Remarks on #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator

I was asked to serve as a guest speaker for the Movies that Matter on tour program. The program screens documentaries and films with a human rights theme.

On Thursday May 8th 2014, the documentary #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator was shown in Lumen, in the city of Delft. The documentary is about Ala’a Basatneh, a 19-year-old college freshman living in the suburbs of Chicago. She coordinates between protestors on the ground in Syria and social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, and provides footage to major news outlets.

To summarize my remarks:

I spoke first about the political communication system, and the three main actors in this system: political leaders, media, and citizens. This system is interesting to mention because it works over time and it applies to pretty much any political system around the world. How? The system allows for “forces of instability.” These include evolving technologies (like social media) and also the changing relationship between political leaders, the media and citizens.

#chicagoGirl is fascinating because it combines these two forces of instability. It talks about how technology is evolving, and it also shows how citizens like Ala’a Basatneh are speaking back. Let’s think about this. Traditional media used to be all about mass communication: one particular message sent to a large group of people. Now, the very structure of how we use media has changed. Ala’a is not only able to coordinate people in a global scale, but she can also make her own media, which is then picked up by traditional media and reaches a mass audience. There are many examples of this in the film regarding protest videos. The Syrian regime says this is an internal problem and they don’t want the rest of the world to know. Fortunately that is not possible anymore, and there are incredible activists working to get the story out so the world doesn’t forget.

There’s another interesting point to make here. We might think of social media as pretty much non-political: just a way to keep in touch with friends and family. Or maybe we see it as a commercial space, a place to attract us as consumers and also gather our data for marketing purposes. But these spaces have, like one speaker in the film put it, the “potential for democratic rebellion.” Like Ala’a says at the beginning of the film, “From my laptop I am running a revolution in Syria.”

chicagoGirl  The Social Network Takes on a Dictatorchicagogirl1Regular citizens are using social media in political ways, too. Just to give you all an idea, at least in the US context, a 2012 Pew Research survey found that those who use social media, especially Facebook, are more civically and politically active than non-users. Almost 40% of all Americans over the age of 18 have done at least one of eight civic or political activities with social media, such as “liking,” commenting on, or sharing materials relating to politics or social issues.

Now Ala’a is obviously doing much more than this, but it’s the willingness of other citizens to share her materials that creates a widespread impact. In the film they talk about how citizens are using social media instead of weapons, and I think that’s a great way to see it. They are making a difference without turning to violence.

The last thing I want to say also happens to be the final message of the film: The real social network is the person-to-person connection: it’s the people who bring the state down. Technology itself isn’t powerful. Rather, people are powerful if they are enabled. Technology is a neutral tool: it just helps citizens participate.

In conclusion, we have no excuse not to get politically active, now that we can see what can be accomplished with a mobile phone and a laptop.

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Reaching citizens online

I published a piece called “Reaching citizens online” on the Weber Shandwick Digital Public Affairs blog.

Many political organizations, politicians and interest groups are anxious to learn how to best reach citizens online. I have researched how youth organizations (based in the United Kingdom) do so, both on their websites and then later on social media. It’s been interesting to gain insight into choices about web presence while keeping in mind how these organizations think about young people as citizens.

I looked at two types of organizations: both those connected to government, and those focused on single issues like the environment or animal rights. Whatever the focus, I found that all organizations subscribed to a similar web strategy. The overarching goal of web content was a wish to create engaged citizens. This was accomplished in two ways: First, web content was used to provide information to young visitors. Second, organizations pursued an “inform then involve” approach to get youth engaged and participating.

Click here to read more…

International election obsession

Below is the piece I contributed for this weekend’s Open Mike at POLITICO’s Arena.

The U.S. elections generate huge interest abroad. This is definitely true in the Netherlands, the place I’ve called home for the past 11 years. The other day on the train I was preparing a presentation about social media use in the election campaign. As I juggled images of Todd Akin and Big Bird, the man next to me, in true Dutch fashion, stared shamelessly at my laptop screen. When I glanced at him, rather than look away he held my gaze. “So who do you think will win?” he wanted to know. It happens all the time: Dutch friends and perfect strangers ask my opinion of the debates and my reaction to Romney’s 47 percent video.

