The year 2012 may not ultimately bring about a Mayan apocalypse (unless Rick Santorum gets elected, that is), but it has certainly ushered in a revolution for social media. The seeds of this revolution were planted much earlier, of course; over the past several years, numerous social media outlets have taken shape, witnessing incredible experimentation in both form and content. We now have an almost overwhelming host of tools that enable a wide range of social activities: sharing updates and pictures with friends; circulating information between businesses; promoting articles or products; the list goes on. What has made 2012 so notable, then, is not the emergence of a new platform like Twitter, or a shift in form like Facebook’s timeline, but instead a fundamental evolution of social media’s role in society; social media has become a potential tool for democratic expression.
The possibility of a social media driven democracy has been an interesting topic of conversation in academic circles, daily conversations, and the blogosphere for some time. But over this past year, the idea has ceased being purely hypothetical. We witnessed the potential for social media to help drive democratic revolutions as stories flowed in about the prevalence of Twitter and Facebook in coordinating the movements of the “Arab Spring” (this may have been a bit overplayed, but the observation is important nevertheless). Some observers may have even caught wind of what transpired in Iceland, where the government employed social media to “crowdsource” the re-writing of their constitution. In the United States, however, these flashes of promise have been drowned out by the cynicism and apathy currently dominating our society. Americans seem far more interested in criticizing a Congress already burdened by an eleven percent approval rating than figuring out how the Egyptian or Icelandic experiences could apply as we struggle through our own political and economic crisis.
And yes, America is most certainly in crisis. This is a crisis that extends beyond the economic realm, even as our imaginations are captured by stories of foreclosures, layoffs, and debt. This marks a significant shift from the political environment of 2008, in which the frustration felt by most Americans was primarily directed towards their material conditions. More than anything else, people wanted their jobs back. Their concerns were not ultimately systemic. Most Americans simply yearned for the age of prosperity they had experienced only a few years back. But we are now witnessing an evolution in consciousness. People still want jobs and houses, but their attention has also been directed towards deeper, more structural concerns. Movements like Occupy Wall Street have brought issues of corporate finance and income inequality into our public discourse, and many of those ideas have taken hold. Our faith in government has fallen to historically low levels, as politicians are perceived as self-interested corporate patsies who are more concerned about winning re-election than creating a better country. Most people would agree that ours is a country desperately in need of change.
In 2008, Barack Obama campaigned on such a platform, promising to restore the America of prosperity that we had come to love. At risk of being labeled an “Obamabot,” I would point out that his record, while certainly falling far short of the lofty expectations set out by his campaign, was marred more by obstructionist partisanship than a lack of vision. But what we should take away from these last three years is that we can no longer wait for a charismatic and competent figure like a Roosevelt or a Lincoln to come to our collective rescue. The rules of the game, as currently written, seriously impede the ability of any one president to bring about reform. Any issue—from healthcare to financial reform to the payroll tax cut—can easily be turned into an electoral weapon rather than being considered for its own merits. Even on issues where the president can rally majority support for his proposals, the filibuster rules make any significant change impossible. We, the people, have to start taking matters into our own hands.
In this light, the reaction to SOPA and PIPA could very well be looked back upon as a turning point in American history. For once, the American public was able to do something more than complain about ineffective politicians and corrupt corporate lobbying; they actually made their voices heard with specific appeals. What’s even more amazing is that this gambit worked. Nearly five million Americans signed Google’s petition against SOPA, and while this may ultimately have been only a small fraction of the country, it was nevertheless sufficient to pressure the administration and congress into a reconsideration of the issue.
The anti-SOPA campaign is hardly the only example of collective action being facilitated by social media. When the Susan G. Komen foundation decided to cut funding for Planned Parenthood, a social media-engineered backlash was a major force is prompting a reversal of the decision. The reach of social media activism has even extended beyond our own borders with the emergence of #Kony2012.
It is important that we draw the appropriate lessons from these episodes. On one hand, we need to embrace our newfound power, recognizing that these controversies were not isolated episodes, but rather a demonstration of the strategies that we, the people, can utilize to push our government out of the deadlock it has become mired in. On the other hand, we must not allow ourselves to be content. Further challenges to our beloved Internet remain (net neutrality being one of the most consequential), but more importantly, we must recognize that a free Internet, while serving many incalculably valuable functions, is ultimately a means towards a better society, rather than an end in and of itself. Millions of Americans were willing to stand up and resist the government when confronted with a challenge to their precious Facebook and YouTube. When faced with the prospect of a bill authorizing indefinite detention without due process for American citizens, or a Court decision legalizing unlimited corporate contributions to politicians, there was nary a whimper from outside the blogosphere (OK, maybe a whimper, but nothing approaching the coordinated scale of the SOPA/PIPA backlash). The same digital tools we utilized to defend our Internet rights could have been applied to challenge these other gross violations. The question then remains: can we learn to care as much about the health of our democracy as we do about our daily Internet usage?
