Ten Ways Social Media Can Improve Campaign Engagement and Reinvigorate American Democracy

Editor's Note: Drawing from a recent expert panel discussion hosted by the Center for Technology Innovation, West outlines ten ways social media can improve campaign engagement and re-invigorate American democracy. To access a curated stream of tweets from the #CTIcivic event, please visit this Storify page.

Social media are the ultimate in disruptive technology. They change information delivery, business organization, online content, news coverage, and the manner in which individuals process new developments. As shown during the 2008 campaign, these digital tools represented a textbook example of voter mobilization and electoral impact. They were, in the words of Engage Partner Mindy Finn, the “central nervous system” of campaign organizations. Using social networking outreach tools such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and Twitter, a number of Democratic and Republican candidates raised money, identified supporters, built electoral coalitions, and brought people in closer touch with the electoral process.

Despite social networking’s track record for generating democratic engagement, though, it has proven difficult to sustain political interest and activism online over time and move electronic engagement from campaigns to governance. Faced with a polarized political environment and arcane debates over legislative provisions, many Americans have opted out of the civic participation which was so prolific during the last presidential election cycle. Many voters remain cynical and disengaged from the political process at the very time when the electoral stakes are very high.

This week, the Brookings Institution Center for Technology Innovation convened a distinguished set of experts to offer advice on using social networking and digital tools to reinvigorate democracy and extend electronic engagement from campaigns and grassroots-activism to governance. Participants included Macon Phillips, special assistant to the president and director of digital strategy at the White House; Mindy Finn, a partner in Engage and 2008 director of e-strategy for the Mitt Romney campaign; Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of a new study on how people’s social networking activities affect their civic and political engagement; and Diana Owen, associate professor of political science and director of American Studies at Georgetown University. We also heard advice and commentary from hundreds of activists who attended the event or tweeted comments during the live webcasting of our event.

Topics for discussion included strategies for voter empowerment, citizen engagement, and governance transformation. Specifically, we discussed: What tools do government and campaigners use to engage the American people, and how have these engagement strategies evolved? How does social networking improve participation, engagement, and collaboration? What role should industry actors such as Facebook and Twitter play in encouraging online civic participation? And how will social media be used in the 2012 elections? 

Based on this discussion, we identified ten suggestions for using social media to improve campaign engagement and reinvigorate American democracy.

  1. Future Political Effectiveness Is Going to Be Based on Social Networks Because that is Where “Trust Filters” Operate.  In a world of information over-flow, it is hard for people to evaluate competing claims.  Politicians often disagree not just on interpretations, but on the facts.  Increasingly, people are using their personal networks to fact-check claims, evaluate the quality of information, and alert them to what is important in the world.  As pointed out by Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, these developments allow individuals and their networks to “act like broadcasters and publishers” and therefore transform the nature of political communications.  Those seeking to engage citizens and get them involved in the political process must win the trust of social networks to be influential during the contemporary period.  Future political influence is going to be network-based because those are the filters used to access and evaluate political information. Unless you can get past those trust filters, you will not be able to engage the public and influence the course of electoral events.
  2. Recognize that Campaign Organizations No Longer Control Electoral Discussions, But that Ideas Come from Grassroots Networks. As Mindy Finn suggests, campaigns in 2012 will be more decentralized in terms of a politician’s control over debate topics and more focused around social networks.  One of the new ways social media will affect the election is that people are organizing their own networks and candidates will be forced to answer questions they may not wish to answer. Political advocacy should take advantage of these networks to set the agenda and drive civic discussions. This involves everything from the questions that get asked during debates to the manner in which journalists cover the election.  Research suggests that trusted news sources are most persuasive with voters so drawing on existing social networks represents a valuable way to affect national conversations.
  3. Employ Facebook Comments and Status Updates to Drive Civic Conversations. According to a new Pew Internet & American Life Project survey, 22 percent of Facebook users comment on someone else’s post during a typical day and 20 percent comment on somebody’s photo.  Forty-four percent of social media users say they update their status at least once a week, and among young people aged 18 to 22, that number rises to 73 percent. The frequent, personal interactivity demonstrated by this behavior creates an opportunity for candidates, non-profits, and advocacy groups to engage people and drive civic conversations. Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking tools make it possible to extend conversations virtually and reach large numbers of individuals.
  4. Create Virtual Opportunities for Citizen Feedback and Deliberation. In a paper published by the IBM Center for The Business of Government, Matt Leighninger of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium suggests that government agencies use periodic surveys and comment forms to solicit feedback from the public.  By asking their views and giving them a chance to provide feedback, this approach engages citizens with government and allows them to help shape the output. Today is the “era of feedback”, according to Lee Rainie, and politicians get feedback whether they want it or not. Government agencies and political candidates should be encouraged to develop feedback mechanisms that allow American voters to talk back to political elites. One of the most worrisome developments in the contemporary period is the massive citizen disengagement from politics and feeling of alienation on the part of voters. Social media offer ways to re-connect citizens and leaders, and create more of a sense of public responsiveness and accountability.
  5. Embed Social Media Commentary in News Coverage. White House Director of Digital Strategy Macon Phillips argues that social media create a new model of civic engagement that blends traditional with social media. Increasingly, he points out, reporters are following Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, and incorporating the voices of ordinary people in news reporting. This enhances democratic conversation and gives citizens more of a voice in national debates. It makes news coverage more authentic because it is based on what people say and it weakens the power of the D.C.-based punditrocracy.
  6. Use Social Media for Direct Persuasion. The Pew Internet & American Life project survey found at the time of the 2010 election that 23 percent of Americans “had tried to convince someone to vote for a specific candidate” and 10 percent “had attended a political rally”. With the help of social media, ordinary citizens can become agents of persuasion and leverage their personal network for whatever values, issue positions, or ideological stances that they cherish. There is no reason why 2012 should not be an engaging election. With the issues we face in the areas of budget deficits, taxes, health care, education, energy, and foreign policy, we should use digital technology to involve people in the campaign.
  7. Leverage Civics Education for Political Action and Confidence-Building. Georgetown Government Professor Diana Owens notes that 20 percent of Americans use social media for electoral purposes, but this number rises to 34 percent if the individual has had a civics class or is exposed to instructional material about democracy. She points out that the quality of instruction matters. Courses which integrate problem-solving and collaboration in the curriculum create more political agency on the part of voters and build confidence about taking part in electoral affairs.
  8. Improve the Diversity of Information Dissemination and Exposure Through Social Media.  No longer does politics have to be an echo chamber where people of like-mindedness listen to one another, but digital technology enriches political conversation and engagement.  People are exposed to more views than in the past, according to Mindy Finn. This enriches national dialogues and allows people to get the kind of information that helps them evaluate candidates and policy ideas.
  9. Create New Opportunities for Engagement Through Mobile Communications. Smart phones enable activists to reach an entirely new audience and involve them in the political process.  According to surveys undertaken by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 26 percent of Americans used mobile devices at the time of the 2010 election. By enabling people to access information and social networks on the go, this technology speeds up the news cycle and places more of a premium on electronic resources. This includes information from policy briefs and videos to online advertisements.
  10. Geo-Location and Behavioral Advertising Allow Activists To Reach People Efficiently and Effectively. Geo-location and behavioral advertising improve targeting and offer greater potential for delivering relevant material. This will allow candidates and activists to be more effective in their resources and provide material that is relevant to people’s concerns. Rather than dumping information on people who do not want or trust the material, advocates can target resources more efficiently and effectively, and become more influential at the same time. It is unclear, however, how much tolerance voters have for targeting based on these tools due to privacy concerns.