Social and Political Innovation through Social Media

Last week I attended a great panel on Social and Political Innovation through Social Media as part of Social Media Week NYC. It was hosted by Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) at the New York Times building and organized by Toby Daniels (@tobyd). The panelists included Chris Hughes, co-founder of Facebook and director of online organizing for President Obama's campaign; Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Forum, an annual conference and website covering the intersection of politics and technology; and Jamie Daves, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur with more than ten years of experience in the public sector who has helped found a number of successful nonprofit and political organizations. Here are the highlights from my notes:

Jamie Daves emphasized the disruptive effect new media technologies have always had when they shift the social balance of power to new agents. He also mused whether the two components of democratic capitalism can continue to function in their current forms worldwide given the current trends and uncertainty. Daves said that the rise of social media is creating the largest accrual of social capital we've ever seen. This trend forces corporations to no longer be faceless, and it forces the people who work in business to engage as individuals, leading to an increase in personal responsibility and accountability.

Rasiej said Obama scored points by being the first national candidate to use the pronoun "we." He also noted that an organized minority will always triumph over a disorganized majority, and that social media technologies have lowered the cost of organization.

Chris Hughes noted that the strategy behind my.BarackObama.com was to provide an organizing toolset for supporters to do their own outreach, fund raising, and event hosting.

Rasiej noted that Whitehouse.gov is lackluster so far concerning social media. "Technically every citizen should have their own login," he said. But government doesn't have a Chief Technology Officer to guide things yet, and discussion moderation tools are still imperfect.

Hughes said these things require time, technology, and money. The Bush White House had only one person manning the Web. And the goals are more complex once you're in office, whereas a presidential campaign has one focus: winning.

Daves noted that it was naive of government to be scared of contact when it could actually benefit from the crowd-sourcing of answers. The trick is to connect common strands and the people who weave them. To illustrate his point, Daves cited one of the recent crane crashes here in NYC. There had been numerous citizen complaints about the shakiness of the construction site, but the local government didn't put their comments together into a bigger picture, and the people had no means of finding each other online to amplify their message.

Rasiej said 95 percent of human behavior is about maintaining position, so it's no wonder governments are slow to adapt to new technologies. For example, he came to be known as "wifi guy" when he ran in 2005 for Public Advocate in New York City because he wanted to modernize the city's telecom infrastructure. Nowadays a pejorative and reductive moniker like that might not stick, or might be a positive, because the upside is that social norms change relative to power and technology.

Daves emphasized that the universal service model for broadband connectivity is essential. He cited Pew statistics showing that 75 percent of people 18–24 are active in social networking.

Rasiej replied that older demographics are fast catching up and show some of the strongest growth rates. Globally he said many people will receive a mobile phone before they get access to clean water. Old institutions may fade in the face of these new technologies. One example where mobile phones could prove particularly useful is election monitoring. They may also unleash a new type of grassroots populism. For example, reform of marijuana laws consistently rises to the top of online forums where users are allowed to vote on commonsense priorities for their government.

Daves commented on the roles and responsibilities of old versus new media. We shouldn't look to the New York Times for social solutions, he said. They do a great job articulating the problems, but the mobilization will come from elsewhere.

A question was raised about the economic meltdown and whether this signified a broader meltdown of trust in our society. Hughes responded that transparency is actually natural to Internet technology. Rasiej agreed, stating that in a world of social media it's easier to build than destroy, and there's more vetting than ever before. Everything is recorded, meaning that to fear Big Brother is to fear ourselves.

Another question was raised about the momentum built by the Obama campaign and where it will go now. Hughes, speaking now as a private observer, said they had compiled 13 million emails and that 2 million accounts had been created on my.BarackObama.com, so the infrastructure of a movement does exist and could be channeled into activism, service, and other goals.

A question was raised as to whether social media will chip into the two-party system. Rasiej believes we have drifted into a somewhat post-partisan era where people may be more likely to self-identify as empowered citizens rather than Democrats.

Rasiej also discussed the potential of social media to save politicians from being "sound bited" to death in traditional press conferences. Interactivity can spur a virtuous circle between representatives and their constituents, as was somewhat the case when a cadre of my.BarackObama.com supporters staged the FISA Rebellion, forming a popular group within Obama's own site and threatening to suspend their fund-raising if they didn't get some straight answers from him on warrantless wiretapping. Obama responded directly to prove that he was willing to listen.

