Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Understanding digital civics

Earlier this week, I gave a lecture titled “The Emergence of Digital Civics” at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. I was in South Austalia to give another lecture, a joint lecture with Dr. Genevieve Bell of Intel in memory of her friend James Tizard. I hope to write up the talks Genevieve and I gave, but since I had detailed notes for my civics lecture, I’ve worked them into a blog post.


In Kansas City, a young man named Jase Wilson is trying to build a trolley system. Kansas City applied to the US department of transportation for a grant to help build the trolley line and was rejected. So Jase built a website called Neighbor.ly, and asked his friends and neighbors to help him raise $10 million towards the project.

I don’t know if Jase is going to succeed – given that he’s only raised a few thousand dollars so far, it seems pretty unlikely. But I’m paying attention to Jase’s experiment, because I think he’s one of the pioneers experimenting with what I’m calling internet-native civics. Whether Jase succeeds or fails, his experiment raises the question: How do people who’ve grown up using the internet engage in civic life? I see great potential and great possible harm from some of these experiments. I worry we’re heading uncritically towards a different way of conceiving of the civic relationships between individuals and governments. But I also think that if we can figure out how to harness these internet-based forms of civic engagement, we might revitalize political participation.

There’s a worthwhile critique of discussions about the internet and civic engagement that asks why we’d impute any special powers to a communication medium. I agree that we are oversimplifying situations when we declare that Facebook overthrew Mubarak or that Chinese authoritarianism cannot survive the rise of Weibo microblogging services. But it would also be a mistake not to take seriously the role of new communications media in understanding civic life. In democratic states, citizens need information about what challenges a government faces and what it’s proposing to do about it to be effective citizens. And citizens need to be able to connect with one another to discuss, debate and propose solutions. What a communications medium makes possible has a shaping influence on civic life.

In the United States, the government made an investment early on in a technology designed to connect citizens so they could govern themselves. This wasn’t the internet, but the postal system, established in the US Constitution, and implemented in a way that encouraged citizens to use the mails, the connective technology of the time, as a civic space. The postal system subsidized the distribution of newspapers, allowing newspaper publishers to trade “exchange copies” with other publishers at no cost, a phenomenon which meant content was often reprinted, with a paper in one state offering perspectives from a distant city. It cost so much less to send a newspaper than a private letter that frugal correspondents sometimes composed letters by placing pinpricks under words in newspaper articles. With costs of newspapers so low, many Americans subscribed to several papers, reading news and opinion from multiple political and geographic perspectives. (I’m leaning heavily on Paul Starr’s “The Creation of the Media” here, both for the historical events and the core insight on media structure and democratic process.)

As the structure of the media industry changed, we see some parallel changes in politics. The rise of advertising as a major source of newspaper revenue, replacing subscription, encouraged newspapers to move from partisan, opinionated organs to “objective” papers that sought to report events in a way to attract readers of all political persuasions. Papers increased in size and began covering more national and international events, relying on reports via telegraph to provide information, and published less opinion content. This shift from a multifaceted party press, with a great deal of local color and opinion, to a more nationally focused press coincides with the rise of a strong two party system and the lessening of local influence over political platforms. As broadcast media, and especially television, become dominant media forms, politics becomes synchronized nationally. It’s no longer possible to speak one way in one region, and differently in another – pander to segregationists in the South and you’ll be seen by an audience in the North as well. My friend danah boyd refers to “unseen audiences” in her work on social media – young people writing to their friends on Facebook aren’t always cognizant of future employers, who might read their posts. Politicians quickly became aware of these unseen audiences and changed their rhetoric to appeal to these wider audiences.

This change has helped stamp out some of the peculiarities and quirks of US politics. Even within a two-party system, we had political parties that had regional variations: Dixiecrats were reliably democratic, but far from progressive on issues of racial justice, while the Northeast featured a now extinct species of politician, the socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican. (I miss them. Such lovely plumage.) Broadcast media has helped act as a synchronizing function, allowing party leaders to demand their candidates stay in line with party values, whatever local sensibilities might otherwise dictate. Being declared outside the mainstream of a party is the kiss of death. Once Lincoln Chafee, a decidedly quirky Rhode Island liberal Republican, was declared a RINO – “Republican In Name Only” – his national political career was over, even though his stances are certainly acceptable to local voters, who elected him Rhode Island’s governor. The end result is two deeply polarized parties, each with a deep geographic base and a largely unshakeable platform, with very little incentive to talk with the other.

