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ISU students track voter sentiment during a virtual watch party on empathy in democracy

Three young women smile and laugh while seated at desks looking at laptop computers. Behind them, a large television screen tracks results of the Illinois governor's race
Emily Bollinger
From left, ISU students Yasmin Carrillo, Mary Valentine and Bella Ogurek analyze election night social media trends in the university's Social Media Analytics Command Center

Illinois State University students and scholars convened on election night at SMACC — that’s short for the Social Media Analytics Command Center — for a unique watch party and conversation on the role rhetoric plays in our democracy.

ISU faculty who are part of the Extending Empathy Project convened at SMACC for “Election Night Live,” a panel discussion broadcast on YouTube. Invited guests joined via Zoom and panelists took questions from viewers in real time during the three-hour livestream.

Across the room, students working in SMACC tracked social media trends, attempting to capture voter sentiment about various candidates as race results came in Tuesday night.

School of Communication director Steve Hunt hosted the dual-purpose event, which he said came together when he and his colleagues in the Extending Empathy Project saw a gap in election coverage and commentary.

“We knew that ISU didn’t have an election night party,” he said. Extending Empathy teamed with the American Democracy Project and SMACC to coordinate the event. Seventy-five people viewed the discussion live at various points in the evening; a recording remains on the School of Communication's YouTube page.

“It’s not the ‘horse race’ coverage,” Hunt said. “It’s, what are some of the larger themes and things that are behind what’s happening with our democracy that we ought to be thinking about, and how can we use empathy to understand how to make the world a better place?”

Panelists Hunt, Scott Jordan, Byron Craig and Steve Rhako, each a professor in psychology or communications at ISU, discussed cross-sections between empathy and democracy, touching on campaign rhetoric, political violence such as the attack against Paul Pelosi, the proliferation of misinformation on social media and race. SMACC coordinator Nathan Carpenter provided technical direction.

“This is not a policy war; this is an affect war,” Jordan said on current campaign rhetoric.

“That’s what you get in modern political communication,” Hunt said, “surface level discussions, not so much policy implications."

Those in-depth, heavy discussions were exactly the goal of "Election Night Live," though Hunt admits these sorts of conversations are "not always easy to do.”

Four men are seated chatting at two long tables positioned at 90-degrees. They smile and look at television screens out of view that are broadcasting a video call.
Emily Bollinger
“Election Night Live” panelists (from left): Steve Hunt, Scott Jordan, Steve Rhako and Byron Craig live-streaming from ISU’s Social Media Analytics Command Center

As part of the event, ISU students tracked election results and public reaction on social media in real time, noting changes in favorable or unfavorable sentiment about key Illinois races as results came in.

As the race for Illinois governor was called shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m., Bella Ogurek, Mary Valentine and Yasmin Carrillo viewed activity across social media platforms using a program called Talkwalker. Talkwalker evaluates sentiment by keyword. You could type in Darren Bailey and JB Pritzker, for example, and see if the chatter on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit are trending positive or negative.

Carrillo is a senior journalism and political science major at ISU. She has watched the governor’s race on Talkwalker for about a month, noting whether people online are feeling positive, negative, or neutral about a candidate. She noticed an uptick in neutral sentiment when the governor’s race was called early Tuesday evening.

“People aren’t sure about how they’re feeling, especially because the election was called literally a minute after the polling closed,” Carrillo said.

An hour later, sentiment skewed positive for Bailey and Pritzker. By 9:30 p.m., however, there was a sharp uptick in negative posts about both candidates.

Talkwalker can contextualize sentiment by demographics like age and gender. Ogurek said campaigns use similar information to determine where to target political ads. But Carrillo says the data can be deceiving.

“Sometimes we can’t fully trust it,” she said. “If you swear, but you’re excited, that would be considered a negative sentiment but the individual is happy about what’s happening.” Another example: the rise in neutral sentiment in the minutes following Pritzker’s victory could have been due to bipartisan news organizations posting the results on social media.

“We have to dig deep, go in and see what exactly people are talking about,” Carrillo said. “Although there’s some data that we can’t fully trust, it is mildly accurate when it comes to how people are feeling.”

Hunt suggested that scholars should look beyond academia to stimulate deeper political discourse. One method could be leveraging social media, despite its obvious challenges.

“When social media began to emerge, there was some hope on communications scholars’ parts that this could democratize conversations,” Hunt said. “But it also provides the platforms for misinformation and hate speech to be broadcast to a really large audience. It’s still the wild west of communication and we’re trying to figure out how to make the best of it. We don’t have a simple answer at this point.”

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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