The process of influencing government action has undergone a significant transformation in the age of the smartphone. Of course, the traditional lobbying business continues to thrive, with companies, trade associations and public interest advocacy groups relying on experienced experts to plead their cases in Washington, DC, and throughout the country. What the smartphone has done, however, is expand the ways that non-professionals can influence the political system. I’ll focus on three ways that regular people have been significantly influencing the machinery of government between election days through the Internet and mobile devices.
- Post-Ferguson, MO, the civil rights movement has been re-born, notably with #BlackTwitter playing a central role. What has been striking to me is that the movement has been energized not primarily by new laws passed by the country’s first African-American President, but by a series of powerful videos and images mostly from smartphone cameras: Walter Scott shot by Michael Slager in the back and ear while fleeing the police across a grassy lot; Dylann Roof wearing a jacket with the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia; and the stream of photos and videos that launched the #BlackLivesMatter movement.The 1960s civil rights movement that, in part, led to the passage of the Voting Right Act of 1965 was defined largely by protests, marches and sit-ins: organized and coordinated activities designed to pressure politicians into taking actions that would ensure African-American access to the political process. Without such a centrally coordinated effort, shared videos of disparate individuals have been a significant factor in the Justice Department’s decision to launch investigations of police forces in several cities and in the South Carolina political establishment’s decision to take down the Confederate Flag on the South Carolina Capitol grounds. While the #BlackLivesMatter movement is currently working to show its effectiveness as a coordinated political operation hoping to influence the outcome of the Democratic and Republican primaries, it is still unclear whether it can transition seamlessly into a more traditional advocacy role or if its strength is more in its members’ ad hoc presence in local communities across the country.
- Last week, Matt Stempeck wrote an excellent article asking, “Are Uber and Facebook Turning Users into Lobbyists?” Mr. Stempeck argues:
Leading technology companies are increasingly soliciting their users to take political action on their behalf to defend controversial business models from regulation, support new programs, and promote their moral values in active political battles….We’re being introduced to a new lever of corporate influence on democracy.
This changing approach to corporate lobbying, particularly of state and local officials, is logical in an era of online, mobile activism and slacktivism. It’s easy to take a political stance by clicking a link while waiting for lunch or the bus, so why not ask sympathetic users to do so when it benefits your brand? Because people often define themselves through brand choices – iPhone vs. Galaxy – and social media platforms – LinkedIn for work and Instagram for vacation, companies can harness that self-identification and goodwill towards their desired political ends. For the public, the benefits of these efforts are getting more people to engage with tech policy issues, communicate their preferences to their elected officials, and advocate for organizations with missions they support. However, I agree with Mr. Stempeck that a significant concern is that this kind of lobbying can lead to uninformed activism, where companies control the messaging and users click to join a campaign without considering counterarguments.
- The data that people submit to cities through 311 posts, 911 calls, tweets and blog posts has a tremendous influence on “responsive cities,” as Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford have tagged them. Public safety, recreation and transportation options are being decided in cities across the country based on aggregated feedback from residents. Therefore, it is increasingly important for people to participate digitally. While the tools have changed, the squeaky wheel still gets the grease. Recently, I had a conversation with my local City Councilperson in Washington, DC, and we discussed his desire to develop ways to generate hyper-local data from within his Ward and use that information to promote economic growth. Companies such as IBM and Alphabet’s new Sidewalk Labs recognize that there is tremendous value in helping both cities and companies to increase local connectivity and further analyze the resulting data.
My hope is that the ongoing sharing of requests, photos, and tweets will allow residents’ voices to be noticed continually, not just in the lead up to election days. While the people who fought for the Voting Rights Act probably could not have imagined Twitter, activists’ desires haven’t changed – people should have the ability to participate in our democracy and have a voice in the decisions made by their representatives. Today, technology that we carry around all the time anyway is helping make that possible.