Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part series elaborating on comments I made to Mother Jones as part of their special Democracy 2.0 issue. Today, I take up a few more of the many implications of this interplay between participatory culture and participatory democracy.
Democracy and the Participation Gap
While I remain firm in my belief that, as I explained here some months ago, the rise of participatory culture has the potential to renew participatory democracy, I remain concerned about the participation gap, those who lack the technical access, the cultural competencies, and the sense of empowerment needed to fully participate in this new political culture.
MJ: Are there elements about the use of technology that could make the political process less democratic?
HJ: If the central conversation about the election is only online, rather than through broadcast television, large numbers of people will simply not have access to what the candidates are saying. So, for some people, this campaign is going to be more accessible than ever before. They have access to more information; they can drill deeper; they can maintain regular contact with the campaign; they can interact with other supporters and so forth. For others, who have no access or limited access to the Internet, moving all this activity online suggests that they don’t count, their voices don’t matter. They have no access to the information to make reliable decisions. And it’s not the campaigns who are doing that, so much as broadcast television, which is decreasing the coverage that it provides of the party conventions. It’s local newspapers that are cutting back the number of pages devoted to candidates for office. Those are the things that make the use of new media less democratic, because they are falling back on the presence of the new media to justify cutting back on basic information sources that citizens who don’t have online access would rely on to follow the political process….
Whenever we look towards new and emerging platforms as a resource for democracy, we must at the same time consider who is being left behind. And I do see dangers at a moment when mainstream media is cutting down on its news coverage of the presidential nominating process and much of the information is moving to cable or digital media. The people who are going to have to work hardest to get access to information and participate within the process are going to be those who have historically felt the most disenfranchised in the first place. The move towards digital campaigning may capture the imagination of many young voters but it may also exclude many low income participants.
Social Networks as Political Interfaces
My conversation with Mother Jones turned towards the use of social networking sites, another major innovation in this year’s campaign:
HJ: I think some of it has to do with the use of MySpace by the Obama campaign, which is something that I don’t think is necessarily being [deployed] by the other campaigns as effectively yet–[Obama's supporters show] an understanding of how you use social networking to reach young voters. It’s not about bringing people to your site and keeping them there; it’s about giving people the resources to take your message with them wherever they want to go. It’s allowing people to befriend the Obama campaign via MySpace and the other social networking pages. It’s really clever because it makes the social affiliation of the campaign much more visible, and it allows all those people to connect to each other and feel a sense of affiliation, as opposed to simply receiving a message from on high. That’s why the anti-Hillary 1984 campaign commercial that circulated was so much more credible than the one that reacted to it, because there is a sense of the Clinton campaign speaking to us from a contained space as opposed to breaking free of that and creating a new relationship with the voters.
In many ways, the interfaces campaigns adopt model their idea about the relationship between political leaders and citizens. I have long felt that the most authoritarian candidates tend to have top-down structures built into their web presences, where-as those candidates who want to establish a more dialogic relationship are drawn towards community-building and networking capacities on their sites. Most of the media attention on the campaign’s use of MySpace has focused exclusively on the direct links the campaign is creating with individual voters, but it is part of the nature of social networks that it is also enabling supporters to connect to each other without going through a central hub and it remains to be seen how this impacts the campaign. It’s interesting to think about Hillary’s use of campaign videos in this way. Supporters see these videos as the later day equivalent of the Fire Side Chat. I get the analogy. FDR used radio, then a relatively new political platform, to speak directly to Americans in their living rooms and adopted a frank, informal, and conversational tone appropriate to the nature of such an exchange. In many ways, Hillary Clinton is adopting that same tone in her confessional-style videos — which would seem totally appropriate for an era of broadcasting but which now seem much too one-directional to work in a networked culture.
Credability, Partisanship, and Wiki-Politics
As the interview continued, Mother Jones asked me about issues of credibility given the ways that videos and other content now circulates well beyond its original context and given what I have said here about the likelihoods that many of the videos will attempt to mask their origins.
MJ: What effects is this going to ultimately have on how people filter the information that they’re getting through this media? Eventually, will they simply disbelieve anything they see?
