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Rob Horowitz: Imagine Democracy, Powered Digitally

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


A provocative mix of the new Silicon Valley establishment, politicos, activists, new media practitioners, academics and fledgling online entrepreneurs came together last week at the 10th annual Personal Democracy Forum. Among the speakers and panelists at the Forum–which was held at NYU–were Sarah Critchfield, Editorial Director of Upworthy.com, Nicco Melli, former webmaster for Howard Dean’s Presidential Campaign, Nate Silver, author of the 538 blog, Rod Beckstrom, former Director of the US Cybersecurity Center, Jeremy Bird, National Field Director of the Obama campaign, and Terry Sullivan, manager of Senator Marco Rubio's (R-FL) political operation (disclosure: I attended the Forum in my capacity as a consultant to The Citizens Campaign—a NJ based organization).   

Dedicated to exploring the intersection between politics and technology with the overall goal of  promoting “the realization of Personal Democracy, where everyone is a full participant”, the Personal Democracy Forum provided an excellent vantage point to think about whether or not the new online tools that are revolutionizing how we consume media, purchase products and conduct election and issue campaigns simply reinforce and amplify partisanship and rigid ideology by creating easy avenues for like-minded people to connect with each other. Or on the other hand, whether or not tools–such as social media and “big data,”–can be adapted to forge the kind of broad and constructive conversation essential to reaching principled compromises and breaking the current policy gridlock.

As Personal Democracy Forum accurately asserts, “Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, or a leader. If what they have to say is compelling, it will spread. The cost of finding like-minded souls, banding together, and speaking to the powerful has dropped to almost zero.” For example, according to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, 60 percent of American adults now use a social networking site, such as Facebook or Twitter, and two out of three of these social media users have shared their own political thoughts; linked to political information; or done other kinds of political or civic activities through social media. In the 2012 election, more then 1-in-5 registered voters shared their choice for President on social media.
The ability of citizens to reach beyond their neighborhood and engage others with similar interests through online conversations is an increasingly powerful force in our politics and campaigns. Research shows that in a world in which choices have multiplied and the average person receives thousands of marketing messages each week, paradoxically the persuasive power of old-fashioned word of mouth has actually grown. Once known as opinion leaders, "navigators", a term coined by Bush Chief Strategist Matt Dowd,–the one-in-10 of us who tell the rest of us where to shop, what new restaurant to try and who to vote for–are playing a larger role in our politics even at the Presidential level. At the Forum, Obama 2012 Field Director Jeremy Bird, explained that the ‘big data’ assembled by the campaign–basically a combination of information about past voting habits and consumer product choices that correlate strongly with issue priority and vote preference–provided the ability to arm these navigators or ‘influencers’’ with a finely targeted group of voters, ensuring maximum results from personal contact. In this view, one I mainly share, the use of all the data available on the internet, at least for this purpose, is not primarily an invasion of privacy or a form or marketing manipulation; it is a useful tool that empowers interested citizens to play a central role in campaigns and issues.
The critical challenge that remains to be met is to devise ways to employ these same tools to assist in reaching elusive common ground—to forge a constructive civic conversation, encouraging people to leave their partisan cubbyholes and engage with people with whom they disagree as well as bringing the less politically active broad middle of the electorate into the new online public square. To put it another way, we must figure out how to best use these new tools to come together as citizens first.
There are some encouraging signs, however. For example, Code for America, a non-profit which recruits people with great technical expertise and turns them loose on public problems, is developing new online tools that give citizens the real time information that enables them to more fully participate in decisions that will shape their neighborhood’s and city’s future. Applications such as BlightStatus, which offers residents up-to-date information on the status of blighted properties in their community and Mindmixer, which provides a web platform for community leaders to crowd-source ideas, share assets and manage feedback are examples of the type of innovations that can help foster the broader conversation needed.
Another positive example is the work of Citizeninvestor, a new for-profit company, which has devised a good mechanism for interested citizens to band together and jointly fundraise for worthwhile local government projects such as neighborhood pools or parks—projects that in today’s tough budget times would otherwise be shelved or delayed. Sometimes, this new source of private funding leverages public funds, creating true public-private partnerships designed to meet real community needs.

And the Annette Strauss Institute at the University of Texas is experimenting with nuts and bolts ways to get people to read and share media content in which they may not agree, One interesting finding is that adding a “Respect’ button to Facebook, makes people more inclined to click on it and share content that does not reflect their ideology than is the case with the current status quo of the ‘Like” button being the only option for indicating approval.

Still, the jury is out on whether a broad citizen-based, ongoing and politically consequential conversation about the big policy challenges can be generated using these new, powerful online tools. The theme of this year’s Personal Democracy Forum was “Think Bigger”. This is just the kind of big civic problem that new technology experts, political operatives and citizen activists must dedicate themselves to solving. There are some signs of progress, but much work ahead to get the job done.
Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.


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