But the interest goes way beyond casual conversation. Now that we’ve reached October, there are almost weekly events, mostly in the form of discussions or debates. Last week, the U.S. Embassy of the Netherlands hosted a Republican (Shane Jett, former Oklahoma State Representative) and a Democrat (Gary Nordlinger of Nordlinger Associates). The entourage toured Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Leiden, spreading knowledge about U.S. politics to fascinated audiences of students and professionals. I hosted the Rotterdam event. Before the event, the organizer approached me with a worried look on his face. He thought the Republican might get bullied by the audience, and asked me to help soften the tone if the questions became harsh. But he had nothing to fear. At events like these, criticism always seems to overlook partisan politics. Though they are concerned with the outcome of the election, and as a rule seem to prefer the Democrats, when it comes to their impression of the “American mentality” the Dutch don’t really see a difference. The tone has definitely softened since the Bush years, but the Dutch are one part fascinated and two parts distressed by what they see as aggressive U.S. foreign policy.

This cultural and political interest brings the Dutch all the way to the United States, too. From October 11-18, the BKB Academy, an offshoot of the BKB campaign agency based in Amsterdam, took a group of highly motivated young people to Washington, Richmond, Charlottesville, Philadelphia and New York to learn as much as they could about the presidential election by talking to pollsters, strategists, and “Joe the Plumbers.”

International headlines always mention developments in the election campaign, and some news organizations provide additional commentary. For example, Freke Vuijst is a correspondent for a left-wing weekly publication called Vrij Nederland (Free Netherlands). Even throughout the recent Dutch election campaign, every Tuesday and Friday she blogs about the U.S. elections, with headlines such as “Debating with Pinocchio Romney” and “For Sale,” where she discusses the commercial financing of U.S. elections.

On Election Day, universities and other organizations will hold all night events along with live streaming of election coverage. In Leiden, where I live, there will be an All American Night, starting off with spare ribs and American music. Again, a variety of speakers will provide insight into the mentality of U.S. politics, the debates, and the way campaigns and policy decisions precede. The audiences at these events, numbering in the thousands across Dutch soil, will listen with rapt attention.

Open Mike contribution to POLITICO’s Arena

I wrote this for POLITICO’s popular Open Mike feature on The Arena:

Does social media matter for the campaign?

Of course it does. Candidates sure think it matters. They seem to value a high number of friends or followers online. In July, it was reported that Mitt Romney’s Twitter account (@MittRomney ) gained 116,922 followers in a span of just 24 hours. This was probably the result of using a Twitter follower service, but the intent is clear: high numbers demonstrate popularity. And it’s not just quantity, it’s also image. Online and in print, tips to politicians abound on how to act in the virtual world: Be friendly. Be authentic. Expect that people will want to engage in conversation. POLITICO argued that social media savvy was one benefit in Romney selecting Paul Ryan as his running mate. But it’s true – buzz is no guarantee for a win. A study of four 2010 races (two for Senate, two for Governor) by NM Incite found that the most buzzed about candidate won the seat – but in only three out of four races.

What about citizens? Does all this online chatter make a difference? In five minutes on Facebook, I can comment on a friend’s new hairstyle and get outraged about Todd Akin’s remarks on rape and abortion. Funny how a tool like Facebook can also be politically effective. But that does seem to be the case. Recent research published by Nature found that during the 2010 congressional election campaign, people were 0.39 percent more likely to vote if they received Facebook messages telling them that their friends had voted – that was an additional 282,000 votes cast. And that effect was strongest of all from closest (most interacted with) friends. It may not sound like much but in an election as tight as this one, it can make a big difference.

For democracy to thrive, we need well informed citizens who are well connected to each other and enthusiastic about sharing their views. Let’s not discount the role of social media outlets like Facebook.