Here's How A Spreadsheet and Hashtags Changed Election Coverage

As the political circus of an election cycle continued through the weekend, the best place to keep up with what was happening wasn’t mainstream news outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. It was on Twitter. That’s because, despite there being no Republican presidential primaries these past few days, the news still revolved around the childish fighting between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump over their wives. This came during a historic day of Democratic primaries that saw Bernie Sanders win landslide victories in all three states—81.6% to 18.4% in Alaska, 72.7% to 27.1% in Washington, and 69.8% to 30% in Hawaii.

The news outlets did run coverage as numbers poured in from Washington and Alaska, but by the time Hawaiians began to caucus the coverage ended. CNN switched to a documentary called Finding Jesus, FOX News opted for Killing Jesus, and MSNBC broke from the holy trend and aired Lockup reruns.

Thanks to the media blackout, voters eager to keep track of the island state’s caucus turned to Twitter’s #HIcaucus hashtag. Amidst confused tweets about media coverage and scattered fan art immortalizing the #BirdieSanders moment that happened in Portland on Friday morning, users posted on-the-ground results from the caucus sites all across Hawaii. The numbers would otherwise have been meaningless in the fleeting and breakneck-pace of Twitter, but relief came in the form of unlikely source: a Google Doc made in a dorm room in Ithaca, NY.

The spreadsheet, created by 20-year-old college student Alec Salisbury and run with help from three to ten other people, provided real-time results for the Hawaii caucus from numbers gathered on the Twitter tag. He’d been compiling results from Washington and Alaska in the same way. But once mainstream news coverage blocked out Hawaii, the spreadsheet became the best source for supporters of both candidates to keep up. When official results were finally released, they confirmed what Twitter users had known for hours: Bernie won a landslide victory in the third state of the day.

On the night of the caucus, The Democratic Party of Hawaii said it would release results by 8PM HT/1AM ET. When that was delayed again and again, many people went to sleep. The projections didn’t roll out until three hours later—11PM in Hawaii and 4AM ET. The slip up was blamed on a surge in voter turnout comparable with the record levels set in 2008, but it was also attributed to the party leadership’s decision to not release partial results—a move that drew scolding criticism from Bernie supporters. The spreadsheet became a symbol of people-powered reporting that Twitter has become famous for–not just because it was a key source for those looking for results, but also because it was surprisingly accurate. The projected numbers culled from social media were within one and a half percentage points of the numbers reported that night.

In the two days since Bernie’s Saturday sweep of the three caucuses and the rise of the Google Doc that beat mainstream media to the punch in Hawaii, Twitter users have shown no signs of slowing down. Bernie supporters continued their their critique of the media on Sunday and Monday with two hashtag campaigns that targeted two very different targets.

The first, #BernieMadeMeWhite, began on Sunday in response to an article on CNN about Bernie’s wins in Hawaii, Alaska, and Washington. It stated that, “These caucus states—largely white and rural—are the type of places Sanders traditionally does well.” While it’s true that Bernie has had a harder time courting Black voters compared to Hillary Clinton (especially in the Southern Firewall), the narrative being pushed through the media is that he only does well in states that are overwhelmingly white. It’s a concept that ends up whitewashing his voter base. Washington and Alaska may have majority white populations, but Hawaii is overwhelmingly nonwhite. The state’s population is 26.7% white and has a poverty level of 11.4%. To group all three together to fit a narrative was wrong.  Immediately, the hashtag flooded Twitter and visualized the frustrations that people of color who support Bernie have been feeling for months.

“I think the media is purposely trying to portray Bernie as a white person’s candidate in order to stop his growing support in the black community,” Jabari Brisport told Mic in response to the hashtag. “I helped register over 200 college students to vote in Brooklyn last week. Mostly black and Latino. Overwhelming in support of Sanders. C’mon.”

The other hashtag that took over Twitter came a day later and was a direct response not to the media, but to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Yesterday, her top strategist, Joel Benenson, told CNN that until Bernie changes his “tone,” Hillary won’t agree to more debates—including his proposed debate in New York ahead of the April 15 primary. Twitter latched onto his comment and produced the perfectly titled #ToneDownForWhat tag to critique the ridiculous request. Among the tweets that came in, people called out Benenson for claiming Bernie runs a negative campaign and also questioned how she’d be able to handle Donald Trump’s tone in the general election if she wins the nomination.

It was this instant clapback from Twitter as well as the diverse show of support for Bernie’s campaign and the Hawaii Google Doc that gave more than enough reason to convince voters that there may be a better source for news. After this weekend showed the strength of social media election coverage, it may be time to finally turn off the TV and log into Twitter.

Imagery by Kathryn Chadason

Stay tuned to Milk for more political coverage.

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