A friend who lives in a major swing state recently told me that he voted third-party. Far be it for me to judge the votes of my friends, but I kinda wondered — what was he thinking?
Did he really believe this person’s platform? Was it a vote of protest?
Nah, he explained: This candidate was his top result on the wildly popular I Side With.
[The only true winners of this election are trolls]
Ah yes, I Side With — the viral Buzzfeed personality quiz of voter education. Since 2012, a staggering 44 million people have taken the 20-to-100 question survey, rating their beliefs on everything from tax policy to abortion. The quiz is intended to be instructional — it’s become a mainstay in high school civics classes. It’s also strictly apolitical in every way but one: It significantly boosts the visibility of third-party candidates, to the degree that some have lobbied just to become options.
By both accident and design, I Side With recommends candidates like Gary Johnson and Jill Stein at rates far higher than one might expect from the way they poll. Other third-party campaigns, including those of Reform Party candidate Rocky de la Fuente and transhumanist Zoltan Istvan, say they credit the quiz with exposing them to tens of thousands of voters.
[The secret network of political tweeters making campaign memes go viral]
“I tried for over a year to get on the site, since it’s obvious how powerful of a tool of it is,” Istvan told The Intersect by email. He’s now encouraging his supporters to forward the quiz to their friends in Florida, where even a few extra votes for a third-party contender could “make all the difference in the final election.”
According to @iSideWith , I should for @zoltan_istvan , but I DONT EVEN KNOW WHO HE IS. #Zoltan2016? #ZoltanIsAcoolName pic.twitter.com/Q5YhbKrMKq
— Jeff Hortenstine (@TheHortenstine) October 25, 2016
Retook #iSideWith. Apparently I should vote for #Transhuman party. Didn’t know it existed, no joke the website talks about cyborgs. I’m in. pic.twitter.com/4nMLQNHaqx
— Kade Hammes (@kadehamm) October 26, 2016
Admittedly, neither Istvan nor the creators of I Side With — a pair of post-college buddies who started the site on a lark — know exactly how many of the site’s millions of users actually vote their quiz results. This is only I Side With’s second go-round, and no one has studied its impact on voter mobilization. Still, word on Twitter, and in third-party campaigns, is that I Side With makes a difference.
“People like Johnson and Stein have definitely gotten traction through us,” said Taylor Peck, one of the site’s two cofounders. “I think connecting on issues, rather than party, is the future of politics.”
This is a philosophy that Peck arrived at over time: When he and former roommate Nick Boutelier launched I Side With ahead of the 2012 elections, neither of them was particularly deep in conventional politics. Boutelier was an as-of-yet-undecided voter and a software engineer at a California ecommerce firm; Peck was a “political news junkie” and a professional marketer. In the course of discussing the issues with his friend, both men realized there could be a better way to parse and classify their political beliefs. They had a model already, in fact, in the form of match-based online dating.
As on eHarmony or OkCupid, users begin the I Side With process by filling out a lengthy questionnaire — 20 questions in the basic mobile version, or as many as 100 in the full test. In place of queries like “do you smoke” and “what are you looking for in a relationship,” however, you get queries like “do you support the legalization of same-sex marriage?” Users also assign each question a “passion score” to indicate how important it is.
Behind the scenes, Peck has completed the same process for the candidates, answering the questions based on their platforms and assigning “passion scores” based on factors like how frequently they discuss the topic. When you click “Show My Results,” the site compares your answers to those of eight different major and third-party candidates. It then displays, as a percentage, which one matches you best on the measured issues, giving special weight to your favorite subjects.
This method is not perfect: the quiz only addresses issues on which both major-party candidates have taken positions, and the all-important passion score is pretty arbitrary. Still, for third-party candidates, I Side With is an important source of visibility.
The sites most frequently visited after users take the quiz on I Side With are the big social networks — Facebook, Twitter, Google — and Wikipedia, according to web analytics firm SimilarWeb. That suggests they’re not only checking out their results, but researching and sharing them.
I didn’t know anything about @DarrellCastle until @iSideWith indicated that I agree with him 91% of the time.
— Jeff Davis (@onlyJeffDavis) July 27, 2016
@divinehemipenis Same. I learned most of what I know about Johnson by doing a candidate comparison on isidewith, the site with the quiz.
— 420Fox (@ArtistOfRandom) July 22, 2016
So, I just took that isidewith quiz to see who I side with on the most issues, and apparently I should vote for Jill Stein. Huh.
— Trev (@Zytabyte) November 4, 2016
Certainly that’s the experience of Transhumanist Party candidate Istvan, who told the Post that Google searches for his name doubled the day that I Side With added him as a match option. Rocky de la Fuente, the eccentric 62-year-old businessman running on the Reform Party ticket, was even more effusive: He gave me the login credentials to his personal Alexa account and encouraged me to check how much traffic to his website jumped because of I Side With. While it’s difficult to attribute changes in the site’s traffic to any one source, particularly since so much of it came through search engines, the number of unique visitors did spike by almost 18 percent in the days after I Side With hosted an online debate for third-party candidates.
“Maybe that’s only a one or two-percent boost” in terms of actual votes, acknowledged de la Fuente, who earned 67,000 votes in the Democratic primary. “But for me, every little bit helps. It’s about the sum of the digits.”
De la Fuente isn’t unique in this, of course: with Election Day upon us, and the race continuing to narrow, those very small numbers become more important for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, as well. Clinton surrogates, like President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders, have urged their supporters not to vote third-party out of fear of throwing the election. Meanwhile, Trump and others in his corner have expressed outrage over the candidacy of potential Utah-stealer Evan McMullin.
All of this has provoked an interesting argument in some political circles — an argument against voting on the issues, alone. Political theorist Julia Maskivker contends, for instance, that voting on the issues is immoral if it ends up electing what she terms the “greater of two evils.” Whoever you think that is in this particular case, Maskivker’s argument is persuasive: There may be some questions that just can’t be decided by even a very thorough online quiz.
Then again: “My vote should represent my views, not just picking the second worst choice,” said my third-party-voting friend. Even as the polls in his state narrow, he insists, with true I Side With conviction, that he stands wholeheartedly by his decision.
By Caitlin Dewey November 7 at 10:24 AM