Northwestern’s Knight Lab launches social media-based election site

Ally Mutnick and Ally Mutnick

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The Northwestern Knight News Innovation Lab completed its first major project earlier this month, launching a website that uses social media to offer voters a unique perspective on congressional candidates in all 18 of Illinois’s districts.

The website,, allows voters to select a district and political party, at which point they can see charts of a candidate’s number of Twitter followers, how often a candidate tweets about a certain issue and what topics the candidate’s followers most often tweet about.

Knight Lab Executive Director Michael A. Silver said the lab used social media as a focus for the site because it goes where traditional media outlets do not.

“It just adds another perspective to understanding a candidate,” he said. “If you look at a candidate’s tweets, it can help tell you what is important to a candidate. If you look at the tweets of the followers you can sort of get a feel of whether the people who like the candidate are people like you.”

Created last year with funding from a $4.2 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Knight Lab acts as a joint initiative between the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications to use innovative technology to help publishers more effectively convey news.

Owen Youngman, a Medill professor of digital media strategy who is on the executive committee of Knight Lab, said the team found unexpected trends while analyzing social media for the site.

Youngman compared two candidates competing in the Democratic primary for the 2nd Congressional District in Illinois. He said one candidate appeared to have a much larger social media presence than the other and had almost triple the number of “likes” on his Facebook page and more than eight times the number of Twitter followers. Yet the two candidates tweeted in almost identical percentages about their top issues, which were spending, jobs and health care.

“One of the wonderful things about social media is that there’s just so much data out there to be analyzed,” Youngman said. “What projects like this do is to use technology to filter it and find the stories that are hidden in all the data.”

Additionally, the website analyzes candidates’ campaign finances and what regions of Illinois and the country donate most to the campaign. The site also has an aggregation tool that pulls together articles from local and national news sources about specific district races.

The Knight Lab offers the content on the website for free to other media outlets around the state with the goal of giving local media more complete coverage of their specific candidates. Silver said there are plans for more than a dozen media outlets to use information from the website.

Youngman said he thinks this new website is useful to publishers who often do not have time to come up with innovative projects and continue to run their news outlets. For voters, Youngman said the website makes it easy to find the information they are looking for.

“You could build yourself 36 Google News searches to try to do the same thing,” he said. “But here we’ve got it all here in one place if you’re trying to keep up what’s going on in many districts.”

Josh Noah, a Weinberg junior and president of the Northwestern College Democrats, said he thinks the website does a good job of informing voters while remaining fair and balanced.

Noah said he has seen Twitter use become more common in recent elections and he feels is it a useful outreach tool, especially for congressional elections.

“Twitter is a good way that congressmen keep in touch with their constituents, either promoting policy or just general updates about what they’re doing,” he said. “It’s a way to access voters in a medium that they use in everyday life.”