Election 2016 has not been a spectator sport for some Clemson students
Presidential elections tend to be tumultuous affairs, and 2016 has certainly been no exception. The chaos of election season, however, hasn’t deterred Clemson students, many of them first-time voters. Students have become engaged in the process and raised their voices — and the ones who have now understand that there’s more to an election than what is seen on TV.
“Our generation is susceptible to accepting things at face value and we don’t fully understand what we’re being told and why it matters,” said Hope Forbush, a junior political science major. “This election is unprecedented in many ways, and if you look at why people vote the way they do it’s never been just about issues. But now more than ever, a candidate’s image and appeal appear to be very influential among voters.”
Forbush, who plans to pursue law school and wants to eventually work in international law and foreign policy, spent four months working on former Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign in South Carolina, an experience she called incredibly challenging and rewarding. On the other end of the political spectrum, Killian McDonald spent her summer interning at the Feminist Majority Foundation, which allowed her the opportunity to attend one night of the Democratic National Convention.
“That was awesome,” she said. “That was the night that Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders spoke. Every intern got to go at least one night. They only had so many tickets. I bought all the buttons I could.”
More than being a spectator, though, she was there to work and to learn.
“To have really meaningful conversations with people who have the same ideas as you is really cool. Maybe they have a different perspective, but overall the same ideas,” said McDonald, who is a double political science and women’s leadership major. “In class, you’re debating just to get the basics, so it was really cool to dive deeper into issues. It was amazing to have different conversations with people about policy issues.”
That direct form of involvement in the political process gave both McDonald and Forbush valuable insight into the process — and into what goes on behind the scenes.
“It’s important for students to be involved because we always see flashy stuff in the media that’s all very scripted and prompted, but you don’t see the work behind the scenes that is necessary to make a campaign function,” Forbush said.
Direct involvement in the physical events of the race isn’t the only way to get involved, however. Professor Joe Mazer’s senior capstone seminar in the Social Media Listening Center is giving experienced communication students the opportunity to get a bird’s-eye view of the election. The students use a program called Radian6 to aggregate data from across various social media platforms so they can analyze the trends of online political discussion.
“You can drill down and look at demographics and see what ages (of social media users and thus voters) are talking about the most,” said class member Katie Davidson, a senior communication major. “It’s just kind of an easier way than having to look through every single tweet. The program puts it all together in a nice package where you can describe everything in one place.”
The students use the software to analyze the sentiment surrounding certain topics and events in the race. The impact of statements from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is much easier to gauge with the information gleaned from the process.
“Social media has really created an open forum for people to express their opinions,” class member Kate Tyrrell said. “You kind of know how people feel. It’s more known. What someone thought about a candidate used to be private, but now it’s become such a public matter.”
Students in the class also have the unique opportunity to convey their findings to the world through a partnership with WYFF News 4 out of nearby Greenville, South Carolina. At the start of each week the students look at the points they find on Radian6, and they formulate their story for the week. They then pick two people to represent the class. These representatives work with WYFF reporter Patrick Hussion and his team on Wednesday morning to film the story, then everyone watches the segment during class when it airs on the 4 p.m. news.
“This is a unique partnership,” Emily Decoursey said. “It’s an amazing opportunity and a great thing to go into a job interview with, being able to say you worked with a local news station, one of the best in the country, and covered a presidential election.”
“We’re learning how to use software, we’re brainstorming and collaborating constantly, we’re adapting to change quickly, we’re writing press releases and blog posts. In every aspect we’re learning,” said Fiona Sykes, a senior communication major.
These students aren’t just involved –– they’re ensuring that people stay informed when they make their democratic choices. They know that misleading information is rampant.
“Social media allows for a lot of exaggeration of news,” Sykes said. “Oftentimes people aren’t even talking about what’s relevant in regards to the election.”
The class aims to play a role in changing that, if only in a small way. Mazer himself has high hopes for the role of social media in future elections. He said that a number of large social media companies are working toward implementing fact-checking tools to curb dubious statements masquerading as absolute fact.
“That would contribute more positively to our democracy, to our process in politics,” Mazer said.
The importance of knowledge and forming your own thoughtful opinions is important to people on the ground, too. McDonald doesn’t want her fellow students to simply make decisions based on what they hear from those around them. She encourages a more active engagement with the political process.
Involvement in the eyes of McDonald isn’t necessarily about doing all the things she does, or all the things the students in the Social Media Listening Center do. Sometimes it’s just a matter of making yourself aware, something that any student can do.
“Just read,” McDonald said. “Just research your candidate. Don’t vote based on party, or based upon incumbency, or based upon what you’ve heard from other students. Really research it on your own.”
“Don’t blow this off. Research who’s running and what you agree with. It’s important that you know where they stand and where you stand on the issues, because you can hear things from a lot of people, but until you read things on your own you can’t make an informed decision,” she said.
Fornbush expressed similar sentiments: “There’s a lot at stake with this election and there’s been a lot of negativity and that’s been disheartening. On the positive side, we’ve seen college-aged people becoming more politically engaged and in that respect it’s been great. How are we supposed to address the numerous economic, social or foreign issues that we face if we can’t get people engaged?”