HJ: I think there’s going to be skepticism and not cynicism. We should be skeptical of the sources of information that come to us via these grassroots channels. At the same time, we’ve seen these emerging knowledge cultures, these sort of large-scale grassroots communities that pull in information and debunk these things in very quick order. The turnaround is really fast, and for those people who are wired, that flow of information is surprisingly effective, what people are calling “collective intelligence,” the ability of people to collectively pool their knowledge and share what they found. And I think that, actually, collective intelligence is a profoundly democratic process. It’s social at its root, and it allows people to form communities around debating political issues and how the candidates are representing themselves to the public. It makes us less susceptible to negative campaign advertising than we’ve been before.
MJ: How sophisticated do you think online media consumers are at this stage? And to what degree are these collective intelligence systems currently up to the task of catching misleading information?
HJ: The answer to the first question is relatively sophisticated. If we make our political process more like Wikipedia, then I think we create the space that’s needed for people to pull knowledge and form a consensus and weed through conflicting evidence. I think we’re not quite there yet. I think the interesting thing is how much this next campaign cycle accelerates the process of people moving from playing with collective intelligence to deploying collective intelligence as a source of political power. I think that’s what we’re going to see unfolding in the next couple of years. And I don’t know if we’re ready for the task yet, but I think we’re going to grow up pretty fast.
The reference to Wikipedia, here, picks up on something I said earlier in the conversation which is missing from the web transcript but was quoted in the print magazine:
The blogosphere has done a really bad job in general of finding a common space between disagreeing parties. It probably does contribute to the further partisanization of American politics. Wikipedia represents the alternative model, one where people from different political backgrounds could work together. But it depends on the willingness of the candidates and the campaigns to try to come up with a purple strategy as opposed to a red-vs-blue strategy.
Without idealizing Wikipedia, the group has developed a series of ethical norms about how to deal with conflicting views or competing claims which could be a good model for how people of good will but opposing perspective might work together to reshape the political process. We have created a climate in this country which makes it difficult if not impossible for either political party to govern because both are preoccupied with winning.
My reference here to a Purple strategy is a gesture towards a well publicized map produced in the aftermath of the last election which tried to represent the balance of votes in each state based on a blending of red and blue. No state is pure blue or red, despite our most common ways of depicting election results. In fact, many of the individual states are closely balanced. Showing them as purple states helps reveal some of the commonalities between different regions of the country rather than focusing purely on divisions. And so some political commentators have started to talk about “purple strategy” and you can see signs of this “purple strategy” emerging from candidates such as Obama in the Democratic Party or Hucklebee in the GOP. My fantasy was that campaigns might use wikis to try to identify points of consensus which could be used to broaden their political base, rather than deploying bloggers to try to draw blood from the opposing camp.
Interestingly, Mother Jones also spoke with Wikipedia visionary Jimmy Wales to get his perspective:
JW: One of the concerns people have had about blogs is that they are going to have a very divisive influence because people only read blogs that they agree with, and they won’t get their news from the mainstream media, which are supposed to be neutral. But you see a couple of things happening. First, blogs are hardly the only form of new media. People come to Wikipedia all the time, which is quite clearly as neutral as anything can be, I think. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good. At Wikipedia itself, we are now seeing a large volume of information being created that has been put through an extensive process of compromise, with people from very diverse viewpoints really hammering away at it to find some compromised view that everybody is satisfied with.
Also, you see people who are really active in reading blogs do end up reading opinions that they disagree with because bloggers get into arguments and link up back and forth and have those debates. So people do get exposed to alternative viewpoints, far more than they would if they had one source of information. I think it’s pretty clear that people are getting better information than they used to.
I hope to write more about the use of new media in the campaign in the coming months.
A Valuable Resource
In parting, let me do a shout out to a very interesting project focused on the role of media in presidential campaigns, produced by Project Look Sharp. If you are an educator, you can download here a range of images, sound files, and videos going back across the entire history of the nation, which you can use in talking with your students about the political process. I was lucky enough to see a presentation by Chris Sperry from Project Look Sharp at the Alliance for a Media Literate America last month and being the political campaign buff that I was, had a grand time seeing the materials they had collected — from images of 19th century street parades to the fireside chats, from Nixon’s Checkers speech to Saturday Night Live spoofs of the presidential debates.