The midterms had record voter turnout. Should Snapchat get credit?

My partner’s arms are longer than mine, so, on election day this year, I made him take the #IVoted selfie. 

Now, I’m not one for selfies, usually. But I decided to share my act of civic participation on social media earlier this month for two reasons. First, because I was genuinely jazzed to vote. It was my first time doing so in person! It was exciting! And second, I’d just learned that posting photos with sticker proof of your buy-in to the democratic system is actually an impactful way to encourage others to vote. 

Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm. 

On Tuesday, Snapchat shared that 1.4 million users visited their Get to the Polls platform, a voting information portal powered by the tech-focused nonprofit organization Democracy Works. Snapchat also registered over 400,000 new voters in the weeks leading up to the election — and over half of those voters were aged 18-24, also known as the coveted but fickle youth vote. Twitter, Instagram, and Facbook ran similar initiatives, though they have yet to release participation numbers.

The midterms also appear to have been a landmark year for voter turnout. With 49.3 percent of the population eligible to vote casting their ballots this year, the 2018 midterms had the highest non-presidential election turnout since 1914. In particular, Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, (CIRCLE) projects that youth in particular increased their midterm turnout by 10 percent — up to 31 percent of eligible voters aged 18-29, from 21 percent in 2014.

With voting stories, stickers, and resources peppering social media platforms, and youth voters heading to the polls in record numbers, it’s tempting to draw a conclusion about the role social media may have played in getting to the polls. And while social media is a fact of all parts of life – including politics — and is now an indispensable resource for reaching voters, tracing the line from social media to the voting booth may be trickier than it seems. 

Though voter rolls won’t be released until next spring, with Snapchat’s report, voter turnout, and industry analysis, a picture is beginning to emerge of the role that social media played in fueling civic engagement. 

It may be too soon to definitively know whether social media contributed to the turnout spike; in particular, it’s difficult to ascribe definitive causation, specifically to social media, for voter turnout. However, CIRCLE’s preliminary findings in their research on social media and youth voting in the 2018 midterms indicate that social media helped reach, inform, and energize young voters. 

“Our analysis clearly shows that social media platforms reached a very large segment of young people, many of whom were potential first-time voters, and that youth benefited from hearing about the election on their social media feeds,” CIRCLE explained in a blog post. “It is likely that intentional efforts by social media companies to promote non-partisan voter engagement in 2018 likely had a positive effect on youth voter turnout, especially for those youth who lacked election information and outreach from other sources.”

Image: CIRCLE

Snapchat partnered with Democracy Works to reach potential voters in a couple ways. It prominently linked to the organization’s TurboVote platform to register voters and allow them to sign up for future election information. Snapchat also drove users to the Get to the Polls portal on Election Day, to learn about their polling place, how to cast a ballot, the hours, and other logistical information – which CIRCLE says can be a barrier to voting if people feel they don’t understand how it works.

Around 3.5 million people used Get to the Polls, twice as many as last year. Democracy Works’ TurboVote program director, Mike Ward, added that Snapchat was one of the biggest drivers to the portal, netting 1.4 million visits, 40 percent of the total.

Still, it’s too early to know whether visiting Get to the Polls meant that people actually turned out to vote. But Ward believes that higher voter turnout and higher use of the platform are not meaningless numbers.

“Get to the Polls got more traffic in a midterm than it did in the presidential, which is exceptional,” Ward said. “We can’t track whether this percentage of users actually turned out to the polls, but the results of the election is a strong indication that this has been successful.”

CIRCLE’s findings back this up as well. Of surveyed voters, 28 percent said they heard about the 2018 elections through social media campaigns.

Along with research from groups like CIRCLE, Democracy Works and Snapchat may be able to track use of the portal with election turnout when the government releases voter rolls in the spring. 

However, Chris Doten, who is the chief innovation officer of nonprofit democratic advocacy organization National Democratic Institute’s (NDI), said matching use of a social media platforms to voting behavior might not be so simple.

“The science on this stuff is hard to get right,” Doten said. “When you’re trying to do analyses of get out the vote tactics, it’s really hard to tease out a determination of what matters.”

Social media is clearly playing a role, but it’s part of a much larger and more difficult to quantify ecosystem of voter engagement.

Rock the Vote’s director of policy and civic tech, Jen Tolentino, believes social media campaigns have been instrumental in reaching and energizing voters. In Rock the Vote’s own work, mobilizing influencers on social media to inspire their followers to vote has been especially important. And she sees providing the sort of logistical information that Snapchat did as an effective way to help people get to the polls. 

“It’s a really impactful way for users to get information without having to seek it out,” Tolentino said. “Surfacing it to them, telling them within their newsfeed, that they have an election and it’s something to be celebrated, I think it is incredibly impactful.”

However, she only sees social media campaigns as one side of the story. Social media may have helped enable participation in the midterms, but a now impassioned and energized youth demographic, reinvigorated ultimately by issues they care about — not social media prodding — was the first necessity for turnout.

“It’s really not enough to just tell people, you have an election, go vote,” Tolentino said. “The ones that did are much more motivated by the issues that they’re seeing, and making the connection between what they care about as a generation to how they can have an impact on their countries and communities is what’s making the difference.”

“When enthusiasm is very high, there are a lot of ways in,” Dotan added. “But would that person have found their way in otherwise? Many access points is great. But that’s not to say they get ‘credit’ for every single person who voted.”

Social media companies who undertake get out the vote campaigns are not necessarily seeking “credit.”  At this point, people concerned with elections are still trying to understand how to best reach and motivate potential voters, and social media campaigns are assisting with that. 

But in some ways, registration and logistical information is the least these companies can do. Social media is becoming a pipeline for voting and civic engagement and that may be a boon for registration, but it also comes with its own pitfalls. 

“There is a risk of young people who are turning to social media as primary sources of civic knowledge being exposed to political misinformation and disinformation, which many of these platforms are still struggling to combat,” CIRCLE noted. 

Dotan added that get out the vote campaigns stand in somewhat ironic contrast to the damage that social media platforms have done to democracy.

“There’s a strong argument that social platforms have done a lot in the widespread dissemination of disinformation that has poisoned democracy in various ways,” Dotan said. “So it’s good if they put up an ‘I Voted’ frame. But what else are they doing?”

Many of these platforms, notably Facebook, have been taking strides to root out the democracy-eroding problems of their own creation — though many of the changes only came after harsh public and political backlash. The registration and voting drives, along with the I Voted stickers, selfies, and the many ways that voting became a part of life online in 2018, are a proactive compliment to that work.

“In addition to all the metrics, there’s a real impact that can be made by changing the culture around voting,” Ward said. “Snapchat is making voting more fun. And when voting is more fun, more people do it. We can’t measure how they’re making it more fun, but they are.”

Social-media based Get Out the Vote campaigns won’t turn our democracy around themselves. But they can ease the runway, particularly for young voters, as they head to the polls, perhaps for the first time, and hopefully, not for the last.

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