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Many see the advent of social media as a boost for democracy. Information is now shared through cyberspace unfettered by government or media censorship, allowing people to participate freely in democratic discourse. However, when exit polls and twitter mix it can have negative consequences for democracy. Here’s why.

In a previous blog post we touched on the influence prematurely released exit polling data can have on an election. Namely, there have been times when news networks have predicted the outcome of an election before polling stations have closed. This can depress voter turnout, as people believe the election has already been decided. As a consequence, major news networks in the US no longer publish exit poll data before polling stations close.

Enter Twitter

Traditional news organisations are, however, no longer the only source of news in the digital age. Twitter has evolved into what some describe as the “21st Century Newspaper”. So even if major news organisations have agreed not to prematurely publish sensitive exit polling data, what’s stopping this information being leaked on twitter?

Exit polls in Germany

Unlike in the US, in Germany, it’s a criminal offence to prematurely publish exit polling data over any medium. If found guilty, leakers face paying a fine of 50,000 euros (54,000USD).

The issue came to a head during the 2009 regional elections in Germany. 90 minutes before polling stations had closed, two Twitter users posted the ‘outcomes’ of the election for the regions of Thuringia, Saarland and Saxony. These posts were subsequently re-shared throughout the twitter-verse, raising the ire of officials in the german electoral commission.

It was suspected the posts had been leaked from either the media or political insiders – both of which have early access to exit polling data. In the worst-case scenario, it was feared the results of the election may be declared invalid. Luckily (and especially so for the offenders) no such scenario came to pass.

The lesson from this is clear, especially from people involved with exit polling data: hold off on the sensitive tweets until after polling stations have closed.