Rasiej seemed adamant, however, that social media will not morph government into rule by popular referendum, à la thumbs down in the Coliseum. But I wonder if he isn't being a little preemptive in his reasoning here. If the evolution of technology makes it possible to give more power back to the people, A LOT MORE POWER, why shouldn't it? One can conceive of a People's Digital Parliament rising in parallel to the traditional structures of government and wielding significant influence over legislators. Perhaps it would eventually be annexed to the government as a new branch with specific and limited authority. There may come a day when the dusty documents of a predominantly agrarian society, ingenious though they were, will have to be discarded and rewritten to fit the new ethics, politics, and technologies.

Meanwhile, said Daves, Members of Congress pay attention to four "M" words: Message, Membership, Media, and Money. And Rasiej concluded that there will be no expansion of participatory democracy in America without rebuilding education. Education funding and our view of it has been choked for decades, he said, citing the one hour per week that New York City school children spend on a computer.

Just Registered for 5 Boro Bike Tour!

It would be sweet to have some compadres saddle up and ride the 5 Boro Bike Tour with me on May 3. Hurry, though. It's limited to the first 30,000 riders who sign up. My Climate Ride pals Rob Rose and Skylar Lyon are already registered.


Behind the Great Firewall of China: Freedom, Control, and Democracy on the Internet

The Great Firewall of China is widely known, but what does it look like, how does it operate? Policy Innovations advisor Rebecca MacKinnon gave a fascinating presentation on Freedom and Control on the Internet at the Open Society Institute in New York earlier this week, detailing some of the trends and practices in Chinese censorship.

Search engine censorship is one of the primary forms. Rebecca showed examples of the different sets of image results one gets from Google.com and from Google.cn when searching for Tiananmen massacre. Google.com, the global site, returns photos depicting violence and victims. Google.cn, the Chinese domestic version, shows nothing of the sort. Instead the results include at least one photo of the Nanjing massacre.

Rebecca also showed what happens when you try to visit banned sites or post sensitive words to a blog. Banned sites are made to look like you're experiencing a temporary technical error, and blog posts with sensitive words can elicit a pop-up that says the "community editors" will get back to you shortly, so don't repost your text. Of course, you never hear from them and your draft never gets published.

The Chinese government is also proactive about shaping opinions online, throwing their support behind organizations like anti-CNN, a website that combats "the lies and distortions of facts from the Western media." They also pay members of what has come to be known as the 50-Cent Party to post opinions favoring the government and its policies in online forums. 50 Cent refers not to the American rapper but the per-post rate these loyalists receive.

Spoof and humor seems to be the predominant form of online criticism that is somewhat tolerated. In the wake of the recent Mandarin Oriental hotel fire next to the Chinese Central TV headquarters building—which has been dubbed the "underpants" building by Beijingers due to its unique two-legged architecture—various visual puns and mashups appeared online mocking CCTV. It turns out CCTV caused the blaze with illegal fireworks while celebrating Chinese New Year. Sadly one firefighter died and several were injured in the incident, but humor nonetheless belongs in politics, as the Tina Fey phenomenon made clear during the U.S. election.

A parallel trend of resistance is what Harvard's Ethan Zuckerman describes as the cute cat theory of digital activism: where free speech, organizing, and other forms of anti-authoritarian protest piggyback on social media that are primarily intended for benign and mundane activities like sharing photos of adorable pets. Authorities can't take down the whole site to delete the protest group pages without killing the cat appreciation society pages, too.

So is the Chinese government worried about online activism and dissent moving into the streets? Very much so. This is where the rubber meets the road, said MacKinnon, although no opposition party has yet to emerge from the Internet. The true test may come later this year as economic downturn meets a slew of dramatic anniversaries: March 31, 1959, Dalai Lama flees Tibet; June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square; October 1, 1949, People's Republic of China founded.

MacKinnon emphasized that Internet norms in the West will influence what happens in China. We're at a stage where large communications companies exist in a mediating layer between people and their governments. If this layer remains opaque, then the system will tend to reinforce incumbent power, she said. To help keep things transparent, Rebecca has worked to develop the Global Network Initiative, a voluntary code of conduct for the ICT industry. Through a multi-stakeholder process, GNI has crafted a "collaborative approach to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector." She says we may see companies conducting "human rights feasibility assessments" in the near future.

Operating in an environment of censorship presents ICT companies with significant ethical choices. Should they fudge on their philosophy to gain early market access? Will fostering some openness be better than none at all? How sensitive should they be to the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation?

Chinese private enterprises don't have the luxury of ruminating on these matters. In fact, they are legally responsible for the content their users post, and the government can rescind their business licenses if they don't manage to keep controversial material off the web. For the individual user who wants to maintain freedom and anonymity, there are options such as the Tor project.