 million for ideas that better inform the public and improve civic engagement before, during and after elections.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit


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