Snapchat is adding a feature to help young users run for political office

Oct 5, 2021
Originally published on October 5, 2021 5:44 am

Young people in the U.S. made history in the 2020 elections, voting at a record high rate. And now the technology company behind a popular social media app is hoping to help some of those young voters become political candidates in their own right.

Snap, the company behind the Snapchat app, is launching an initiative intended to help connect users with information, tools and connections if they want to launch their own campaigns.

Sofia Gross, who is head of policy partnerships and social impact for Snap, said the idea came from the company's observations after making a major push around voter registration and education in 2020.

Part of that work included asking users to identify issues they cared about as they thought about filling out their ballot. One thing that Snap found, according to Gross, was that "there weren't that many candidates on the issues that the Snapchat generation cares a lot about."

It's a big claim to be the app of choice for a generation, but Snapchat's parent company says the app has a wide reach among young users. Snap says the app reaches 90% of people in the U.S. between the ages of 13 and 24.

And the company sees a need in the political world to reach potential candidates early.

"We started meeting with candidate-recruitment organizations to really try to understand if there was a role for Snapchat to play in this space," Gross said. "And the answer from candidate-recruitment organizations was yes, developing candidates is a long-term initiative. And they need the help to really increase that funnel and expand that conversation with young people about what it means to lead in your local community."

Young people voted at record rates, but are they running?

Not much data exists about how many young people run for office in the U.S. each year or at what levels of government. But it doesn't seem like a leap to note that the ranks of elected officials in the country are much older than the bulk of Snapchat's user base.

Despite the fact that some of these users are too young to vote, let alone run for office, the candidate-recruitment organizations that the company has partnered with see a lot of opportunity.

"I realize there's not a ton of young people that really have been elected with me in state and local governments," said Iowa state Rep. Joe Mitchell, a Republican who won his first campaign at age 21.

Mitchell is a co-founder of Run GenZ, which is focused on recruiting more young conservatives to run for office. He wants to see young people "having a seat at the table, being equally represented" at all levels of government.

Mitchell is among the elected officials and candidate-recruitment organizations that are working with Snap to provide young, would-be candidates with resources and information about potentially running for office. And the list of partner organizations spans the political spectrum.

"One of the things that I love about the youngest generation of voters, especially when it comes to running for office, being politically engaged, making their voices heard, is that they're not asking for permission, that they are just doing it," said A'Shanti Gholar of Emerge, a group working to elect Democratic women.

This screenshot from Snapchat shows the My Campaign section of the app, where a potential candidate can connect with candidate-recruitment organizations and access digital campaign stickers.

Gholar pointed out an immediate need for more young people to run for office, using the current makeup of Congress as an example.

"In January of 2020, baby boomers made up nearly 70% of Congress, but they constitute just 21% of the American population," she said. "So that's showing us that the numbers are off. That means that we got to get young people, especially young women, running for office. And Snapchat is perfect for us being able to do that because we're able to meet them directly where they are to start to have these conversations."

How Snapchat wants to empower users to run for office

If you've never used Snapchat, you probably think it's just an app to share photos that quickly disappear. But the app's parent company has been working to have a more lasting impact in the civics space for years, including through those voter registration and education efforts.

After a Snapchat user types in "run for office," they can provide their ZIP code as a first step to receive a personalized list of opportunities to run for office.

Snap partnered with BallotReady to provide users with information about the offices they can run for. They can learn things such as who currently holds the office, what date the election is on and the requirements to file as an official candidate.

This screenshot from Snapchat shows the Run for Office initiative's Position Results section, a personalized list of opportunities to run for elected office in a user's community.
Courtesy of Snap

Once a user indicates that they want to take the plunge and run for a position, the app provides an option to connect with candidate-recruitment organizations like Emerge or Run GenZ.

Snap's Gross said the goal is that once a Snapchat user designates a candidate-recruitment organization as a "partner," they hear from that organization outside the app within a matter of days.

"We wanted every single Snapchatter, no matter who they are or where they come from or what their political beliefs might be, to recognize that there is an organization out there that will support them in taking this next leap and not only support them, but give them the tools and the resources and really the community that they need to go out there and do this thing," Gross said.

