Electionland: the biggest social newsgathering project ever

A unique collaborative project to track and cover voting problems during the elections across the whole country and in real-time: this was the aim of Electionland. This was the largest social newsgathering effort ever undertaken, with more than 600 people monitoring any occurrences of voter suppression and more than 1,100 journalists chasing stories in the field.

At the panel ‘Electionland: the biggest social newsgathering project ever’ on the 7th of April 2017, those responsible for key parts of this project told how they implemented it, where the biggest challenges laid and how it all played out on the voting day. Scott Klein, deputy managing editor of the investigative media ProPublica, was one of the project initiators. “It was not about covering the results, but the voting” he said.

How it began

The need to cover the vote was particularly urgent as states passed laws that could affect citizens’ access to the ballot box. As Klein explained, U.S. elections are very complex: people have to answer many questions at the same time, the voting process can be electronic and a lack of organization is sometimes affecting the ballot. In 2012 elections, the estimation of votes losts due to long lines ranged from 500,000 to 700,000.

“All started when I was having breakfast with someone from Google News Lab and we realized that we have a shared mission in which newsroom can use technologies and data in a useful way,” Klein explained. The most important thing for him was to understand what is happening in locals areas and to help local reporters to share stories about voting issues.

An enormous collaborative work

Electionland was not born yet, at that time. It needed members, partners, funding and human energy. The main members were ProPublica, WNYC, USA Today and Google News Lab, one of the funders. CUNY Graduate School of Journalism brought a newsroom and several students as volunteers. They also partnered with journalism schools, local newspapers and magazines because local journalists know better their counties than outsiders.

The data were accessible from Google Trends, Twitter or Facebook. People also had access to a call center where they could reach the journalists and share their testimonies.

A total of 1,100 journalists were working in the project, including 400 local journalists, 600 students from 14 journalism schools and 100 professionals in Live newsroom.

Klein explained that media in U.S. have a very standard way of building a newsroom. On one side of the room, Feeders are gathering the information from social media and journalists on the ground. In the middle, Catchers synthesize and verify the information. Then, they send all the materials to National Desks on the other side of the room.

An effective way of using technologies

Besides social media, other tools were used to communicate and verify the information.

Ed Bice, founding CEO of Meedan, introduced Check, a tool created by his company. The aim of Check is to structure the investigation and gather a community online. “Check was the backbone for verification. We have to consider that technology is always more successful when address users needs, which was the case,” Ed Bice explained.

Slack was also used to communicate and work with 1000 other journalists. Every state channel was replicated in Slack three times: one for Feeders and Catchers, one for Catchers and Reporters and one for Slack Bot.

Electionland was a success: 1200 social media claims were processed, more than 400 stories were generated across the country and there was no indication of widespread voter fraud.

A recipe replicated in other countries

Ed Bice stated that Check started to be large in France while the country started preparing for the next presidential elections in April and May 2017. Speakers also mentioned the plan to extend to Germany for the upcoming elections in September 2017.

Ed Bice concluded the talk with an optimistic view on the future of journalism: “in the wake of these recent crisis such as Trump or Brexit, journalists should have rational responses to them. I think Electionland showed collaborative journalist can work, can be hugely valuable, and can do what journalism is supposed to do: help the society.”