While at the polls on November 4, 2008, Virginia H. grew suspicious. She could see younger voters around her being turned away before receiving ballots, despite the fact that their names were on the voter roll. In the past, she might have shared the news with friends or perhaps a local reporter. That day, though, she tweeted her concerns with the hashtag #EPOH, allowing monitors from the nonpartisan Election Protection commission to follow up with local election officials. Check out a video about the project here.
The role of Twitter as a content-provider and a window into the hearts and minds of politicians has already been covered on this blog. But, according to media reports, another major political use for Twitter (and, more broadly, text messaging) across the world has been to help ensure fairness and transparency in national elections.
In Burundi, for example, residents sent text messages using FrontlineSMS throughout their election day, reporting any incidents of violence or coercion and confirming peace where possible. In Kenya’s election last year, people similarly used a combination of text messaging and Twitter to track results. The tactics have even been employed in various Middle Eastern elections.
When I first encountered these examples, I thought of them as proof of the power of social media and messaging when employed towards serious ends. For the first time, I, as an unaffiliated observer halfway around the world, could plot the progress of poll reports over the course of a given day. I could follow certain civilians, retweet important tidbits, and reply directly to the messenger. I thought of it as novel! Empowering! The wave of the future!
…until I read this blog post, and realized maybe I’m just contributing to excessive hype. The post’s authors, like many skeptics of citizen journalism tactics that we’ve examined in past weeks, say that these actions can indeed contribute to qualitative data and allow citizens to feel like a part of the process. They can also sometimes deter wrongdoers because of the threat of anonymous feedback. But they are no substitute for trained professionals who have been taught how to properly observe elections over the course of the past 20 years.
Their argument becomes even more convincing when we examine the numbers. In Sudan, for example, a Vote Monitor meant for amateurs and supported by the US State Department received around 300-500 messages over the course of the elections. The official election monitoring coalitions, on the other hand, had more than 4,300 trained observers on the ground able to complete over 13,500 reports. For all of the applause around social media tools as democratic enablers, why aren’t more people taking a look at this data and toning down the hubris? Instead, headlines run proclaiming victory via 140-characters: “How Twitter Saved Kenya’s Elections,” reads one example. Really? That’s the only reason those elections turned out okay?
Okay, I hear you. These tools are cool. Amazing, even, in their potential. I’m not trying to deny that — in fact, I am a huge proponent of #hashtag #story #propulsion. But perhaps that’s all it is right now: the spreading of news and the unifying of stories. It’s not the fact checker or the trained professional, at least not in the vast majority of the cases. Not yet. And the only way we might get there as social media users is to acknowledge where we fall short and to combine our efforts with those of real, live experts.
Our next major election is just a little over a year away. And here’s the challenge: @millenials: without being overconfident, how can you best use the strengths of these media tools to add to the work of @yourelders?