Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are co-founders of Personal Democracy Media, an organization working at the intersection of technology, politics, government and civic life. Their ninth annual Personal Democracy Forum convenes next week in New York City. We caught up with them on the eve of the forum to talk about two new factors that could help shape the 2012 elections — the growing power of social media and the Internet and the explosive influence of corporate money post-Citizens United.
Lauren Feeney: Can the democratizing power of the Internet counteract the corrosive power of money in politics?
Micah Sifry: I think in the long run the answer is yes, but in the short run — meaning the next six months — probably not. More and more people are discovering that they can participate in the daily conversation through which politics is influenced. It’s no longer just a spectator sport. In the age of television, all you could do was watch; you couldn’t talk back. In the age of the Internet, you can talk back, you can talk with each other, and millions of people are starting to do that. But many millions more are not. That’s why money is still such a powerful force in driving politics. There’s a spectrum of voters; from low information to high information. The high-information voters are the people who wake up every day and think: I’m not just going to read the news, I’m going to help shape other people’s opinions — I’m uploading, I’m sharing, I’m rating, I’m commenting. They are the online participatory class. But we live in a country with 300 million-plus people, and a lot of them are very turned off from politics. They don’t pay a lot of attention; they don’t think it matters. Those low information voters are very susceptible to the type of messaging that you can still buy with money.
Andrew Rasiej: Of course, trying to predict the impact of these new technologies on the political system is sort of like trying to predict the impact of the printing press on society ten years after it was invented. But we see that there’s a new currency that’s not based so much on money, but rather on the power of networks, and the value system of networks is very different than the value system of money. It’s based on a certain amount of trust, connectivity and ubiquity. It’s almost like an entirely new power structure is emerging as a result of technology.
There’s a term “the Internet public,” coined by Dave Parry, referring to the moment when Hosni Mubarak effectively shut down the Internet in Egypt by ordering service providers like Vodafone to turn themselves off. Many people in Egypt were following the revolution using the Internet, and when they shut it off, many of those people were forced into the streets, not necessarily in protest, but to try to find out what was going on. And so Parry said in effect, you can shut off the public Internet, but you can’t shut off the Internet public. It was a really defining term for us, because it started to point to the fact that there is a global citizenry of people — not just millennials, who grew up primarily with computers, but an Internet public that actually thinks in terms of networks, thinks laterally, doesn’t necessarily care about nation-state borders, doesn’t necessarily care about the gatekeepers and doesn’t trust top-down hierarchies. Whether it’s in the Middle East in the Arab Spring or in the Komen-Planned Parenthood battle, you start to see indications of this.
Of course, there are threats to this new structure. Those who have accumulated their power using the influence of money to maintain their marketplace positions — whether it’s the copyright industry, the energy industry, the newspaper industry — are going to try to use their existing networks of influence — not technology networks, but their money networks — to either put the genie back in the bottle or put Humpty Dumpty back together again and prevent the disintermediation of their markets by this emerging technology.
Feeney: Can you talk about some of the efforts to fight the influence of dark money in our political system using the Internet?
Sifry: You’ve always had people looking for ways to hide how they’re spending money to influence politics, and with Citizens United, the Court has now given a much brighter green light to that. There are a variety of efforts to make information about who’s influencing our elections more timely, more relevant, available to you when you need it, and also to surface some of the stuff that’s currently being hidden. Andrew and I are proud to have helped set up the Sunlight Foundation, which is an organization that works very tirelessly on the subject. We are finally at the stage where you can get the information about a particular donor, corporation, individual, whoever it may be, at your fingertips, in a more robust way than ever before. You can see their individual giving, federal as well as local, and you can see their lobbying efforts. All of this used to be really hard to put together in one place.
But that’s just combining data that’s disclosed by people who are trying to abide by the law. What do we do about the ones who are hiding it? Some of this can be crowdsourced — for example, groups like Sunlight and others are sending people to TV stations to look up files that show who’s paying for what political ads. They’re supposed to be a matter of public record, but the stations are resisting making the files digital. It’s a little bit of a kind of cat and mouse game. There are a lot of benefits to being transparent in the long run, but, as Andrew was saying, a lot of incumbent institutions are resisting this trend because it threatens their power. They benefit from operating in the dark. But in the long run, when we live in a world where everybody’s wired, where we walk around with computers in our pockets more powerful than the computer in the ship that went to the moon, we think that these kinds of institutions are fighting a losing battle.
Rasiej: Two years ago at Personal Democracy Forum we proposed the creation of something called the Public Online Information Act, POIA, which basically redefines the term public to mean that anywhere an existing law or regulation requires a piece of information or a document to be public, it can no longer be considered public unless it’s machine readable and searchable online. It’s now being sponsored by Congressman Steve Israel and Senator Jon Tester and a few other members of Congress.
Feeney: If suddenly there was this flood of information available to us, what could we do with it?
Rasiej: Well, we already have a flood of information. The issue isn’t that we have too much information, it’s that we have really bad filters. To some degree technology is going to solve that, because technology gets better and better at parsing the information. It’s also an educational process. There’s a great book out by Howard Rheingold called Net Smart, which reminds us that these technologies are tools, and we don’t know how to use them properly. So we’re using circular saws as hammers and hammers as screwdrivers, and we’re trying to build houses and skyscrapers of knowledge and information, but we’re not prepared.
Sifry: We see things like tablets and smartphones and so on spreading into more and more hands. That doesn’t mean that it’s inherently going to democratize societies. It’s what we choose to do with these tools. You know, I think radio was welcomed as a democratizing technology when it first came out. Then Aldolf Hitler used radio to great effect, as did FDR. Now the FCC has regularized radio into something controlled by a few commercial conglomerates. It can be used for good; it can be used for ill.
I think a big reason why we started the Personal Democracy Forum is because we want to highlight the people and projects and forces that are trying to use technology to make the system more open, more participatory, more transparent, more accountable, more small “d” democratic. We don’t approach this with the view that it’ll just happen automatically. A lot of this comes down to what human beings decide to do with the tools that we make.
Feeney: Are there any specific technologies that you want to highlight that people can use during this election season to help ensure a more democratic process?
Rasiej: There’s a project called Twitter Vote Report, which allows people to Tweet from their polling places any information about long lines, broken machines or other problems that they’re incurring. It’s like Jimmy Carter election monitoring on steroids. Overt voter suppression is going to be much harder to do in a networked arena. That’s one example of a tool that’s doing that. And then of course there are the Sunlight APIs which allow anybody on their iPhone to check who’s trying to influence who. If you’re thinking about voting for an elected official, you can see exactly how much money they’ve gotten from a particular industry or individual. So you basically have government transparency in the palm of your hand — and that we didn’t have before 2012.