Snap says it intentionally made the Run for Office initiative open to all of its users, even those not yet old enough to vote, so they could learn about their local representatives and offices they could seek in the future.

"If you're too young, you probably know somebody who may be older and might be ready to take that leap. And so we're really hoping that we can use this initiative also as a civics tool," said Gross. "So that way, people can learn more about all the different ways that you can make a difference in your community and inspire someone you do know who will champion the issues you care a lot about."

As for privacy concerns, Snap says its candidate-recruitment partners receive only limited information provided by the user, including the user's name, email address and ZIP code.

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Young voters did a lot of voting in last year's election, with a record 53% of 18- to 29-year-olds casting ballots. Now one of the giants in social media is encouraging these young voters to get into the game themselves as candidates. Here's NPR's Juana Summers.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: If you've used Snapchat, you might think it's just an app to share photos that quickly disappear.

SOFIA GROSS: And whenever I'm explaining this to, you know, my grandfather, I really help him understand that instead of telling you where I am or what I'm up to, it's sending a photo or a video to someone close to you to really help them feel like they are with you in that moment, experiencing whatever it is that you're experiencing.

SUMMERS: That's Sofia Gross. She works for Snapchat's parent company, Snap. The company is making a major push to have a more lasting impact on Snapchat's passionate, largely young user base. It's encouraging them to consider running for local offices.

GROSS: So Snapchatters can come to the app to learn more about this initiative by simply typing in run for office.

SUMMERS: It starts off with one piece of information - where a user lives.

GROSS: We're going to look for opportunities in the ZIP code 65201.

SUMMERS: By way of explanation, Gross picked that ZIP code because it's where I went to college in Missouri.

After a user enters a ZIP code, they're presented with a whole list of different issues - things like the environment, education, jobs. The idea is that they pick a couple areas that matter to them, and that helps populate a list of elected positions. Gross tapped on one of them.

GROSS: This will then bring you to a position profile so you can learn more about what this job actually entails, whether or not it's for you. You might take a look at this position and say, oh, that's super interesting. Local school board is in line with my background and my interests. And you may decide to run.

SUMMERS: Snap partnered with BallotReady to provide users with information about the offices they could run for. They can learn things like who currently holds the office or what's required to run. Once a user indicates that they want to take the plunge and run for an office, the app provides an option to connect with some partner organizations for a little guidance.

A'shanti Gholar is the executive director of Emerge, a group focused on recruiting Democratic women candidates.

A'SHANTI GHOLAR: One of the things that I love about the youngest generation of voters, especially when it comes to running for office, being politically engaged, making their voices heard, is that they're not asking for permission, that they are just doing it. And those are the people of the Snapchat generation.

SUMMERS: That generation is pretty young. Officials from the company say the app reaches 90% of people in the U.S. between the ages of 13 and 24 - 90% - a lot of them too young to run for office right now, or even vote.

All of this, of course, raises some obvious questions about privacy. Snap says its candidate recruitment partners receive limited, self-submitted information from users, including their first and last name, email address and ZIP code. No other data is shared.

Candidate recruitment organizations see a lot of opportunity in this partnership. One of the elected officials that Snap consulted with is Iowa State Rep. Joe Mitchell. He's a Republican who was first elected to office at age 21, and he's a co-founder of Run GenZ.

JOE MITCHELL: There's so many people like myself and like my co-founders that are out there that just need a little nudge, need a little encouragement.

SUMMERS: Mitchell uses Snapchat every day and says it makes a lot of sense as a place to reach more young conservatives.

MITCHELL: What I think is important about it, though, is that, No. 1, the age demographic, but then No. 2, it's going to be tailored and catered towards, you know, algorithms which can send folks that are interested in, you know, Ben Shapiro or some of these other conservative organizations on Snapchat our way.

SUMMERS: Snap says that once a potential candidate selects a group as a partner and provides their contact information, the goal is to get them connected outside of the app within a matter of days. Users and potential candidates will also see a digital version of a familiar campaign tool - campaign stickers.

GROSS: So if you tap one of these stickers, we can then take a photo and send it to close friends, letting them know that you're running for office. So that way you can get out the vote on Snapchat.

SUMMERS: The hope is that this generation of Americans will see running for office as a way to get involved in their communities the same way they voted at historic levels last year.

Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.