In an era when it took days for messages to travel between cities or weeks to cross the Atlantic, America’s founders would have been astonished at the rate and volume of information zinging around the world today. The Internet and social media offer unprecedented resources for learning about current events, expressing our opinions, and persuading others to take action. To a degree beyond the founders’ imaginations, the voting public has access to information about its government representatives and the means to hold them accountable.
With the advent of open government databases and apps for exploring relationships between money and politics, the online public can investigate forces shaping decisions that affect our lives as individuals and a society. The White House has just launched an Open Government Platform that aims to “promote government transparency and citizen engagement on a global scale.” Organizations such as MapLight and the Sunlight Foundation show connections between campaign contributions and voting records, track lobbyist registration, and otherwise uncover influence among elected officials, organizations or corporations, and powerful individuals.
A recent study shows that social media users are more likely to be engaged in politics and their communities than average Americans. And, at least among young people, age 15-25, the Internet has emerged as a relatively egalitarian space with 94% to 98% of all racial and ethnic groups having access to a computer that connects to the Internet and 49% to 57% taking some action online daily, according to a new report. (Other studies reveal distinctions in the kinds of activities users pursue online, whether passive consumption or active creation, according to levels of income and education.)
But the Internet is not necessarily a force for civil dialogue, as it can serve to polarize opinion and spread misinformation just as quickly. If our Twitter feed serves up only those voices we agree with, we may grow complacent in our convictions. Still, social networking can uncover differences in opinion as well. Recent research from the Pew Internet and American Life Project revealed that some 38% of social media users have discovered through their friends’ posts that their political views differed from what the user thought they were.
Despite sometimes well-placed cynicism about the effectiveness of “clicktivism,” examples suggest that the Internet and online social networks can be strong advocacy tools to reach those in power: petitions through Change.org or last year’s Internet shut-down in protest of anti-piracy legislation have leveraged grassroots support to influence important policy decisions.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to a friend in 1787, “Cherish, therefore, the spirit of our people, and keep alive their attention. If once they become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, judges and governors, shall all become wolves." The November election is four months away. With mobile Internet access, the power is literally in your hands to learn about candidates and issues. Be skeptical, ask questions, talk to your friends, whether you agree with them or not. Seize the opportunity to keep the wolves at bay and take an active role in the democracy we all enjoy.