Social contract: How social media increases civic engagement

Matthew Hurst sits on the Capitol Steps in Washington, DC
By now we know that the internet has changed political communication, offering new platforms for political candidates, citizen journalists, and advocates alike to share their ideas in this uniquely democratic forum.  Yet many others have noted this rhetoric has turned increasingly polarized, especially as partisans share news from self-selected sources like blogs which affirm their own ideas without seeking to represent both sides equally.  Even with increasing turnout the last few election cycles, the question remains: Is the internet good or harmful for democracy?

Last weekend I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity in Washington, DC, alongside thousands of other patriotic citizens who shared a disdain for divisive rhetoric that seems so pervasive in American newsmedia.  While at first it’s easy to assume that ideologically driven blogs only reinforce this divisiveness, many I spoke with said they were encouraged to attend the relatively apolitical rally because of  what they read on the internet.  The event built up anticipation and interaction through countless platforms: using Facebook events, Twitter accounts, photo contests, event microsites, an iPhone app, and of course their TV shows’ website to promote the rally.  It seemed as if the rally was everywhere, effectively turning every channel of communication online and off into another soapbox its advocates could recruit their friends, myself included.

Even among those who would ordinarily be silenced by divisive rhetoric common to political blogs, this rally established the value of using the internet to spark civic participation among many who would ordinarily have become disengaged.  In the past organizations like Rock the Vote successfully engaged young voters, but it seems social media has increased civic participation exhibited the last few election cycles.  It got me thinking of all the tools at our disposal this election:

These tools effectively lower the barriers-to-entry for would be voters, while providing meaningful benefit-exchange to would-be voters that give them sufficient motivation to line up at the polls rather than staying at home.  Some play into the perceived social norms, which are a strong motivator among young voters. In any case, social media provides engagement opportunities to promote participation and increase voter turnout which did not exist only a few years ago.

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Poll booth in The Royale in St. Louis, MO Already political candidates are using the internet to shift their campaign strategies to appeal to this new crop of would-be voters, using Sentiment Analysis of citizen discussion to figure out if their ideas are resonating with the public.  In return voters can still take advantage of the internet to fact check candidate claims, acting as an additional balance and (hopefully) encouraging debate.

As Jon Stewart himself put it at the Rally to Restore Sanity “the press is our immune system,” which can safeguard democratic institutions and who’s health is bolstered by the internet.  On election night it’s possible we’ll be glued to our computer screens as much as televisions, but hopefully these same tools bring us to the voting booths first.