I’m not much of a political blogger, unlike many of the folks at the Personal Democracy Forum conference. (Okay, that’s not true. I just write about African politics, not US issues, which puts me decidedly in the minority in this room.) So I wasn’t familiar with either Jane Hamsher, of Firedog Lake, a left-wing blog, or Patrick Ruffini, a Republican activist, organizer and blogger. They reminded me that I’m spending too much time at journalism conferences these days – it was a surprise for me to hear from speakers who are decidedly partisan, decidedly activist and doing work that’s decidedly journalistic.
Hamsher tells the story of breaking an interesting video – a very upset Clinton supporter, Harriet Christian, who was thrown out of the DNC rules committee meeting. She filmed a video of Christian yelling as she left the venue, and tells us that she rushed to get it online before the dozens of TV crews who’d shot the same footage. She was shocked that none of the networks aired their footage… until the video she shot received more than a million views on YouTube, and became a subject of political discussion.
She sees this as an example of liberal blogs ability to direct attention and potentially to shape the news agenda. She believes that liberal blogs were able to power Ned Lamont past Joe Lieberman in the democratic primary in Connecticut (though not actually into a senatorial seat.) This demonstrates that anti-war candidates can win elections. (Hmm. See previous parenthetical.)
Political blogs aren’t just reporting stories – they’re taking action. She shows a political ad that her blog produced with Ricki Lee Jones and the Squirrel Nut Zippers – titled “Had Enough” – which was offered to any candidate who wanted to run against a Republican. “It’s not just about community and commentary, it’s about coming together to effect a change.”
That change may be affected by money. And readers of liberal blogs have a lot of it. Hamsher reports that readers of liberal blogs are “white, male, old, affluent,” with the largest group between 40 and 60 years old. They’ve got an average income of between $100 and $150,000 a year. This helps candidates like Barack Obama, who are discovering that fundraisers may be obsolete – one good speech, documented on blogs and available online, may be the centerpiece of campaigns in the future.
Patrick Ruffini points out that Republican bloggers have largely focused on three issues: the war on terror, the governmental fiscal restraint, and support for conservative judges. Right-wing bloggers have shown their strengths at moments where they’re able to work on specific, concrete issues. He sites the example of the RedState blog as a group that came together to defeat Harriet Miers’s nomination to the Supreme Court. It’s not a minor victory for a community to get a president to pull away from a nomination, Ruffini argues.
The best organized campaign on the right in this election cycle, he argues, was Mike Huckabee’s campaign… and he cites Zephyr Teachout, no conservative sympathiser, as the person who gave birth to this observation. The Huckabee campaign allowed bloggers to add themselves to a blogroll, a group that included lots of “long tail” blogs from the evangelical and homeschooling communities.
For the right to really take advantage of these tools, they’ll need a common cause. He offers the idea of a wiki-based “Contract With America” – could we see another Newt Gingrich-type revolution coming from conservative activists getting together online and putting forward a new governing platform?
There aren’t a lot of questions from the audience at PDF so far, but the question immediately after these two speakers is a doozy. Former independent Presidential candidate Lenora Fulani – who reminds us that she was the first female and first black presidential candidate to make it onto the ballot in fifty states – wonders whether there’s any space opened by these new tools for politics in the US beyond the two established parties. (The answer she gets from the two speakers isn’t very satisfying – Ruffini points out that most “independent” voters voted for Reagan, and argues that most independents will vote for either the Republican or the Democrat this year.)
After a break, we’re back on stage with the left and the right. Chuck DeFeo of Townhall.com argues that we’re now seeing the “true democratization of the 4th estate.” Our new media makes it possible for anyone to communicate ideas in a many to many model. We’ve been waiting for the “1960 moment” – the moment at which television become the most important medium in US politics – to come to the Internet. But perhaps we’re waiting for the wrong thing.
The move to television has made politics less participatory. Voters become an audience to be talked at, not dialoged with. And we can trace a decline in political involvement, DeFeo argues, since we’ve seen that shift in media. As our media shifts towards many to many media, it’s fragmenting and getting more partisan. But DeFeo argues, “I would much prefer involved activism over apathy.”
Following DeFeo is Ariana Huffington, who’s legendarily shed her conservative past to become a leading liberal activist, and publisher of the Huffington Post. She’s very good at one-liners… and very, very angry with traditional media. “Old media has given up the pursuit of truth for a type of fake neutrality.” She points to media debates over climate change, where Al Gore faces off against Senator James Inhofe, a notorious climate change skeptic. (You’ll note that his Senate homepage currently features an oil derrick…) These two sides, she argues, don’t have equal news value:
“The earth is not flat. Evolution is a fact – sorry Mike Huckabee – there is no other side to this issue. The war in Iraq is an unqualified disaster – I am convinced there is no other side to this issue.”
What Huffington Post seeks to provide is “transparency, accountability, and community.” The reporters for the site are not unbiased, but they make it clear where their biases lie, rather than pretending they don’t exist. She points to Lou Dobbs as an embarrasing example of someone who pretends to be a journalist, pointing to his remarks linking a (ficticious) rise in leprosy cases to illegal immigrants. She feels that the media needs to pick these stories apart over sustained periods of time. “We need the obsessive compulsive disorder of the new media instead of the attention deficit disorder of the old media.”
