The aim of Sean Parker's voter engagement app Brigade is to offer users a dedicated online space for political conversation. In the thinking of Parker and CEO Matt Mahan, people's personal lives are covered by Facebook and their professional lives by LinkedIn, but that still leaves their civic lives.
Brigade exists to fill that niche. Its mission is to "help voters take back control of their democracy" by giving them a place to debate issues, research candidates' platforms, recruit vote pledges from others and more. While there's no shortage of political back-and-forth on Facebook and Twitter, Brigade wants to be a different sort of forum, one that privileges substances and action over noise.
Those noble aims have encountered quite a challenge in the hyper-polarization and mud-slinging of the 2016 presidential election. How users have engaged with the app during the election has been somewhat surprising, in the way that political conversation on social media has generally been surprising.
"I think the presidential [election] sucked a lot of the air out of the room," CEO Matt Mahan said Wednesday in a conference room at Brigade's San Francisco office. The startup, which has $9.3 million in funding from Napster cofounder Parker, won't share specifics on how many users it has in total. It reports 170,000 of its current users are verified, meaning Brigade has confirmed their voting registration.
Launched in a private beta with a waiting list of roughly 10,000 users in June 2015 and quickly was opened up to a public beta, Brigade is having its first brush with a presidential race during the current election.
Mahan says he had anticipated Brigade's role this year would lie largely in down-ballot races, with conversation centering on issues-based debates as it had in the app's earlier days. But talk on issues like healthcare and education is being drowned out by raucous arguments centering on the personalities of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He imagines app users will resume more nuanced uses once Tuesday is in the rear-view mirror.
A Brigade analysis of user-generated positions, or debate-starters, at the turn of the month showed fewer than 10 percent of such posts did not explicitly reference Clinton, Trump, their campaigns or surrogates.
Example "debate" prompts, or user-generated status updates with which other users may indicate they agree or disagree, from my own Brigade feed:
"Moronia claims anti-bullying as her cause. The irony, the nerve, that husband"
"Clinton is the worst possible candidate. She lies, steals, is unlawful, corrupt, secretive. We need justice"
This polarization and lack of nuance in online debate isn't unique to Brigade. Facebook and Twitter users report feeling overwhelmed by the political opinions shared by contacts. The Washington Post argues Twitter trolls are bad for democracy.
A difference with Brigade is that debate is arguably more heavily moderated than on other platforms. Instead of "likes," hearts or emoji reactions, on Brigade you click on the word "agree" or "disagree" on other users' status updates. Some posts are removed for violating guidelines.
Another similarity Brigade shares with other social media outlets is the virality of all things Trump. Brigade measures candidates' virality with a number called the "viral coefficient." Trump's coefficient, at 0.37, is three times that of Clinton's, which stands at 0.12. What these digits mean: Every 100 users who pledge they will vote for Trump are able to persuade 37 additional users to also pledge votes for Trump.
This translates into a voter pledge rate on the app for Trump that far outstrips official polling data. Brigade reports 78 percent of presidential vote pledges on the platform were for Trump as of Nov. 3. Remaining pledges were split among Clinton (18 percent) and third-party and independent candidates Jill Stein, Evan McMullin and Gary Johnson.
"In a nutshell, we've found that what we're seeing on Brigade is similar to what others networks [Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest] are finding -- Trump's share of voice is is massive across digital platforms since the final presidential debate and his supporters are very good at connecting with each other online," says Brigade spokesman Andrew Noyes.