By Simona Rabinovitch
Just in time for the United States’ 2012 presidential elections, award-winning journalist and Concordia alumna Jennifer Hollett, BA 97, has co-created an iPhone app that's changing the way U.S. voters interact with televised political ads.
Conceived with classmate-turned-business partner Dan Siegel in an MIT Media Lab class, the Super PAC App helps anyone with an iPhone evaluate the claims made in countless pre-election commercials financed by Super PACs: independent political action committees permitted to raise and spend funds to campaign for -- or against -- candidates.
"When we came up with this idea, I remember saying, 'Wouldn't it be great if you could just hold up your iPhone to the television and find out what the real story is with these Super PAC ads," recalls Hollett, whose Concordia journalism and communications studies led to stints as a MuchMusic VJ, CBC television columnist and, later, graduate studies at the Harvard Kennedy School and MIT.
"Because it [watching political ads] is overwhelming and confusing and they all kind of sound and look the same, we decided to look at creating a Super PAC App not as a school project but as a start-up."
Unlike some start-ups, though, the duo faced a looming deadline -- the November 6 presidential elections. Funded by the Knight Foundation, Hollett and Siegel formed Glassy Media and hustled to release the app in time to have impact. And boy, has it ever!
As a free iTunes Store download, the Super PAC App hit number one in its category on the day of its release -- charting higher than the New York Times and CNN -- and cracked the top 100 free apps out of 450,000.
Hollett and Siegel have been lauded by American press such as CNN, NPR, ABC News and Politico and international media.
"We see this as an app that embraces elements of journalism, so for journalists to see this as something they'd like to write about and report has been great," says Hollett about Super PAC App's fact-checker function.
Yet their app wasn’t created to discredit commercials. "The assumption is that all political ads are bad and that's not what we're saying. We're saying: Super PACs are here. That means there's going to be a lot of outside money -- millions and millions of dollars -- coming into the campaigns, and as a result, there are going to be more ads because it's a proven way to convince voters. "
This is a tool to react. Ultimately, our goal has been engagement and education so the average voter can figure out what's going on."
So how does it all come together? "The first step is, we monitor all the YouTube channels for the official campaigns, Super PACs and outside groups," Hollett explains.
"When there's a new ad, we watch that ad, we get the audio, we decide, 'What is the claim of that ad?' and then we research to find more information on that claim that's being made. And this is on top of information from the Federal Election Commission, the organization, how much money they've raised and spent as well as their viewpoint."
After watching "an extremely high number" of political ads, which she jokes is perhaps unhealthy, Hollett says she's learned a lot about narrative and just how much information can be conveyed in 30 seconds. "It's been interesting in terms of studying political messaging and persuasion, seeing what the campaigns are trying, and what they think will resonate with voters."
Innovation and interactivity within the digital space have been among the hallmarks of Hollett's career, whether she's reporting from Toronto's G20 summit, interviewing rock stars or training reporters in Sierra Leone with Journalists for Human Rights.
She traces some of her success back to Concordia. "When I got into Harvard, which was super exciting, my Dad said, 'Concordia got you to Harvard.' I was like, 'You're right.' That's where it started: as an 18-year old on the streets of N.D.G. interviewing politicians for a writing and reporting story, scared out of my mind wondering if anyone would speak to me.
"It was my first assignment and I just dove in because we had to. That's the best part of being a journalist: 'Here's your assignment and go.' I've taken that with me my entire career."
- Watch a Harvard Kennedy School interview with Jennifer Hollett on her Super PAC App: