Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Digital Revolution and Politics: Behind the Hype

Yet another slew of articles and reports, this time focused mainly on what works – and by implication, what doesn’t – in today’s internet- and technology-enabled political activism.  Luckily, the readings I have chosen to work from this time (including Persuasion Points: Helping Harry Reid One Click at a Time, Neighbor to Neighbor: How Obama Targets Undecideds Block by Block, The New Organizers: What’s Really Behind Obama’s Ground Game, Online Tactics & Success: An Examination of the Obama for America New Media Campaign, Top 10 Tips in Email Writing from Organizations Changing the World, and Looking for What Works: Best Online Organizing Reads of 2010) more or less all follow-on naturally from some of the readings covered in my last post on digitally-boosted activism, and dove-tail nicely with my own limited experience in this area.

In essence, the majority of these pieces examines how (relatively) new digital tools have been, or can be, put to most effective use for causes.  The examples given all have taken place since 2007-2008, when the use of the internet by the Obama campaign was widely hailed as an area where it stole a large lead on its opposition.

Some (in my view) rather extreme claims have been made about the power and impact of online tools including social media to revolutionize activism (and everything else).  Whether or not one agrees entirely with Malcolm Gladwell’s view that online activism doesn’t have much impact at all, his Small Change article certainly sparked a valuable conversation.  Even enthusiasts are compelled to admit (or, rather, in the case of Silberman, to repeat the suggestions of others) that more must be done to measure impact, and that technology alone won’t get the job done – at least not most of the time.

Others among the authors focused on uncontroversial claims how to make optimal use of basic digital tools (email, in the case of Frauzel) to connect with the public and move likely individuals up the ‘engagement ladder.’

But some pieces resonated deeply with me.  They were about the seamless integration of revolutionary online tools into “old-fashioned” campaign plans.  These included the discussion of the dream campaign (because of budget, authority, trust and testing) set up by the digital campaigners working for Harry Reid in 2010, as well as the discussion by Colter of the 2008 Obama campaign’s use of technology to enable extremely local canvassing of neighbors, by neighbors.

But I particularly enjoyed the examination by Exley of the 2008 Obama campaign’s approach to organizing: “The Obama campaign is the first in the Internet era to realize the dream of a disciplined, volunteer-driven, bottom-up-AND-top-down, distributed and massively scaleable organizing campaign.”  While I know that the use of online tools was crucial to executive a flawless ground game in 2008, this article barely even mentions technology.  Why?  Because it is still an enabler in this field, and cannot yet replace the human touch.

As a part-time grassroots organizer, my experience with online tools has been similar.  Free (i.e. unpaid and easy) access to platforms that I could use to build offline, action-oriented communities was critical.  I used quite a few of them to raise visibility and interest, to coordinate efforts, to engage the press and other third parties, and to organize logistics, especially events.  I most certainly could not have done the job without them with anywhere near the speed or level of reach that I was able to achieve.  But I had to use these tools often in highly personal ways, devoting many hours to individual-oriented and action-oriented writing, responding via email or phone or in person early and often, and generally building offline relationships.  All of my successes were enabled by online.  But where the rubber met the road was always offline.

I believe that that the internet has indeed revolutionized the planet.  I agree that we cannot yet see all of the changes that have been triggered.  I understand that activism and organizing have already been significantly altered, and will change more in the future.  And yet, I think that these changes must yet coexist with – or maybe enhance – the tried and true methods developed for activism in the real world.  As David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 Campaign Manager, was quoted by DiJulio and Wood as saying: “There’s nothing more valuable than a human being talking to a human being.  Nothing.”

The Demise of Journalism? The Rise of Internet-powered Activism?

After reading articles by a number of authors (including  Winer, Gray, Shirky, Daou, Starkman, Lanier, Gladwell, Grahamfelsen, Silberman, Stone and Isaac) on the impact of the internet and social networking technologies on traditional journalism and grassroots activism, I have mixed feelings.

On the subject of the steady erosion of traditional journalism, I find the – in some cases, rather smug (e.g. Winer) – near consensus that it is a “dead man walking” extremely worrying, even depressing.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, my opinion is must be influenced by the fact that my immediate family had until relatively recently three full-time journalists in it, one a managing editor for the world’s largest-circulation newsweekly.  So I grew up in a home which was, and still is, idealistic about the role of the free press in society, and one which had benefited from the golden era of big journalism.

But while my experience at home certainly helped to form my perspective, it is not the only reason for my dismay at what is being touted by many as the inevitable destruction of the fourth estate.  I agree with Craig Crawford that a free and unconstrained press is crucial for the survival of any democracy.   If, as some predict, the press will erode to teams that cannot support more than 30 journalists (or worse, curators), or which are so dependent on (ever-scarcer and thus more emboldened) advertisers that its objectivity on issues of concern to sponsors is compromised, how will governments and corporations be held accountable in future?

This is no joke.  In every country in the world that is sliding toward dictatorship or oppression – whether of the left or the right – the first freedom to go is always that of the press.  There’s a reason for that.

In the US, since then Vice President George H.W. Bush ambushed CBS’ Dan Rather on national TV (accusing the journalist of bias in order to duck questions about his role in the Iran-Contra scandal), politicians of all parties have deliberately and systematically undermined the credibility of the media with the public for their own short-term gain.  In addition to this hydra-headed attack by national leaders, big journalism is facing the perfect storm of scandals of its own making, an unwillingness to defend itself, inept planning in the early days of the internet, and now the challenges posed by such ‘newcomers’ as Craigslist, online advertising and blogging.

