Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet)

Reviewed: The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet) by Micah L. Sifry, O/R Books 2014.

I’ve just paid for my ticket on New Jersey Transit using the app MyTix, saving me from the tense rush at the ticket machines outside the station. I join the throng of people waiting on the platform and--by sheer luck--the train stops in front of me. I manage to find a seat, grateful to be so fortunate, because little else has changed. Commuters still fight for parking spaces and seats just as we did when I first started working in the city seven years ago, and we’re still wondering if things could be a little bit better. Couldn’t there be more trains? Couldn’t the train open its doors in the same spot every time? How about a queuing system like they have in Taipei to make things more orderly, and more fair? Don’t get me wrong, I love the app, but it didn’t change the basic misery of riding a train during rush hour on an overcrowded commuter line.

Has the internet made our lives better? Your inclination might be to say yes—you may have recently reconnected with a long lost friend on Facebook, paid a bill online, or, like me, avoided some inconvenience through a new app. But what about the fundamental structures that affect your well being, such as improving your work-life balance, bettering your child’s school, or choosing a more effective elected representative? Would you still say yes?

In Micah Sifry’s new book, The Big Disconnect: Why the Internet Hasn’t Transformed Politics (Yet), the answer is a resounding no. The internet has not empowered you to make decisions about own your life, and it may have made it worse by filling our minds with gobbledygook:

“The Internet has made it easier to find the others, but it is also making it harder to bind with each other with common focus. We collectively send out far more noise than signal, and we listen far less than we talk. We may not like to admit it, but our digital tools are shaping us far more than we are using them to reshape the world.”

A former journalist, Sifry painstakingly lays out his case in clipped, energetic prose. For example, he charts a troubling path from the Howard Dean campaign, which tried every available online tool to muster support for the candidate, to the 2012 re-election campaign for President Obama. Dean’s campaign at least nominally tried to enable his supporters to organize amongst themselves, while Obama’s 2012 campaign was solely designed to re-elect the president. Empowering the campaigners was not a part of the mission, according to Sifry, and that explains why so many people became disillusioned when Obama entered the White House and set about governing. His broad progressive agenda was quickly narrowed by political compromise, and his supporters were unable to continue carrying forward their causes in a meaningful way.

This is a different viewpoint than mainstream coverage of Obama’s victory. After his first campaign, political observers trumpeted his campaign’s ability to use the internet and traditional canvassing to win the election. For example, Sasha Issenberg proclaimed in his book Victory Lab:

“The most technologically advanced campaign in history had so thoroughly mastered the politics of individual data and testing that it found new value in electioneering tactics many had abandoned as hopelessly last century.”

But the Obama campaign was designed to elect Obama and not to cede political control to his supporters.

Progressive online organizations have sprouted up, such as MoveOn, but their primary business model relies upon capturing emails by supporters who sign online petitions. This is the for-profit model of Change.org, which sells emails from its petitions for up to a dollar a pop. If you’re like me, you have dozens of emails arriving in your inbox every day from causes that you may not even remember signing up for, and the chances are that your email was merely bought from a group like Change.org.

Meanwhile, no one reads those automated emails you send, as Sifry notes: “Most members of Congress and their staffs say they ignore emails or other social media messages from non-constituents, and pay little attention to all electronic communications they receive, whether from constituents or not. Letters, phone calls, and office visits matter much more.”

What about the promise of social media? Has it revolutionized human rights and effected widespread change? Not yet. A recent academic study of 257 international human rights groups between 2010 and 2012 revealed that media coverage was almost directly proportionate to their operating budgets. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam received half of all mainstream media coverage. Twenty-six organizations received 91 percent of all news coverage, as well as most Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and Youtube views. There are, of course, outliers. The Paris Review comes to mind in the literary community, with its 375,000 followers on Twitter, but many organizations with outsized followers were endorsed early by a particular social media service, in the case of The Paris Review, by Twitter. Facebook, Tumblr, and Google+ also promote organizations, but these decisions are increasingly tied to their savvy public policy agendas in Washington and beyond.

Using social media as an organization--like using digital organizing tools in a presidential campaign--is now simply part of the cost of doing business. These tools are required to remain relevant, but the chances are slim that your organization will win the YouTube lottery and create a viral hit that advances your cause.

As for the new tech companies such as Facebook and Google, Sifry is wary of their influence and general lack of transparency. These are companies that are accountable to their investors or shareholders, and they have been mining our personal data on a massive scale. Sifry hypothesizes that Facebook’s program to get out the vote in the 2012 election may have swung Florida toward Obama, but there’s no way to know for sure. “We need a real digital public square,” he implores, “not one hosted by Facebook, shaped by Google, and monitored by the National Security Agency.”

Sifry concludes his book by examining three models that he feels offer the potential to deeply transform politics. These include Loomio, a New Zealand start-up that evolved from the Occupy movement, and SeeClickFix. a platform developed in New Haven to hold the city accountable for needed services, such as fixing potholes and taking care of stray animals. These tools allow for easy, de-centralized organizing amongst like-minded groups. He also notes the use of new voting schemes by members of the Pirate Party, in which a member can delegate votes to another member to vote on issues in which she has more expertise. The vote can be rescinded at any time, keeping the delegate accountable in what the Pirate Party calls “liquid democracy.” To organize effectively, Sifry argues, you don’t need to get along with everyone, you need systems that allow minor disagreements to give way to consensus on more important issues. Sifry has been able to examine many of these groups first-hand by hosting them at his annual technology and politics conference, the Personal Democracy Forum, where I was a Tumblr Fellow this year.

It’s still too early to tell whether these new tools will be sustainable. For example, SeeClickFix looks a lot like New York City’s 311 service, with the key difference that citizens can talk to each other about the issues that are important to them and organize together to improve them. Also, the internet start-up model itself is currently under threat, as the principle of net neutrality which gave rise to Facebook and Google may no longer be supported by the FCC. So future entrepreneurs pushing these change models may not be able to afford to pay for the extra bandwidth to reach an audience.

The truly frightening message in this book is that the promise of the internet to expand the pie and enable more people to significantly improve their lives has not yet been fulfilled. Rather, at its worst the internet is just one more tool you have to use in order to avoid being left behind and made redundant. While some start-ups have rushed ahead, and coders have received the respect that they probably deserved, fundamental power dynamics have not changed. The Big Disconnect is a sobering critique of activism and change in the digital age, and reminds us that having unbridled faith in technology to resolve our greatest challenges is dangerous indeed.


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