EXCLUSIVE: CitizenEyes wants to change the way voters — particularly younger voters — engage with politics, and with it, the way the media covers elections. The brainchild of Vivek Boray of General Industries Network and Bruce Sheridan, chair of Cinema Art and Science at Columbia College Chicago, the project plans to deploy an army of volunteers to document Election Day 2016 on November 8 in deep and nearly unprecedented detail in order to get past, as Boray puts it, “the punditocracy talking to itself” model of coverage. To that end, CitizenEyes has partnered with Vice Media and election data analysis group Votecastr on Election Day coverage to be run out of Vice Media’s Brooklyn headquarters.
On November 8, Votecastr will monitor field operations in key battleground states Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada. The group will manage turnout tracking models in those states and, in a break with conventional election coverage, provide up-to-the-minute outcome predictions long before polls close, along with analysis and commentary. Coverage will be streamed throughout the day on Vicenews.com with additional broadcast options also under consideration. Votecastr will also provide an interactive visualized database of battleground states to Slate.com.
Meanwhile, CitizenEyes’ pilot program, CitizenEyes2016, will provide real-time, on-the-ground election day coverage in states analyzed by Votecastr, with field teams of student and recent graduate filmmakers using mobile devices capable of recording vision and sound for immediate upload to the Internet. From the Vice Media war room, the CitizenEyes2016 team will coordinate the distribution of collected material to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, and as determined throughout the day, through Vice News and Slate.com as well.
“We’re looking to give a live play by play on the ground, not just in the election but in the communities,” Boray told Deadline. “If we’re successful, our goal is to give the story behind the numbers, the depth and richness there.”
A large part of that story, according to Boray and Sheridan, is the heavy engagement of younger voters in politics despite a cultural narrative that they are by and large apathetic. “I work with a huge number of young people all the time, and I was shocked at just how engaged they were when [Bernie] Sanders was on the map,” Sheridan says. “What I saw was more passion and intellectual engagement from young people than I had ever expected. I think the narrative’s wrong and that’s what we’ll find out [with CitizenEyes].”
Both of them cite a disconnect between traditional media and newer forms of interaction like social media as contributing to that perception of younger voters. “It’s not addressing that audience, it’s so much the punditocracy talking to itself,” says Boray. “How would that look if we allow in new voices outside of the establishment media. In that I think we’ll see a real political engagement beyond simply candidate versus candidate.”
“There’s this phenomenon called bubble up, that something doesn’t exist until it reaches critical mass and then it’s a story,” Sheridan added. “And that gets decided either by the volume of the noise, or by the power of a small group of people to say it’s important. This is another thing alienating young people, because they live in a world where the decision of what’s important is collective, and dynamic and it evolves very quickly. What we’re trying to do is something that reflects that.”
To get that reflection, CitizenEyes will coordinate with film schools and with individual filmmakers in each of the aforementioned states to create its all-volunteer field teams. That not only offers an array of different potential perspectives in what is a very contentious election, but it also allows the operation as a whole to be as flexible as possible. For instance, deploying filmmakers to a locale if a breaking event happens, or if Votecastr data suggest an important trend.
CitizenEyes filmmakers won’t simply chase breaking stories. The effort is intended to be proactive, with teams free to capture and send in whatever footage they deem fit, in an attempt to create a more comprehensive picture of the 2016 election. The idea is to curate with a light touch rather than passively aggregate content, with the CitizenEyes war room team looking to identify compelling or particularly newsworthy footage as quickly as possible. “We’re going to let what footage our filmmakers give us drive it, but it’s not that we’re just going to put anything up there no matter how boring it might be — that’s the fear everyone has,” Sheridan says. “The editorial responsibility is flipped. Instead of being gatekeeping, it’s kind of herding.”
Boray and Sheridan see CitizenEyes as a project with ongoing potential applications. Expansion to other states in upcoming elections, and possibly to elections in other countries, are under active discussion. For now however, the project is still an experiment and the focus is on November 8 — and what may come out of the footage taken that day.
Noting the usage of aspiring filmmakers on the teams, and the historical significance of the election, the duo says there’s a possibility for a post-election documentary project that could be developed from the footage. “This is something that can live after the election,” said Boray. “I’m most curious about, post facto, going through the footage and seeing what different narratives and storylines come out, that we can afford to interrogate and work with.”