Another effect of the rise of broadcast media is a rise in fiscal costs of politics. Television is very expensive, which turns political campaigns into fundraising contests. For years, it’s been routine to report on political campaigns by comparing how much money each candidate has raised. Now the game has taken on a new dimension with the Citizens United ruling, which gives corporations the same rights as individuals to spend in elections, and has created a new category of SuperPACs, designed to work on behalf of a candidate, but not “in coordination” with that candidate. Thus far, the 2012 campaign is shaping up to be one of the nastier campaigns in recent memory, focused less on the issues and more on the personal shortcomings of each candidate. (And, while I support President Obama, I fear his campaign may actually be nastier than the Romney campaign thus far.)

Legal scholar Larry Lessig suggests we’re in an age of corporate capture of American politics, a form of corruption so deep that there’s no alternative but to strike at the root: public financing for campaigns, end of corporate personhood. He may be right. But there’s another school of thought that sees an evolution of politics in parallel with a shift in dominant media. As we move towards participatory, internet-based media, perhaps we’re moving towards a newly participatory, internet-based democracy.

This idea surfaced in a big way during the Howard Dean campaign in 2004. Dean was a democratic candidate for president in 2004, and while he fell far short of the nomination, he captured the imagination of a large group of tech-savvy activists, who saw an opportunity to build a political platform and policy proposals online. That participatory energy was harnessed well by Barack Obama in 2008, who asked suporters to focus their efforts not on developing policy proposals, but on promoting his candidacy. Obama built a massive email list, which allowed him to raise huge sums of money through small contributions. But once he got elected, it was less clear that his presidency would feature online participation. An early experiment to set priorities for the administration for the first 100 days of the presidency invited supporters to propose high priority issues. When online voters pushed marijuana legalization to the top of the stack, Obama made it clear that he wasn’t going to be unduly influenced by this online input. It’s certainly possible that other forms of online deliberation will have an influence in American politics, but it’s far from obvious that collaborative authoring of legislation (as with the effort to write alternatives to SOPA/PIPA) will be embraced by those in power. And these systems tend to fall victim to capture by those who are the most articulate or the most persistent, who are able to out-talk others through skill or relentlessness.

If collective deliberation hasn’t sharply transformed politics, perhaps access to government data will. The Obama administration committed to policies of opening government data, with mixed reviews. In the meantime, the Sunlight Foundation and others have been collecting and presenting data designed to keep government accountable and expose possible corruption. There have been some impressive victories in the space, like the exposure of family members working for pay on political campaigns, allowing a politician’s family to benefit financially from political donations. While these data sets and tools are deeply useful for political junkies and to journalists, they don’t seem to be reaching the general public.

MySociety, a UK-based open government firm headed by Tom Steinberg, approaches the problem of engaging the public with government data from a different perspective. While Steinberg and his colleagues are deeply interested in and engaged with public data, they don’t assume that their users are. Instead, they offer tools like FixMyStreet, which allows individuals to take a photograph of things that need fixing in their neighborhood and upload the images and coordinates to the site. This allows FixMyStreet to provide local governments with a map of complaints, but the real aim of the system is more subtle: it’s designed to teach users how to be powerful and effective citizens. When your complaint of a pothole doesn’t lead to rapid repair, FixMyStreet contacts you, reminds you that the issue is still outstanding and suggests what you might do to get a response, escalating the complaint up the local government hierarchy. FixMyTransport goes a step further and suggests that you’re unlikely to fix many transit problems unless you and others in your neighborhood form groups to lobby for systemic change… and then introduces you to others in your neighborhood interested in these issues. What looked like a simple, user-friendly tool to enable you to report a problem becomes an introductory course in civics, with a focus on who need to nag, pressure and embarrass to achieve change.

One of the pioneers in civics education in the US is Senator Bob Graham. Graham spent a life in public service, as a state legislator, governor and finally as one of the state’s two senators, and with 38 years of public service, he knows a thing or two about how government works. Graham has dedicated his retirement to helping students understand civics and become engaged citizens. His book, “America, the Owner’s Manual” is a thoughtful course in civics designed for the contemporary college student. Each of ten chapters starts with a story in which young people are able to accomplish change through a different set of tactics, then outlines the steps you’d need to take to understand the government well enough to know who to influence, how to marshall facts and test the waters of public opinion, and to influence policymakers.

