Spark Blog Notes from the Spark Team

November 5, 2012

Election Disruption: Digital Citizens and Mass Media

Evelyn Messinger is the founder of the media company citizenschannel.org

The 2012 campaign season has gone on for so long, it’s hard to believe it has finally come to an end. Regardless of who wins, Politico.com will likely go back into hibernation until 2014, my Facebook friends will return to posting kitten pictures, and local TV stations will somehow survive on a diet of mattress outlet ads.

In this digital era, democracy and innovation evolve together. From Guttenburg’s printing press to Zuckerberg’s Facebook, citizens have used technology to insert themselves into political discourse. 2004 became the year of the blogger. In 2008, small online campaign donations became a significant force. And 2010 saw Facebook have an impact on changing the political landscape.

These technological milestones show how the democratic power of the people increases when they use media tools collectively to weigh in on policy. This online activity and activism creates what are known as digital citizens.  

Defining the Digital Citizen

So what makes a digital citizen as opposed to someone who simply surfs the Web and uses social media? First, digital citizens know they can’t change policy solely by using electronic devices (yet). Second, digital citizens seek to transform and/or reframe a policy discussion to address the issues they care about. And third, digital citizens know that they must act collectively to have any real influence, teaming up with the like-minded and coordinating their efforts.

Jamming the Signal

Digital citizenship is by nature highly disruptive, because politicians and pundits are often not willing to give up control of the discussion. And they are not shy about appropriating the tools developed by citizens: Just about every candidate has his or her own Twitter account, Facebook page, and team of supportive bloggers.

But how effective can digital citizens be against the billion-dollar engine of party politics and lobbyist influencers? Digital citizenship is highly dependent on the features of the media tools in play, so there is a spectrum of impact based on the reach of that platform. Here’s a look at the disruptive influence digital citizens have had in the 2012 election.

Fact-Checking

The rise of nearly instantaneous fact-checking during televised speeches and debates has come into its own in 2012. Started by newspapers and boosted by bloggers, fact-checking has grown beyond the control of political spin, from politifact.com’s famous “Pants on Fire,” to the Washington Post’s “Pinocchio” ratings. And fact-checkers are being checked by bloggers, so we are moving in the right direction.

Mass Media

As in previous elections, this cycle saw citizens trotted out on broadcast and cable networks to “have their say.” They were clustered in left- or right-leaning groups or corralled as “undecideds” to twiddle knobs during CNN debate coverage. Changing the content of the discussion is rarely allowed. And when the election is over, citizens are routinely packed off to “continue the discussion” online.

Social Networking

Voters, especially young ones, are much more likelyto register to vote when asked to by someone they know. And registration is made simple by online widgets like Rock The Vote’s, which sort through local regulations, send you the correct documents, and evenremind youwhen voting day arrives.

YouTube and User-Generated Content

FOX News blazed a trail this election cycle by deploying the most powerful medium, television, as a megaphone for YouTube videos created by Tea Party activists.

In a parry by digital citizens, a phone app has been created tohelp poll-watchers report wrong-doing, and Videothevote is training volunteers to, well, video the vote, and post their videos online. (Laws concerning video at polling places are sketchy at best, so check the rules in your state here).

Meanwhile, watchdogs are using video to prevent voter fraud, as well as election protection groups who are working to thwart efforts to disenfranchise minority voters. All this guarantees enough tumult and conflict to attract the mass media, giving digital citizens even more disruptive power.

Legitimizing Digital Citizens

This summer, my organization’s Digital Citizen Initiative sponsored a competition using multiple media platforms. Two young Midwesterners were voted-up by their online supporters to become citizen journalists at the 2012 conventions for a national TV channel. Their “beat” was money in politics—not a popular subject at the conventions—but one that 76% of Americans say is important.

This approach uses free-wheeling online political discussion to surface the issues people care about, social networking to locate citizens who best represent the public’s perspective, and mass media to put the crucial questions to those in power. Even if digital citizens may not solely have the power to elect presidents, filibuster bills, or end political corruption, they can use media in new ways to expand the power of the people in the digital age. 


 This article is commissioned by Qualcomm Incorporated. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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