I, for one, sincerely believe that the answer is yes. And I also feel confident that social media can serve as a platform for this revitalized form of civic engagement. We should be careful to note—as, for example, Arianna Huffington has done in a recent article—that the “fetishization” of social media alone will not bring about a better world. We must use the tools that we have been provided productively. But when employed properly, social media can serve to neutralize many of the faults of our hyper-partisan political system by enabling issue-based rather than party-based political engagement. In a fashion similar to what occurred with SOPA, social media could enable citizens to express their opinions directly to politicians prior to particular legislative decisions, rather than coming in the form of a more general post-hoc electoral punishment.
Such a form of political engagement could help to depolarize American politics. The current system offers you two choices: Democrat or Republican. Rather than evaluating each issue contextually, citizens are encouraged to make broad allegiances to a particular party, attachments which often become ideological. People who come to see themselves as Democratic will come to align themselves with Democrats even on issues that they have little knowledge of. This discourages citizens from educating themselves on a range of political issues; given that they only have one binary decision to make every four years, they might as well take the simplest route.
Even independent voters, who now make up a record-high 40% of the electorate, are faced with an oversimplified choice during election season. These people might be fiscally conservative, yet socially liberal; or they could be economic liberals who support a more hawkish foreign policy. Regardless of the complexity of their views, they are forced to make compromises by deciding which of their values they consider most important. A social media driven democracy would allow these voters’ preferences to be more effectively communicated by enabling easy, cheap, issue-specific lobbying by private citizens.
Rather than hiring large corporate lobbying firms, citizens could simply use social media platforms to coordinate their appeals. With this sort of inspired democratic engagement, the political debates in Washington might finally evolve from partisan, ideological battles into genuine attempts at formulating policies responsive to the will of the people. Our current system provides no effective punishment for obstructionist partisanship, from either side of the aisle. Voters might be frustrated at a particular party or congressional faction for impeding progress on a certain issue, but it is highly improbable that enough people will vote based on that single issue such that the responsible obstructionists actually face electoral punishment. If, on the other hand, Congress were faced with a barrage of public lobbying on a specific issue, our representatives would be less capable of simply dismissing said issue with a barrage of partisan rhetoric while hoping to escape electoral punishment.
Some may question whether the American public should take on these responsibilities. After all, our system was designed to be representative and not direct precisely because individual citizens would be overburdened to develop expertise—or even an opinion—on each and every political issue. It should be clear, however, that our elected representatives have failed at making these decisions for us. Rather than acting as enlightened leaders, attempting to resolve complex political, economic, and social debates in order to create a better country, our politicians have become obsessed with their own electoral prospects at the expense of our societal welfare. This current batch of politicians is a far cry from the selfless representatives envisioned by our founding fathers. This is not because the individuals currently in congress are inherently corrupt; rather, the structure of our political system has created incentives that drive our representatives to worry more about the source of their next corporate campaign donation than about how to produce sustainable and equitable progress.
Moreover, social media platforms could help to overcome some of the obstacles that may have made a more “direct” democracy impossible to envision previously. The tools provided by social media make it significantly easier for engaged citizens to elevate their political awareness. Lobbying groups can also more easily spread free information through platforms like Facebook and Twitter rather than paying exorbitant fees for advertisements or other campaigns. These low-cost tools also allow a wide range of groups to more effectively compete with major corporate lobbies in the widespread provision of information. As citizens acquire more information, and simultaneously find themselves more capable of directly influencing debates over specific issues they find important, apathy and cynicism will, hopefully, begin to dissolve into pragmatism and engagement.
Perhaps we, the people, would push for policies no better than those advocated by our much-maligned politicians. But, given the current crisis of confidence in our democracy, it would be a worthwhile effort to at least try. After all, our government was ostensibly created to be of the people, by the people, and for the people. Unless you ascribe to the Court’s conclusion that corporations are “people,” this statement rings quite hollow today. Our politicians are no longer our representatives. They pursue corporate interests over the desires of the median voter, prioritize re-election over societal welfare, and have even evolved into an economic class entirely disconnected from the average American.
We must, however, resist our urge to revel in cynicism; after all, as the old adage goes, “every democracy gets the government it deserves.” We have the power in our hands to create a democracy that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. Social media alone is undoubtedly not the end-all solution to our political crisis—and we are certainly a far cry from institutionalizing any form of social media democracy—but the potential for re-invigorating American political engagement should nevertheless be readily apparent. Figuring out how to employ these tools effectively would ultimately be a far more valuable use of our resources than simply complaining about the patsies on Capitol Hill. If we, the people, truly want a better government, then we should stop passing the buck and actually earn one.