I read the book on the flight from Boston to northern Florida to meet with the director of the Bob Graham Center at the University of Florida, and realized that was caught between two reactions. On the one hand, I thought Graham’s book was one of the best introductions to civics I’d read, and I wanted to share it with as many people as possible. My other impulse was to declare the book completely unrealistic, impractical and out of touch with a moment in time where American politics seems to be irretrievably broken.

Several of Graham’s examples involve influencing Congress, a body that now faces a 13% approval rating. As recently as two decades ago, congressional approval was near 70%. What’s changed? Partisan divides are so sharp that cooperation seems impossible, and abuse of the senate’s filibuster and hold rules has slowed the legislative process to a crawl. The situation is so bad that the government came within days of defaulting on treasury debt payments due to congressional intransigence. And this is the body Graham would like young people to influence to seek change?

The rise of four popular movements suggests that activists to the left and the right aren’t looking to Congress for change. Consider these four groups – the Tea Party, the Occupy Movement, Anonymous and Wikileaks. The Tea Party begins from the assumption that government is bound to screw things up, and that eliminating government or blocking its effectiveness is the best citizens can hope for. Heavily influenced by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, many Tea Party activists cheered the near-default on treasury bills. Default would make it harder for the government to borrow, which would force government to contract through a strategy called “starve the beast”. If we don’t permit taxes to rise and insist on eliminating deficits, government will have to shrink.

Occupy has more global currency despite US origins, because the targets of the movement are inherently global: they’re multinational corporations and larger systems of capitalism. Inspired by frustration with bank bailouts and the perception that political influence is no longer in the hands of citizens, some of the most interesting work of the movement has been creating communities that are functioning independent of the existing state. They accept Lessig’s critique of corporate capture of the political process, but while they’re criticizing corporate personhood and corruption, they’re also trying to build alternative models on small scales, in individual encampments.

Wikileaks, to the extent that it’s an ideology and movement, rather than the struggles of Julian Assange against extradition, has focused on the idea that governments rely on secrecy to operate. Removing this secrecy will spark an immune reaction that will not just right the specific wrongs uncovered, but will change the entire system, either by prompting rebellion and demands for fairer government, or through a complex immune-system reaction where the system becomes so paranoid, it destroys itself. (Here I’m relying on Aaron Bady’s reading of an early Assange essay to posit an agenda to explain individual Wikileaks campaigns.)

It’s hard to know if Anonymous has a fixed mission, or just a method: using the internet to attack, embarrass and call attention to wrongs in the world. Given Anon’s tendency to do things “for the lulz” and to condemn the “moralfags” for being too concerned with politics, it’s always dangerous to pin a single philosophy on the movement. But many participants see themselves as engaged in a civic movement that’s making meaningful progress on the important issues of the day, including copyright and repression of free speech.

What these four movements have in common is that they’re not about civics as usual. In conventional civics, we define a problem, figure out who’s got the ability to change it, marsall support for our movement and persuade the decisionmakers to make a change. That’s not what these groups are looking for. The Tea Party wants those systems to shrink to the point of disfunctionality, removing problems from the realm of government and leaving them for individuals, NGOs and corporations to solve. Occupy seems deeply divided on whether it makes sense to try to influence existing systems of power, or to build new forms of power. Wikileaks and Anonymous see power as being located within media, not existing political systems, so they’re unlikely to pick loci of influence that are similar to those used by Bob Graham or Tom Steinberg.

When I work with activists around the world, I ask them to think through some of the same questions Graham asks: what is it you want, and who would you need to influence to achieve that change? Once you’ve got a theory of change, tactics tend to fall into place. In my discussions, I’m seeing four primary theories of change at work.

The one Senator Graham is most focused on is a legislative theory of change. Assume that we’re working to achieve full rights for gays and lesbians. In an open society, we’d pass legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexuality, enabling gay marriage, etc. It might be a hard push, but once the law was on the books, we wouldn’t have to fight individual battles. In the US, most human rights organizations tend to work on this level, which means their preferred tactics involve court cases to challenge bad legislation and influencing legislators to pass good legislation.

