Power to the people: Crowdsourcing in politics

President Barack Obama in 2011 typed out the first presidential tweet, a question about America’s debt: “In order to reduce the deficit, what costs would you cut and what investments would you keep? BO.”

Political discourse has changed with the rise of social media, as it did when Calvin Coolidge gave the first presidential radio address in 1923 and again when John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon shared the screen during the first televised presidential debate in 1960.

Never before have political leaders been able to converse so immediately and directly with the unwashed masses (aside from handshaking and baby-kissing on the campaign trail). Today, elected officials and media outlets use social media accounts and interactive Web tools to solicit suggestions on important policy issues.

So how has Internet crowdsourcing changed political discourse? Well, to start, there’s the little matter of a Death Star…

Obama and the outlandish petition

The First Amendment prohibits Congress from making any law prohibiting the right of the people "to petition the Government for redress of grievances," but now those unprohibited petitions have become a little more sophisticated.

The White House in 2011 started a Web initiative, called “We the People,” that allows Americans to draft digital petitions on a range of issues. President Obama promised to consider any petition that garnered 5000 signatures within 30 days of being posted.

Apparently the White House didn’t expect “We the People” to become so popular. First, the Administration raised the minimum to 25,000 signatures. After 34,435 people signed a petition for the government to begin construction on a Death Star by 2016, the Administration penned an official response—to the effect of “absolutely not”—and then raised the threshold from 25,000 to 100,000 signatures.

The Death Star petition garnered more than 30,000 signatures.

“The Administration does not support blowing up planets,” the White House said.

Plus, the project would cost about $850 quadrillion—arguably not the best way to reduce the federal deficit.

More-realistic petitions, such as those addressing gun violence, have elicited more-serious responses from Obama.

Advice from the peanut gallery

Gun violence is one of many issues that NPR listeners have written about for the public radio network’s “ Dear Mr. President” project. NPR is crowdsourcing advice for President Obama as part of its inauguration coverage on Monday.

NPR's "Dear Mr. President" project was part of the network's inauguration coverage.

Obama might not be listening, but readers have contributed photos of themselves holding signs emblazoned with words they want the president to remember during his second term.

An assault weapons ban is at the top of many voters’ lists, as is marriage equality—many gay couples submitted family photos to remind the president of his new stance on the issue—and climate change. You needn’t have voted for the President, or indeed at all, to be welcome to submit photos and letters to the project.

Crowdsourcing’s future

Political crowdsourcing in America is largely used for recreational purposes (see: Death Star, federal debt reduction calculators).

In other countries, however, people have used the Internet and social media as grassroots organizing tools to change their government. During the Arab Spring, activists used Twitter and Facebook to plan protests and to spread revolutionary messages, eventually toppling regimes in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya.

Americans are slowly getting into the swing of online activism. In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last month, people on both sides of the gun debate took to Twitter to voice their concerns and to reach out to their representatives. The outcry prompted President Obama to propose new gun legislation and the National Rifle Association to offer its own prescription.

Iceland took crowdsourcing to its logical conclusion in 2011 when it drafted its new Constitution using input from Twitter and Facebook users.

In Finland, politicians last year began using a crowdsourcing platform called Open Ministry to draft new legislation.

Voters offer feedback on Congressional bills on PopVox.

Individual U.S. citizens might not be able to write their own bills, but Americans today can easily communicate with their representatives via sites like the nonpartisan PopVox, which creates individual pages for bills proposed in Congress and lets voters provide feedback on them.

PopVox CEO Marci Harris was a congressional aide when she realized that representatives needed a more effective and centralized way to hear from constituents.

“We didn’t have a good way to process it all, which topics were bubbling up,” Harris says. “Each office acts like its own small business, and each office has its own way of processing it. There was no hub to manage, in a public and transparent way, what people are telling Congress.”

House Democrats last summer integrated PopVox, which launched in 2011, with their Intranet, so feedback now automatically populates their inboxes. Gun violence garnered the most feedback on the site during the 112th Congress.

Harris says that PopVox isn’t intended to crowdsource legislation—at least not yet. Like electronic voting, crowdsourcing legislation has technical and political hurdles to clear before it can become a reality in the United States, and it may never succeed. In Finland, officials use bank and mobile carrier APIs to verify voter identity. That process would be more challenging in this country. PopVox requires its 250,000 users to submit their real names and addresses so the site can place voters in the correct Congressional district, but that’s not exactly a foolproof ID system.

Nevertheless, just as social media has changed our access to politicians and our means of communicating with them and our fellow citizens, technology may one day make direct democracy a reality.

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