This morning, I attended a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution titled “How Social Networking Can Re-Invigorate American Democracy Civic Participation.” That’s a pretty tall order for social media, if you ask me, but the panel was enlightening nonetheless. Speakers included Mindy Finn, Partner at Engage; Diana Owen, Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgetown University; Macon Phillips, Director of Digital Strategy for the White House; and Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
It’s About People
- Social media has become “the central nervous system” in campaigns because politics are about people, and social media is about people.
- Social media is re-personalizing politics because it allows politicians to interact with more people rather than focusing on a few big donors.
- Research from Pew indicates that social media is not an isolating force, but may be a mobilizing force as in the case of the Green Revolution and Arab Spring movements.
Social Networking Sites are Sentries
- People are moving away from trusting large institutions to trusting networks, using social networking sites to evaluate what news is important and truthful.
- The network is the audience as people broadcast their opinions and information to their peers.
Civic Education Affects Civic Engagement Online
- Research from Georgetown indicates that having taken a civics course, especially a high-quality course, makes students more likely to use social media as part of a campaign.
- Being involved with extracurricular activities was not associated with an increased likelihood of using social media for civic purposes.
How Social Media Might Affect the 2012 Election
- The media is increasingly facilitating dialogue between public officials and citizens by reporting on and asking questions raised by the public on social media sites.
- As it becomes easier for citizens to voice themselves, expect citizens to set the agenda and control more of the conversation. Interest groups may be able to raise the profile of their cause using social media, forcing candidates to answer questions or state their position on topics that they might rather not talk about.
Is Social Media Encouraging More Participation or More Partisanship?
- Panelists were in disagreement as to whether social media exposed people to a greater diversity of opinions or if it allowed people to surround themselves with information that reinforced their viewpoints, especially in light of website personalization and behavioral marketing.
- To date, there is no hard evidence that social media is bringing a new group of people into politics. This may change in 2012, but so far it’s just reaching those that would already participate in politics.
- The digital divide presents barriers to increasing participation through social media. Mobile platforms, however, may present a special opportunity, as they are more popular among minorities and low-income groups that typically have lower political participation.
Additional Challenges to Social Media and Civic Engagement
- The White House has found that citizens want to interact with people (e.g. having the President tweet vs. having the White House tweet), but it is a struggle for institutions to devolve into individual voices.
- One criticism of social media is that it allows people to feel engaged without actually being engaged (e.g. hitting the “Like” button on Facebook vs. going out canvassing in your neighborhood). While any little bit helps, the impact of social media is difficult to measure.
- The loss of trained journalists and drive to generate ratings/site hits creates opportunities for irresponsible or incorrect reporting by the news media and public.
So, what do you think? Does social media really have the power to revitalize democracy, or are we going to have the same partisan bickering and low voter turn-out in 2012?