Passing a law so that your pothole gets filled isn’t the right solution to the problems Tom Steinberg is interested in. There, you need to find someone in a position of power and urge them to work on your behalf. This can work within complex governmental systems and in non-governmental systems – if you want a company to provide domestic partnership benefits for gay workers, even if you’ve not passed the legislation at a national level, you might have success persuading the CEO. And in closed societies, influencing authority figures may be the only theory of change that consistently works, as legislation may be selectively enforced. We can influence authority figures through lobbying, through petitions and through pressure campaigns, including boycotts and buycotts, as well as through mobilizing media attention.

What if you don’t just want gay and lesbian people to have the right to work and to marry? What if you actually want people to like and accept them? You’re likely to work for cultural change, seeking positive portrayals of gays and lesbians in the news and in entertainment media. It’s helpful to have legislation passed and to get authority figures to say the right things, but cultural change tends to be a media-driven theory of change, designed to slowly win over the hearts and minds of millions.

I’m seeing lots of activism these days that recognizes that it may take a long time to change laws, the attitudes of people in authority or the culture as a whole. In the meantime, can we provide services to people in harm’s way? If gay youth are at risk of bullying, depression and suicide, we might provide hotlines and build support groups. It’s hard to scale this work, but it’s a deeply satisfying and practical way of working, fixing addressable problems in a community. Whether or not our work sets an example for other communities, it was worth doing.

(Two interesting places I’m seeing the service theory of change at work: Occupy, and in Russia. Occupy encampments found themselves working closely with local homeless populations, and often providing food, shelter and some counseling services. In Russia, poor government response to forest fires in the summer of 2010 led to a volunteer movement to fill cars with food, clothes and blankets and deliver what was needed to affected communities. In both cases, the efforts are critiques of government failure, while provisioning services that were needed.)

If Senator Graham and Tom Steinberg are teaching civics, helping us learn to influence legislators and government authority figures, I think we’re starting to see lessons in cultural and service theories of change coming from the internet. Further, I’d argue that the internet is especially well suited for enabling change using these two theories, and that we’re likely to see civics that reflect the rise of citizen power through influencing culture and providing services directly.

The old civics taught us how to identify authority figures to influence and understand processes to lobby for change. A new digital civics teaches us how to raise attention for causes, how to use distributed populations to propose solutions to problems, and how to synchronize supporters around a strategy.

Let’s consider Kony2012, a campaign intended to mobilize youth in the US that grew so large it received significant attention on the Australian side of the Pacific. Invisible Children, the organizers of the movement, are deeply passionate about arresting Joseph Kony, Ugandan warlord and head of a group called the Lord’s Resistance Army. The organization faced a challenging problem, in that the LRA is not near the top of anyone’s threats list globally, or even in eastern Africa, probably with good reason. While Kony had a horrific impact on northern Uganda about a decade ago, he now has a few hundred fighters at most, and is hiding deep in the jungle, far from centers of population.

Invisible Children needed to get Kony onto the political agenda, which they accomplished by putting Kony on the media agenda. The goal of the Kony2012 campaign – to make Kony famous – is a classic cultural theory of change using social media as the primary tactic for spreading attention. With a deeply manipulative viral video and a very smart campaign that used students already committed to the movement to build social media buzz, lobbying celebrities to throw their attention to the movement, Invisible Children generated 100 million views of their video in six days and caught the attention of political leaders who may have been unaware of the issues previously. Was the campaign a success? If the goal was to get millions of Americans focused on the LRA on an ongoing basis, the answer is no – Invisible Children’s call to action, a night where students would take to the streets and spread information about Kony, received far less attention than the initial video. But it’s likely that the campaign succeeded as a more traditional legislative campaign, as Congress has reaffirmed support for an ongoing US troop presence in Uganda to pursue Kony.

By contrast, the Occupy movement gained a large amount of attention, but has had little success channeling it to specific legislative changes. The helpful website WhatTheFuckHasOccupyDone lists some of the movement’s accomplishments – while one (commentary on a bank regulation bill) engages specifically with legislative processes, and several point to concrete achievements in providing services, many of the accomplishments focus on cultural change. Occupy, the site asserts, has made inequality central to policy debates and called attention to ongoing issues of corporate influence over political systems. This may be true, though it’s hard to know how lasting these changes will be. But given Occupy’s reasonable skepticism of the legislative process, it may not be reasonable to ask movement leaders to push for change through a system they have little confidence in. The danger is that attention is a fragile commodity and tends to decay quickly, if not harnessed to action.

