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'Big responsibility': In 2020, even armchair election analysts see little room for error

Calling elections was once the exclusive domain of a select group of experts. But the internet has democratized the scene — for better or worse.
Image: Volvi Einhorn at work in Brooklyn on a red map of the United States.
Volvi Einhorn at work in Brooklyn.Photo Courtesy of Buri Stein; NBC News

Volvi Einhorn is a full-time architect in Brooklyn, New York, not a political operative, so you wouldn't think he'd be a wild card in the election.

But in his spare time, Einhorn and two friends have been faithfully posting the latest political polls to a Twitter account that, thanks to their dedication since 2015, now has more than 195,000 followers. And he says that come election night, Nov. 3, they'll be doing their best to call the results.

"We're going to be busy the whole night," said Einhorn, 30.

Calling elections was once the exclusive domain of a select group of experts. But the internet, as it has with just about everything else, has democratized the scene. Einhorn is part of a growing group of self-appointed election gurus and prognosticators who have taken on the challenge of analyzing races and making forecasts — often before news organizations have weighed in.

And while their analyses are unofficial, such calls — even those made in good faith — add to an information ecosystem that experts have warned could be rife with bad actors looking to exploit any uncertainties around the election.

Einhorn said he plans to be careful, knowing that if he's wrong, people may lose trust. He said that the account is a hobby and that the group of friends is bipartisan, including supporters of Democrat Joe Biden and President Donald Trump, so they try to be evenhanded.

"To make a bold move and call a certain race is a big, big responsibility," Einhorn said.

Next Tuesday, he'll have plenty of company, and not everyone will be so earnest.

Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites are expected to deliver a chaotic mix of forecasting on election night, as partisans and hobbyists alike try to puzzle out the election's winners well before all the votes are counted.

"There can be kind of a rat race to do it first because you'll get retweets," said Brent Peabody, 24, an enthusiastic participant in Twitter's election community.

Traditional media gatekeepers, such as The Associated Press or the television networks, have historically been cautious, with some exceptions. The NBC News Decision Desk, which provides real-time election results, is part of the National Election Pool, a consortium of major news networks that pools resources to gather votes and exit poll data.

But the past several years have seen the rise of a new generation of polling experts and election watchers, some of whom started out as hobbyists before turning pro. Many look up to high-profile polling and political experts like FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver or NBC News contributor Dave Wasserman, an editor of the Cook Political Report.

Now, as social media has become ubiquitous, amateur election callers can have more of a say than ever, with tech companies in the position of inexperienced referees.

"Nobody is ready for the scale of what we're going to see on election night," said Claire Wardle, U.S. director of First Draft News, a nonprofit that tries to fight misinformation and has partnered with NBC News.

Wardle said she fears that "chaos agents," as well as political hobbyists, will try to fill the possible vacuum of information between when voting ends and when traditional news organizations decide to call winners. Their social media posts will then help shape public perceptions of the outcome, she said.

"We're going to go into overdrive with both sides trying to control the narrative while we await the results," she said. "It's going to be this absolute cacophony of voices."

Trump's supporters in particular have been preparing, building up a sizable online network of supporters who are poised to amplify any claims from him about a rigged election.

Democrats in this year's primary season gained some practice in trying to shape election results before an authoritative call by the news media. In February, after reporting problems in Iowa delayed the announcement of caucus results, several candidates, including former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, gave victorylike speeches. The next morning, the hashtag #MayorCheat trended on Twitter, although later results showed Buttigieg did win the most caucusgoers.

In other primaries, too, it has become common for nonexpert Twitter users to call races. Last month, for example, some people watching the Democratic primary in a hotly contested Massachusetts congressional district declared that one candidate had defeated another, before the media had weighed in — tweets that may test Twitter's new policy against claiming victory early.

Einhorn said he and his friends plan to rely on a variety of sources before tweeting out forecasts to their Twitter audience. He said that they will look at county-level data from government websites to try to determine possible paths to victory and that they will keep a close eye on what professional forecasters such as Decision Desk HQ are saying.

They also have an election-forecasting website, built by a student at the University of Alabama.

"I kind of just do this as a hobby," said the student, Jack Kersting, who added that he plans to finalize his predictions around midday on Election Day before settling in with fraternity brothers to watch the results.

Peabody, who lives in Atlanta, said he's planning to make fewer definitive calls next Tuesday than he did during the primaries. He said Twitter temporarily locked his account in March when a primary night tweet contained a factual error, although he called the race in question correctly, and he wants to be cautious to avoid a repeat.

"We have a president who's trying to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, and making a faulty call that inadvertently plays into that is bad," he said.

Tech companies are anticipating a free-for-all and are preparing to clamp down on election-calling like never before.

Twitter has gone the furthest, outlining a new rule in a blog post this month barring all people on Twitter from claiming "an election win before it is authoritatively called." Twitter said it will require either an announcement from state election officials or a public projection from at least two authoritative, national news outlets before people may make calls of their own.

Offending tweets with premature claims will be labeled, the company said. And Twitter is planning to show users pre-emptive debunkings, or "pre-bunks," noting that the counting of votes this year may take longer than usual because of mail-in ballots and the pandemic.

Tweets that stop short of definitive calls will be allowed, however, a company spokesperson said, so tweets saying Biden or Trump is leading in a certain vote total will be fine.

Facebook has laid out a more limited policy applying to a "candidate or party." If a candidate or a party declares premature victory before a race is called by major media outlets, Facebook says, "we will add more specific information in the notifications that counting is still in progress and no winner has been determined."

And like Twitter, Facebook is turning to traditional news outlets to be the arbiters. Facebook has a partnership with Reuters to provide results on a dedicated Facebook page, which will also have winner projections from the National Election Pool.

Facebook said that after polls close, it plans to label posts from everyone about voting with a link to its dedicated results page.

YouTube has said it will remove content that violates its community guidelines, such as misleading claims about voting, but it hasn't announced a new policy about premature claims of victory. YouTube and Google said Tuesday that they will prominently display authoritative news sources, with livestreams on YouTube and election results from The Associated Press on Google's search engine.

Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, said tech companies are right to pay attention to the possible chaos, but he said it's not clear they can be or want to be effective gatekeepers.

"These are open conversations that you're trying to regulate and assess, and you have hundreds of millions of users across different regions," he said. "They don't want to be seen as an overseer."