PdF: Can the Internet fix politics?

PdF: Can the Internet fix politics?


Okay, this week I'll be at Personal democracy Forum, a big deal where people make online grassroots democracy happen.

Its big theme asks, really, can people use the Net to fix politics?

That's a big question, since political gridlock is really hurting our country. Most Americans are reasonable, but loud, extreme voices drown out moderate voices.

I talk to a lot of people on Capitol Hill, and they're tired of it, but no one sees a solution coming from leadership.

Every day for over fifteen years, I work with grassroots America, and I can see most folks are like me in that we want to get through the day, and then become couch potatoes.  (Disclaimer: I like the conclusion to LOST.)

However, the situation in America needs people of goodwill to step up and so something, and the Net makes online grassroots involvement a lot easier and more effective than ever.

So, I figure, let's figure out what online grassroots efforts might have the most impact, and get involved.

One experiment originates from the White House, Open for Government, an experiment that was part of the Open Government Initiative. (I should note here that this effort is an ongoing success story that is not being covered by the mainstream press. Lots more effort is needed, but Washington bureaucracy is slowly getting fixed, and no one's hearing about it.)

There's another effort from Republicans, America Speaking Out, a grassroots site which is somewhat framed from a Republican perspective. It's a good start, and I'd guess that several thousand Americans are taking part. My take, as a political amateur, is that Democratic Party positions are leading. This effort might fail, like the Dean campaign, but then might be successfully rejuvenated, like the Obama campaign.

I feel that the movement toward online grassroots democracy will create a more civil, effective political system. This is not in the interest of some, but countermeasures are on their way to foil the efforts of people who don't want politics fixed.

Consider PolitiFact.com, where they fact check the statements of politicians, and hold them accountable. It's just a start, and it relates to the impressive use of Politifact on ABC This Week. We need a lot more of this, and it needs to be pervasive online.

Sunlight Foundation has created a network of sites which focus on government accountability via transparency, much of which has to do with the flow of money in politics. That is, Sunlight shows you where the money goes, and what it gets.

Finally, in my day job I can see a lot of people faking support for some issues, falsely attacking others, and running false flag operations. (The latter is where someone posts something ugly, allegedly in support of an issue, but which makes its supporters look bad.) The best solution for this is the accountability introduced with an identity system that's halfway or more effective. Right now, that's Facebook, they're the incumbent, since it takes real work to build a solid profile. We need to do better, but that's the reality right now.

So, people are already using the Net to fix politics.

The deal is that we need a lot more people doing that.

I'm stepping up even more now, thinking, figuring stuff out, then acting.

Can America count on you?

(disclaimers: 1) Thanks to everyone who factchecked this, 2) I'm on on the board of Sunlight, and 3) politically, my bias is that I'm a libertarian pragmatist.)



Guy Martin

Interesting take Craig – my personal take (for this, as well as other things like change in corporate America) is that we'll really begin to pick up momentum when the 'social media' generation starts to infiltrate positions of power.
The kids that grew up with easy access to information and who know how to use that information to make a difference are going to have to drive this train long after you and I have retired. My only fear, which I briefly touched on in this blog post you commented on (http://blogs.open.collab.net/oncollabnet/2010/03/government-20-from-the-inside-out.html) is that the 'antibodies' in government and corporate America today could still infect these promising young minds and spirits.
I'm heartened though by the things I see in what we are doing in DoD, and all of the great things you report here in your blog. If we can hold the fort long enough for the next generation to come into power, I think we might have a chance.

Craig Newmark

Guy, thanks, really appreciated! and Ill keep the faith, and keep talking to people… quietly for the most part.


I’m not sure we want anything approaching an absolute democracy. I think we need to give everyone the opportunity to participate, but I actually think the process works better when only a few do. The people who are not interested in participating will self-select to stand on the sidelines and take whatever comes.
Not everyone knows, or cares to know, what is going on politically. Let those who aren’t interested in getting involved do something else while those who are passionate dive in. We do this in every other aspect of society, why does politics demand involvement from those who really don’t care?

Craig Newmark

good points, and as a couch potato, I really dont want to bother with politics. however, I figure I gotta step up and help the people doing the hard stuff, to the benefit of all.

Imran Anwar

Wonderful post, Craig. While there are good examples you give above, sadly, even in that the polarization has tainted the blood of our politicians as you mention from 2 different (and in some ways opposing) initiatives from the White House and the Republicans in opposition. From the day I started Internet email (against all odds and despite all threats from government, bureaucrats, "secret agencies" and religious extremists) in Pakistan, I was driven by the potential it had to make society (and hence governance) better. Ironic that it is something we still struggle for here in America, what to say of developing countries like Pakistan.
Will chat with you another time about some ways to break this cycle of polarization.

Harry Seldon F

Thanks for this list of websites aiming at improving politics.
I am still looking for a kind of open opinion polling website. Polls are of paramount importance for democracy for the simple and good reason that people, and politicians as well, need to know what the other people think. Elections are too scarce to really give the mood and the reasoning of people.
There are many polling organizations. Unfortunately they are not really open. If you hear about an "open" polling organization, "polls by the people for the people", please let me know, I'd like to contribute.


Thanks Craig. I'd attended two focus group sessions at Craigslist Foundation aimed at creating a knowledge-sharing tool to help people discover solutions relevant to their community building efforts. If there's any hope that politics might be fixed, I think the fixing will have to be done at the neighborhood level, by the neighbors themselves.
As conservative David Brooks noted in a recent conversation with liberal E.J. Dionne, Republicans have a communitarian tradition which believes in community and social groups. So do liberals. Encouraging neighbors to help each other, and to work with one another to improve their little piece of the planet – most of us would I think agree that that's a pretty good thing.
Which leads me to my question: Did you find anything at PdF that's aimed at doing just that? Doesn't look like strengthening neighborhoods made it to the agenda, but maybe people talked about it anyway?

Craig Newmark

Leo, thanks! and I dont recall this specifically discussed, but so much happened that Ive missed much.

Bruce Schuman

Just to generalize on Leo's thought a bit, one way to understand politics is in terms of "community" – local community, national community. If we want to "fix politics and overcome polarization", maybe we should be bringing people together around fundamental principles of dialogue and common humanity.
There are groups all over the world developing new ways to bring people together in the context of "diversity". Maybe we should be networking these groups as a kind of supporting and guiding force for the broader American electorate, as we look for ways to overcome borders and boundaries and separations between demographic groups.
"One Nation, One People". It doesn't have to be Kumbaya — it can be the "creative genius of the American People".
And of course — "Obama was a community organizer"

Ben Roberts

After reading Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody," I became inspired with the prospect of political transformation empowered by our newly wired civilization. One way or another, the technology that has been connecting us all in new ways over the past ten years (and especially the last five) is changing us at a fundamental level. But we are only just now learning to be more intentional about the ways in which that might happen.
I would add AmericaSpeaks to the list of groups trying to create civic engagement through dialogue and a mix of internet and face to face modalities. See, for example, their upcoming National Town Meeting on June 26th: http://usabudgetdiscussion.org/
I also second Bruce's vision above, which I think amplifies your original post Craig, re the need for the less shrill voices that make up the vast majority of our country to be heard.
Ben Roberts
Newtown, CT

Keith Moore

Maybe. and quite possible. It all depends on who chooses to collaborate opposed to try and dominate. The internet has paved the way for information sharing and for those who respect it as a tool for building collaborations:
world peace
job creation
just as examples.
For those firms who want to use the internet to dominate and not collaborate, we all should be weary.

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