A new project from MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines called the Electome, aims to take the focus off candidate polling in elections and put it on what researchers call the “horse race of ideas.” The project, which grew out of neuro-linguistic programming work in the lab was recently given a $648,000 grant by the Knight Foundation.
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.
“Our point of view is really that as long as the election is about the horse race and not about ideas, that’s not great for democracy,” MIT Media Lab Research Strategist Russel Stevens tells CivSource.
Researchers at the lab will work directly with news organizations, starting with The Washington Post and Mashable, to help inform reporting in real time.
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 seek to determine how responsive candidates and the media are to voter preferences and concerns during the 2016 campaign.
Stevens says the lab plans to keep the project going beyond the 2016 election. “You could do a version of this for any major issue – it would work for healthcare, education, anything where there are actual policies to consider,” he says.
The Laboratory for Social Machines is primarily funded by Twitter. Knight Foundation support represents the second major funding it has received. Support for the Electome project is part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to advance excellence in journalism and increase civic engagement.