I am not denying reality.  I see the point made by Shirky that the revenue-generation model has been ripped out from under the publishing (in the widest sense) industry by the internet-enabled groundswell.  But where is his prescription to replace the vital roles that the free press currently plays as democracy’s (and society’s) watchdog, and ensuring that we continue to receive news from further afield than the suburbs of our hometowns?  In my view, and generally speaking, blogs don’t yet have the punching weight – in audience reach, quality standards, or credibility.  Those that do, such as the Huffington Post, get bought up.  And the funding mechanism for the investigative journalism practiced by Sharesleuth is in my view suspect.  If profit is the underlying motive, then the Mark Cubans of this world can be bought off any given story, can’t they?

I was somewhat reassured by Starkman, who thinks that there ways forward exist for big journalism outlets – boosted by social networks and interaction – and by the example of the BBC, which seemed to me to have surfed the internet tsunami, rather than being crushed by it.  But when I wrote to Euan Semple, one of the architects of the Beeb’s internet, social and internal wiki strategies to ask him how the BBC had survived the advent of the internet, his return tweet was telling.  “Has it?”  He’ll get back to me on that one, I guess.

On the issue of the enablement of grassroots activism via Internet technologies, I am more optimistic.  While I see Malcolm Gladwell’s point that purely online activism is of limited value when you are looking to bring about real change, I agree with Daou, Grahamfelsen and Silberman’s example of 350, that activists who are most effectively using the web are not doing so entirely online.  They are using web technologies to enable and boost their offline activism.  Having myself built a virtual community with 5000 members, and having also built a grassroots political organization using these online tools – and having participated in organization activities prior to the advent of the internet, I can personally attest the facts that:

  • without online tools such as email, eGroups, Yahoo! Groups, Evite, Constant Contact, Wufoo and Facebook, I could never have achieved the success I did with them; but
  • of course the real world activity that they enable is the most important part of the equation.

What I get from the discussion about the erosion of journalism is this: I hope there is hope.  What I get from the discussion of web-enabled activism is this: I guess that to some degree whether or not that wish comes true is up to each and every one of us.

The Filter Bubble

Eli Pariser’s TED talk about the need to pay attention to the potential pernicious effects of “filter bubbles” hit me at a gut level.  Even after reading arguments that offered alternate viewpoints about these initially self-imposed, but now increasingly externally-imposed online information cocoons, and after looking in detail at the concrete example of Wikipedia (which is in my view a major bulwark against bubbling), I still have to admit that I share Pariser’s concerns.

Before getting into it, I should probably note my own natural biases.  While I have always been a technophile, an early adopter, and more recently, a grassroots-level tech evangelist, I have never been a programmer or a technical worker.  What’s more, I graduated college before the Internet hit the mainstream (and the mainstream is still reeling from the blow).   Lastly, I come from a family firmly rooted in the older traditions of information transmission – my father a veteran conflict correspondent for the world’s largest weekly, my mother a press officer for the UN, my sister a print journalist-turned-academic.  So I guess it would be fair to say that my viewpoint is somewhat skewed.

That said, I believe that the concerns raised by Pariser are valid.  For the uninitiated, Pariser’s argument is that search engines, Facebook and other websites are now using algorithms now which customize the information that shows on our screens on the basis of what the algorithms believe we will want to see (based on what data the algorithms have collected about our past web-behavior).  Further, he feels that this customization is potentially dangerous for society, because it reinforces filter bubbles, i.e. 360-degree cocoons of the kind of information we want to see instead of the information we should see (a human tendency highlighted in Professor Todd Rogers’ behavioral science course at Harvard), and thus increases societal polarization and reduces our effectiveness as civic actors.

There is some evidence which lessens the impact of Pariser’s argument.  In The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia, Andrew Lih prompts the realization that the web isn’t only about filter bubbles.  Rather than creating online cocoons for like-minded individuals, Wikipedia’s model is built on the fundamental concept of enabling (if not forcing) many people of sometimes radically different viewpoints to face each other’s opinions and collaborate.  On Wikipedia, one of the most important sites on the Internet, and which touches the lives of millions, partisans daily achieve consensus to produce accurate, neutral point of view entries – as Lih says, “Wikipedia encourages confrontation and challenge as a necessary part of converging on the truth.”

Additionally, in his article Are we stuck in filter bubbles? Here are five potential paths out, Jonathan Stray asks some pertinent questions relating to Pariser’s assertions.  Among other things, Stray notes that our information streams may not have been all that great in the time before technology enabled automated mass-personalization – a fair point, as long as one accepts that trade-offs have been made, and one of those is in fact the polarization of the populace and degradation of its members as civic actors.  He notes that better filtering algorithms must come – but I ask: until that day, how do we mitigate the effects of the ones we have now?  Stray argues that if you map out online activity, you’ll see that the polarization has already happened.  And he asks a valid question: when thinking about this issue, why draw the line at the American context and the ‘culture war’?  Pariser’s TED talk doesn’t address this question at all.

It is important also to look at the historical context.  American societal polarization, fueled by the ability for individuals to choose their own media input since the 1980s, is older than the public Internet.  The telecom deregulation and the related cable television revolution began the fragmentation in mass US audiences.  The polarization of radio broadcasters and mainstream print journalism outlets (as they were bought up by conglomerates) followed suit.  So the problem in the US is bigger and older than the Web.

I believe that the Internet and related information technologies offer us both paths.  On the one side, as Stray and the example of Wikipedia point out, people can always choose to leave their filter bubbles – technology gives us direct routes to leave our wants behind and face the rest of the world.  But Pariser is right that we should be concerned, because as Stray’s mapping shows, the overwhelmingly vast majority of Internet users do not do that.  And they never will.  Far more importantly, in the cases of these new customization algorithms, people aren’t making the choices anymore.  The algorithms are.