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Election Sensemaking

Reading yesterday's election coverage I came across our friend Douglas Rushkoff's
perspective on the impact of media on our collective psyche. Case in point — the NYT needle — which some praise as a solid example of real-time data visualization while others like Douglas scold it for debatable accuracy and anxiety-inducing whiplash. His analysis was one in a slew of meta-coverage exploring how the media handled election night — including trackers from The New York Times, Poynter, and Nieman Lab. These pieces get at a question that goes beyond just access to information — where are people going to make sense of it all?

I chatted with my colleagues to gauge how others had been coping with the information overload. In addition to a range of traditional broadcasts, some took to newsreaders like
Apple News, others to live steams of ballots being counted, to validators like AP to compare sources and projections, and to Twitch or YouTube to hear streamers’ real-time takes on the latest returns and how they’re being covered.

These varying answers touch on a theme we've explored before  — in the case of both
COVID-19 and racial inequality news — of taking the search for reliable information into our own hands by combining multiple traditional and alternative sources. According to the APA's Stress in America report, two-thirds of adults say that the current political climate is a significant source of stress. Piled on top of a surge in COVID-19 cases, continued unrest over racial inequity, climate disasters, and endless misinformation and conspiracy theories, it's no surprise that so many are using DIY sensemaking to cope with this latest stressor. 

Image: The New York Times

We created Media Genius to be a perspective agent — to illuminate the new, weird, and sometimes alarming effects of digital media on society, culture, and human behavior. But a coherence crash is unfolding before our eyes, indicated by the decline of existing world orders like religion, marriage, higher education, and trust in media and government. All heightened by major climate events, technology acceleration, and the most critical election in modern history. To gauge how the world makes sense of unprecedented events in the absence of traditional sensemaking institutions, we've begun researching ways people seek meaning, coherence, and personal agency in the face of widespread uncertainty. 

Through a global scan of behavioral change, expert interviews, and dozens of ethnographic studies with our partners, we’re tracking sensemaking shifts happening around the world. The findings indicate how people are evolving cultural, ideological, and religious conceptions of being, how they're adapting the sources they trust, finding alternative means to build and maintain relationships, and altering understanding of health, well-being, and identity. Whether it's turning to astrology apps, AI therapists, WeChat community groups, or professional cheating services — we’re seeing that making sense of self, others, society, and health is inseparable from the highly inventive use of available technology.

As the ways and means with which people make sense of the world continue to transform, we've made it a priority to track collective processing and look forward to sharing the complete findings with you soon. Given the events unleashed this year, it’s an urgent, shared agenda for our colleagues, clients, and the media industry at large.

How did you augment the election night "show?" Let us know

Chris Perry


As always, if you find this newsletter valuable we would be grateful if you encouraged others to sign up by directing them here.
What We're Reading
Modern Content Canvas
How People Are Obsessing Over Results (Virtually) on Election Night
By Rachel Lerman and Heather Kelly, The Washington Post
If potential confusion over election results wasn’t enough, the pandemic means many people couldn’t spend the evening coping like they normally would: riding it out with friends, in person. Cramped watch parties in bars are out, endless Twitter scrolling is in. But thanks to modern technology, people found ways to obsess on social media together, apart. 
Media Intelligence
3 Types of Misinformation Spreading After the Election
By  Davey Alba, The New York Times

Several categories of election misinformation emerged after the counting of votes began on Tuesday, much of it targeting the swing states that remain too close to call. False claims of ballots being found or lost, rumors of vote counts jumping in swing states, and falsehoods about Sharpie markers messing up vote counts are among the most popular. 

The Weight of Uncertainty

By Julia Wick, The Los Angeles Times
In a recent study, researchers found that the possibility of pain causes more stress than the experience of pain itself. It's the anxiety of not knowing. This intel is incredibly relevant this week. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s likely that you see the stakes as existential and the choice as nothing less than a referendum on the country’s future. And that tension has been exponentially intensified by fears of election-related violence and unrest, which are widespread among voters of both parties. 
New Influence
The 2020 Election Turned Fandom into Activism

By Makena Kelly, The Verge

A live stream from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) can now rally millions of followers. In 2020, that cult following has only grown, with young supporters lip-syncing to her speeches, throwing together fancams, and posting adoring art. It’s politics as online fandom — something that’s only grown more intense during the pandemic as the Biden campaign turned to the celebrity video app CameoinfluencersAnimal Crossing: New Horizons and Fortnite

Modern Content Canvas
Election Night on TikTok: Anxiety, Analysis and Wishful Thinking
By Taylor Lorenz, The New York Times

On election night, tens of millions of Americans turned to their cable networks of choice for returns and projections. Meanwhile, millions of young viewers — some first-time voters and many too young to cast ballots — turned instead to TikTok for virtual watch parties, political analysis and a bit of manifesting. The communal experience helped young users manage anxiety and make sense of the night’s news and uncertainty.

Media Intelligence
Doomscrolling, Explained
By Rebecca Jennings, Vox

Doomscrolling, or the masochistic practice of compulsively scouring the internet in search of ever more terrible information, might be our nation’s most popular 2020 pastime. Though the term has been around since at least 2018, it surged in popularity this March when Americans were stuck inside due to the coronavirus pandemic and desperate for updates on the latest case counts and advisories. Not surprisingly, experts say the practice increases anxiety and doesn't help with overall information processing. Platforms like TikTok are finding creative ways to combat. 

Modern Content Canvas
Who Will Win the 2020 Meme War?
By Joan Donovan, MediaWell

Since the US 2016 election, memes have grown in popularity as a style of political participation across all social media platforms, joining together both positive and negative ways of interacting with political campaigns. In 2020, more targeted memetic warfare techniques have found a home in campaign materials — some from a candidate’s staff and many from everyday folks, remixing images with pithy slogans in an attempt to impress or troll friends.

‘When Terrible Things Happen, Our Numbers Go Up’: How NYT Cooking is Approaching the Pandemic, Politics and Inclusion
By Steven Perlberg, Digiday

While many media operations are flailing, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been a boom time for six-year-old NYT Cooking, a key part of the Times’ overall strategy to grow its subscriber base, expand its product offering beyond news, and diversify its revenue streams. Sam Sifton, founding editor, explains that when life is difficult, people look for distractions: "It’s human nature to want to nest and make delicious things when the news outside is frightful.”

Emerging Technology
Behind CBS News' Augmented Reality and Other Advanced Election Night Tech
By Carolyn Giardina, The Hollywood Reporter
From Olympic Games to election nights, big live eventshave long been opportunities for broadcasters to innovate, but an unprecedented election held under pandemic restrictions has only added layers to this already expansive undertaking. Take CBS News — which broadcast its multiplatform election night coverage from a newly-built set at Viacom CBS headquarters in New York's Times Square — featuring advanced augmented-reality-style graphics and visual displays showing the latest data, polling, and mapping. 
Deep Take
War on Sensemaking
By Rebel Wisdom
The increasing inability to make sense of the world is an existential problem. What might we do to fix it? Rebel Wilson's Daniel Schmachtenberger outlines how essential sensemaking is to a functioning society, and introduces some ways to achieve it.  
Copyright © 2020 Weber Shandwick

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