Sway is a free app (still at beta stage) that encourages US voters to read up on important issues ahead of the US Presidential election on November 8. By introducing opinion and articles from a range of sources, it aims to tackle the increasing problem of voters only seeing content that reinforces their own beliefs and never having them challenged by opposing points of view.
The app asks users a series of questions about immigration, healthcare, gun crime and free trade, such as ‘should illegal immigrants be given a route to US citizenship’?
Users are then encouraged to read a series of articles around each issue before casting their vote. There are five ‘levels’ of content: level one presents a basic introduction to key points and arguments while level five presents in-depth reads from think tanks and academics.
The longer users spend reading, the more Sway points they are awarded and the more influence their vote carries. The app also tracks how users votes are swayed the more they read by asking questions at the end of each level.
Sway was conceived by digital entrepreneur Mike Bennett and Paul Twivy, strategy director at The Partners and author of Be Your Own Politican: Why It’s Time for a New Kind of Politics. It was designed by Sennep and content was selected by editor Noah Kidron-Style, a science and philosophy student at the University of Edinburgh.
Hege Aaby, partner and creative director at Sennep, says the app aims to engage voters through ‘gamification’. (Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton has also been attempting to reach voters through game-style rewards with her Hilary 2016 app). “We wanted to see if applying mobile technology and ‘rewarded reading’ could lead to [a] broader understanding of issues that affect our everyday lives, and ultimately result in deeper engagement and a deeper sense of empowerment,” explains Aaby.
The app also aims to encourage greater numbers of millennials to vote. In 2012, just 46% of 18-35-year-olds voted in the US election, compared to 61% of Gen X and 69% of Baby Boomers. Turnout is also low among millennials in the UK: just 43% of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2015 general election versus 78% of over 65s.
By presenting a range of opinions from a variety of sources, Sway challenges users’ existing opinions and encourages them to think deeply about a range of issues. There are articles from blogs and national newspapers, transcripts from TV and radio interviews and excerpts from policy documents. “The sources are deliberately anonymous to avoid bias, and to expose readers to a wider range of opinions, facts and ideas than perhaps they are used to,” explains Aaby.
Complex arguments are broken down into manageable reads and each piece of content is introduced with an estimated reading time. “Research has found that the more we know about something – including precisely how much time it will consume – the greater the chance we will commit to it,” she adds.
After the US elections, Sway plans to publish data showing which topics created the most engagement and how users’ votes were influenced by using the app. The team also plans to create further versions of the app for voters in Europe.
“The aim is to make the app available between elections to stimulate an ongoing dialogue between politicians and people, giving people a channel to influence politics on an everyday basis,” says Aaby.
“The most ambitious hope is that a large number of people will download it, engage with the topics and cast their Sway votes. Long term, if a large enough group of people participate, the app could have an impact on how democracy currently works. Instead of voting once every five years, the app can collect opinions on an ongoing basis and be used to influence government and better inform media of what ‘the people’ really think,” she adds.
In Be Your Own Politician, Twivy claims that voters – and young people in particular – are becoming increasingly disillusioned with modern politics. It was this sense of frustration and disillusionment that provided the motivation for Sway.
“Most people in the UK feel most of the time as if they are watching the spectacle of a small body of powerful people or organisations make the real decisions behind closed doors,” he writes. “They have lost the knowledge of how to influence and the habit of trying. They need to re-develop a sense of how their individual actions make a difference.”
Aaby says the app also aims to provide a more balanced alternative to left or right-leaning news outlets and social media news feeds which are tailored to users’ likes and preferences. “We live in a monoculture where our world views tend to be driven by the same media sources and the same set of friends and colleagues on social media who all share our point of view,” says Aaby. “It’s a ‘filter bubble’ that reduces exposure to new ideas and stops us from having a healthy and informed debate.”
With six out of ten millennials now getting their political news from Facebook (according to a study by Pew Research Centre), there is a growing concern over how social media sites filter content and the impact this is having on young voters.
With personalised news feeds, we can choose to see more of what we do like and less of what we don’t. We can like and follow and share content from parties, people and publications we agree with and easily unfollow those who present an alternative point of view. Users can’t be completely shielded from content they disagree with – but they can create an environment where much of what they see supports or confirms their existing views.
There’s also a danger that less reliable or in-depth content is given more prominence online than informed, balanced pieces. Punchy headlines and reductive arguments are much more social-media friendly than long, balanced pieces exploring a topic in-depth.
With Sway, however, users are confronted with information from a range of viewpoints – anonymous opinions which encourage people to question themselves and think deeply about issues that affect their everyday lives.
The success of the app depends on whether people can be bothered to download and use it – particularly when they are already being bombarded with articles about the general election – but it’s an intriguing concept and one that could be used to engage with voters in various parts of the world.
You can find out more about the app here.