Her fiercest words are reserved for Bob Woodward, who she dismisses as “the dumb blonde of journalism, awed by access to power.” Picking apart his career – from bringing down a president to uncritical accounts of the Bush administration – she closes with the admonition, “We cannot sell independence for access.”
While I admire and respect the passion and energy of this set of speakers, they leave me a little worried about my colleages who work on the future of journalism. Friends like Dan Gillmor are passionate about ensuring that new media holds on to what’s best about older journalistic media. But an increasing amount of journalistic media is coming from very partisan sources. Should we expect that readers are aware that media has changed and that we should expect every voice to have strong, visible bias? Or does this point to a need to re-learn how to read both online and offline media to understand that we’ve got far more activist media and far less that’s striving for – real or fake – neutrality?
If innovations in the citizen media community are shaping the political process, it’s worth looking closely at the structures and architecture of that new space. Two speakers at PDF specialize in visualizing and analyzing mass sets of data. Anthony Hamelle of linkfluence builds very pretty maps of the blogosphere, much like the famous Glance and Adamic visualisation, or my colleague John Kelly’s work on Iranian blogs.
The graphs are influence graphs, showing who links to one another within “like-minded” communities. The idea here is to look at linking between political blogs in only a political context, discarding other links that are outside of context. The result is a tight, pretty map that shows a decided red/blue (conservative/liberal) split in the US political blogosphere, plus a small set of common sources used by both sides. The graph is remarkably easy to explore, allowing users to mouse over it and see the media sources referenced.
A new tool (perhaps not yet available online?) tracks the emergence of terms and subjects over time, allowing for trend analysis – Hamelle shows the rise of “FISA” as a key term in discussions last week.
Matthew Hurst, who runs the Data Mining blog and is a researcher with Microsoft Live Labs is the king of these sorts of visualizations. He offers thoughts on a very broad topic – “What can you do with all the social media data – if you’re collecting information from Twitter, Usenet and blogs, simultaneously?”
Hurst points out that, with a bit of creativity, one can extract a great deal of data from blogs. You can often figure out the geographic location and the gender of the poster, and you can nearly always retrieve the complete (public) posting history of the author. One tool Hurst has been developing shows posts, in realtime, on a map of the US, giving a sense for how ideas emerge and move across the physical world.
An early Hurst visualization of the English-language blogosphere. The top cluster is technology blogs, and the two bright dots are BoingBoing and Engadget. The lower, larger cluster is the interconnected US political blogosphere.
Hurst graphs virtual communities as well. One gorgeous visualization, not shown here, clusters blogs based on their location on servers. Livejournal blogs tend to cluster closely together, while Blogspot blogs are evenly spread throughout the linksphere.
What can you do with these sorts of tools and the ability to look at citizen media in realtime? Well, you can watch ideas emerge, based on tools that track words. Matt offers a graph of bloggers talking about Obama versus those talking about Clinton – the lines crossed in February, allowing him to predict Obama’s rise several weeks before it became a dominant narrative in mainstream media. What’s rising now? Conversations about oil appear to be dominating all political discussions.
I’m in New York City today at the Personal Democracy Forum conference, the fifth iteration of a conference hosted by Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry on technology, democracy and innovations in both fields. It’s the sort of event that attracts an amazing audience – I’m sitting between Jay Rosen and Craig Newmark, two people who’ve got a lot to say about technology and democracy. Indeed, there’s a temptation just to talk with my neighbors and ignore the smart folks on stage.
The theme for this year’s conference is “rebooting democracy”. As Sifry explains, “reboot” implies restarting an operating system, perhaps because certain applications are “not responding well”: Congress, the White House, mainstream media. The rebooting has begun with innovation in the online world. “We’ve got blogs that are more truthful and responsive than big pundits.” We’ve got wikis that allow people to share policy ideas, and mashups that reveal otherwise hidden data. “The internet is already starting to reboot our political system.”
These changes, coming from the technology community, are “bubbling up from below” and changing government structures. Bureacrats are blogging, and there’s evidence that the TSA is actually listening to comments from readers on their blog. Within the intelligence community, people are using wikis to share information across silos. These early experiments in collaborative governance suggest that the geeks are starting to have an effect on the bureacrats, and that we’re having an influence on the political climate and culture.
Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Duke University and an online innovator in the Howard Dean campaign has a useful ammendment to Sifry’s hopes. She draws a distinction between two ways of talking about the internet and politics: the industrial way, and the democratic way.
The industrial way of talking about the internet and politics looks at the amazing, huge things that campaigns have been able to conduct online: Obama has registered a million contacts on Facebook, and has raised tens of millions of dollars from small donors online. We tend to talk about these sorts of models with “a certain awe, like looking at a steam engine.” These systems are very powerful, but they’re not very participatory.
“What if we build architectures where people actually have power?” Teachout asks. Here she looks to the long American tradition of voluntary associations. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that these associations were the great innovation in the American system of government, training people in the structures of democracy. Early in the last century, 5% of Aericans were presidents of voluntary associations. “They were able to change the rules of the road”, exerting political power.
Teachout wonders what we’d see voluntary associations focusing on today, if that tradition were not in decline in the US. We might see associations demanding innovation in transportation, organized efforts to reduce private car use, and creative solutions to petroleum dependency. Teachout challenges us to look at the conference by asking ourselves “Is what’s being offered an industrial innovation or a citizen one? Are we distributing power, or just tasks? Are these systems treating us as citizens or as useful volunteers?”