Among the many complexities of the 2016 US presidential election, the public shock of Hillary Clinton’s loss was amplified by data news media coverage offering confident outcomes in Clinton’s favor during the months leading up to the election. As such, the perception of data journalists as predictors of the future—a perception at odds with the expressed mission of journalists themselves—enters into a larger anxiety around trust and facts in political media. This essay analyzes data news site FiveThirtyEight’s probabilistic coverage of the 2016 presidential election as performance. Using the examples of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Macbeth, early modern theatre works that shape tropes of fortune telling and soothsaying into editor-in-chief Nate Silver’s own vision of future prediction and popular cultural views, the performance dimensions of soothsaying emerge as, in fact, key to both the practice and popularity of data-driven political forecasting. Ultimately, the trope of the soothsayer is at once more complex and more common than data journalist’s disavowals, and it offers potential possibilities for reimagining political participation in the wake of 2016’s crisis of facticity.


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pp. 519-538
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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