Snapchat offers insider story of U.S. election

By Yusuf Omar

Hindustan Times

Delhi, India


I didn’t know “crowd scientists” were a thing, but they were in high demand last week, as international news networks use aerial photographs to guesstimate how many people attended U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Did Barack Obama draw a bigger crowd? Surely. But with the magnitude of social media innovations since his re-election four years ago, maybe we should be looking deeper into the crowd and beyond the numbers.

Selfie journalism is digging deep into the personal side of typical news stories.
Selfie journalism is digging deep into the personal side of typical news stories.

The political dialogue isn’t in the digits but rather the sentiment of millions of people sharing their stories all the time.

This is selfie journalism.

Some people freak out when they hear “selfie” and “journalism” in the same sentence. In India, selfie journalism means journalists taking cosy selfies with Prime Minister Modi, compromising their editorial integrity.

That’s not what I’m referring to.

We’re building the world’s largest mobile journalism team of 750 reporters at the Hindustan Times, and selfie journalism is one form of storytelling. Shooting, editing, and broadcasting with one device.

Four years ago, when Obama renewed his political vows, selfie video journalism was in its infancy. There was no Facebook Live or Periscope, and Snapchat was just born. Breaking news had been democratised by Twitter, but the public didn’t have access to go live, all the time.

President Trump enters a far more advanced technological landscape. While his inauguration may have been attended by fewer people than on Obama’s big day, it was certainly broadcast by more.

Trump, or one of his staffers, started using his Snapchat account on the day he became president. He’s late to the party.

Half the youth in America have Snapchat, and, during the inauguration, the social network aggregated video reactions of millions of users with their Live Stories. With straps and graphics, it was reminiscent of TV but on a vertical mobile canvas.

We had access to watch people at inauguration parties in their homes. Watching the reactions of people watching the news was somewhat more telling than the news itself. The platform also teleported us beyond the inauguration, capturing the raw testimonials of women marching on the streets and chanting into cell phones globally.

The curation of 10 billion video voices uploaded a day, more than YouTube and Facebook, makes Snapchat the biggest breaking news station on Earth.

While Facebook waffles about whether it’s a media company or not, Snapchat embraces the role. In an age of fake news and unverified sources, it is in the business of listening and sorting, helping audiences make sense of it all.

During the #BattleForMosul, the social media network took us to the front lines of the war against ISIS, pulling together videos from soldiers, teachers, and doctors.

Ten-second nuggets from the war zones, disasters, or your local music concert are just sound bites. But as a curated collective, it’s giving viewers a new type of holistic storytelling.

Looking at the Snapchat “coverage” of the U.S. election proved its ability to find the deeper story — the story beyond statistics, inaccurate polls, and electoral college votes. The real story of how Americans felt about the election, told by the people themselves, narrating into their selfie cameras. Because America is more — far more — than racists on one side and liberal elites on the other.

The deeper stories exist in and around and over and under all of that. But mainstream media is not designed to go for the deeper story; it’s designed to go for the most universal story.

Selfie journalism is created with the hyper-local stories people are interested in. Hyper-hyper-local is the space where mobile journalists work. People with phones find stories the world wants to see, and traditional media struggle to find ways of getting there.

Today, Snapchat is the fastest growing application for curating selfie journalism. Nonetheless, five years since its inception, newsrooms are still asking what Snapchat is and how to use it. It’s as if the platform’s ghost logo represents a mystery to the media.

Yet, mainstream newsrooms are still obsessing with the numbers. During the election, we looked to flawed statistical processes for predictions, and we got it wrong. We didn’t listen to selfie journalists to understand the emotions of people on the ground. The people, sharing their most intimate emotions.

At Trump’s inauguration alone, if one million people attended and just 1% were broadcasting selfie video stories, that’s 10,000 sources. Separate the newsworthy voices from that noise and we would find the real stories. But we’re still counting crowd sizes.

About Yusuf Omar

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