As with KONY2012, activism around SOPA/PIPA began by calling attention to an issue that hand’t been in the public spotlight, a bill backed by the copyright industry with far-reaching implications for internet governance. A broad range of activists worked to call attention to the bill, reframe it as a bill about censorship, not anti-piracy, and to propose dozens of different strategies to protest the legislation. One particular tactic – blacking out a website in protest – was promoted by online community Reddit, and when Wikipedia declared that the English-language version of the site would black out, hundreds of other sites decided to join the protest. This process of gaining attention, brainstorming multiple tactics and converging on a specific, scaleable tactic looks like one possible outline for successful digital activism, though it’s not clear it will work for other, less internet connected issues. But for the moment, SOPA/PIPA appears dead, and the internet has gained a cadre of activists willing to follow a “cat signal” to mobilize in defense of threats to the internet.

Raising attention is useful for attracting money and for passing legislation, but there’s a danger that attention can quickly dissipate if underlying political systems are too badly broken to make real change possible. In those cases, using attention to support direction action looks like a good alternative. This returns us to Jase Wilson in Kansas City. If the government won’t create a trolley line, Wilson wonders whether he might be able to build one himself by gaining attention and raising money from possible supporters.

If Wilson’s effort succeeded, there would be some tough questions to answer. Would the Kansas City government be required to maintain the trolley he and supporters built? What if they can’t afford to do so or decide they don’t want to do so? What message does it send that donors are able to provide services that a government can’t provide? Does this attempt to build public goods through crowdfunding inadvertently support the notion that governments should do less and people should do more, replacing taxes with voluntary donations?

There’s lots of reasons to love civic crowdfunding. It allows for distributed innovation, where individuals can propose interventions, raise attention to the most compelling ideas and synchronize giving to make pilot projects possible. It takes advantage of an internet-age fondness for choice. We’re interested in sponsoring exactly the projects we’re interested in, and having a relationship with the people we’re benefitting, whether we’re lending money on Kiva, donating it on GlobalGiving or DonorsChoose, or investing in an arts project on Kickstarter. But there’s a reason to fear it, too, especially if crowdfunding turns into an alternative to taxation and support for a minimalist state.

Efforts like Jase Wilson’s campaign quickly lead us into thorny philosophical territory. Do we celebrate or condemn these new forms of civic innovation? I think we might start addressing those questions by answering a simpler one – what are the strengths and weaknesses of these new forms of digital civics?

There’s good evidence that the internet helps us:
- Change the media agenda by channeling attention towards an issue or cause
- Brainstorming a wide range of possible tactics and theories of change
- Synchronizing people around one or more campaigns, contributing attention, money and other forms of engagement

Thus far, there’s less evidence that the internet helps with
- Creating spaces for reasoned deliberation, particularly across ideological lines
- Channeling attention to move levers of power
- Sustaining projects beyond their inception
- Choosing between competing demands for our attention – i.e., is capturing Kony more worthy of our attention that fighting for freedom of speech in Ethiopia, or was it simply better marketed.
- Ensuring that resources are allocated fairly

I’m beginning to think that certain types of civic participation are simply organic to the internet. Once we have the ability to create and share our own information, we create and spread media to promote the causes we care about and raise money to support the causes we value. If these trends are general ones, they might suggest what we might hope governments could do in response.

I believe we want governments to help us ensure that digital civics leads to a world that’s more fair. It’s the nature of civic engagement that the articulate and the angry get the most attention. This tendency may be amplified in digital civics, given that much of the practice involves manipulating and channeling attention. If digitally savvy activists gain support for their causes at the expense of the less wired, and communities with disposable income finance new public goods, while poorer communities go without, we should expect governments to help level the playing field. This might mean learning from civic innovations in more privileged communities and providing funding and support for similar interventions in less-resourced areas.

If internet civics are good at starting experiments and bad at sustaining projects, can we use civic crowdfunding to start experiments and taxes to sustain projects in the long term? If we’re bad at online deliberation, can some of the tricks of contemporary offline civics, like participatory budgeting, come into play in online spaces? In other words, if we’re moving to a world where online power complements offline power, how do we build and teach a new form of civics that takes advantage of what seems to work best offline and online?

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