Is the internet here to save us?
We sure seem to think so. It’s hard to argue that it, at the very least, has made activism easier on us — though perhaps less effective. Instead of taking signs and marching on street corners, we click “like” or “share” and continue doing whatever else it is we happen to do be doing at any given moment. We leave a comment on our elected officials’ page — despite knowing, in our heart of hearts, that our sentiment will likely never eclipse an staffer’s notepad.
Political organizations can amass thousands upon thousands of online members, but struggle mightily to translate a “like” into action. Similarly, town halls are evaporating. I mean, we’re busy. Why not just throw it on Youtube? If you don’t, I’ll sign an online petition at you!
Some call it “slacktivism.” It’s a fitting term, although a bit unhelpfully derogatory. I have no doubt that most people who engage in politics online have the best intentions. Well, at least the ones not associated with comments sections. But the reliance on the internet, and social media, to spread democracy and increase civic engagement is better described by author Evgeny Morozov, a writer and researcher who studies the political and social implications of technology. Morozov applied a different term, “cyber-utopianism,” which he defined in 2009’s The Net Delusion as “a naive belief in the emancipatory nature of online communication that rests on a stubborn refusal to acknowledge its downside.”
That downside takes an increasing amount of energy to ignore, leading a lot of businesses (including Alaska Commons) struggling to figure out how to use the internet to increase participation and democratize civic engagement, while not inadvertently creating a new place for people to yell at each other.
One Anchorage lawmaker thinks more is the answer. State Representative Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) has introduced a new bill, HB329, which would establish a more direct link between Alaskans and the legislature. Rep. Tarr thinks, rightly, that it’s a topic worth looking into. Her bill, modeled after a program already operating in Arizona, would install a social media component in the state’s existing bill tracking system. In other words, a comments section attached directly to legislation working its way through the legislature, where voters could opine.
Others, including media outlets like the Alaska Dispatch and the Anchorage Daily News, have restricted feedback to readers who post through their Facebook accounts.
Announcing the switch, last September, ADN editor Patrick Dougherty explained the reasoning:
The contrast between print and online comments has been stark. In print, we get more carefully prepared viewpoints, produced by an identified author prepared to stand behind them. Online, anonymous posts too often devolve into tedious and repetitious name-calling. I have occasionally described our comments as a public exercise of primal scream therapy.
Scream therapy is awesome, but not conducive to civil discussions about public policy and current events. A couple weeks later, Popular Science went a step further, nixing their online comments section altogether.
“It wasn’t a decision we made lightly,” content editor Suzanne LaBarre explained. “As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter.”
Popular Science cited an article about climate change as evidence of the negative impacts of online commentary. The article examined policy proposals announced last year by the Obama administration. But, the comments devolved into arguments attacking the President and denying climate change wholesale, steering readers away from the original topic.
LaBarre highlighted recent studies showing the influence comments can have. Popular Science didn’t want to serve as a vendor for misinformation. She felt that “the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.”
So, does it make more sense to democratize online commentary further in the realm of politics?
Rep. Tarr’s thinks so. “This is a low cost way to make the legislative process more accessible and to ensure that their voices are heard,” Tarr said in a press release. She added that improvements to technology in rural parts of the state, paired with this effort, could increase civic participation.
There’s no guarantee that the feedback will be constructive, nor is there any evidence suggesting that legislators would listen any more than they do currently.
Arizona has no shortage of controversial legislation. Most recently, SB1062 has commanded a lot of national headlines. The proposal would legalize discrimination against LGBT Arizonans. On “Arizona Voices,” the program Tarr credited for HB329, the online discussion about SB1062 is mixed. There’s also plenty of room for users to avoid transparency. Signing up for an account, one needs only grant facebook access and enter in a zip code. My 99504 one worked just fine, allowing me to comment on legislation I have little place addressing. Users can also keep their info private. There were 62 comments — thus, if I felt compelled to create 62 facebook accounts, I could significantly influence the tone of the debate. Even if I did, it doesn’t appear that Arizona lawmakers are giving much credence to the online component; 87 percent of the respondents oppose the bill, which has already passed both houses and is awaiting one of Governor Jan Brewer’s pens.
The internet is unarguably a powerful resource to obtaining knowledge. It’s also a dangerous tool increasingly used to erode it. We haven’t pinpointed a way to isolate the benefits, and have been even less successful in safeguarding against the harm it can inflict. Until we do, the internet can operate as a virus, constantly infecting itself. If Tarr’s proposal were to come to fruition, modeled after the Arizona site, we’d basically be starting a giant discussion about public policy with less accountability than the ADN’s comments section.
One possibility would be to choose Youtube over Facebook as the embedded social media component — force videos with faces attached, rather than anonymous, button smashing re-branded as “public input.” Instead of comments sections for proposed legislation, feedback on legislation could be limited to up or down votes. The “private profiles” option could be omitted. The emphasis could be put on an “ideas” page (which is a current feature of “Arizona Voices”) where citizens can offer proposals, rather than criticisms.
HB329 is being advertised as “legislation to bring [the] public process into [the] 21st Century.” But ideas from previous centuries don’t automatically become antiquated with the turn of the calendar. Some good ideas have longer shelf lives than others. Just because instantaneous, anonymous commentary is the newest evolution of public input doesn’t alone justify it.
Tarr’s bill is an interesting proposal, with limitless kinks and details to work out. It’s also an important launching point for a dialog we need to have, as a society still clinging to a loosened grip on civility.