Since the first days of the Arab Spring, social media has been celebrated for its role in helping to foment democracy in countries that don't yet have it. An intriguing though less dramatic question back home is this: Can using Facebook or using Twitter also be used to strengthen democracy and civic engagement in countries like the U.S. that do have it?
The answer isn't so obvious. Political operatives and White House insiders have touted the power of Facebook, Twitter and Google to engage the public in election season and the governing decisions that follow. But contrarian voices have sprung up to suggest those platforms have hidden consequences, encouraging "slacktivism" as much as activism, and narrowing our world view rather than expanding it.
Most controversially of late, Eli Pariser suggests in the new book The Filter Bubble that today's hyper-personalized Facebook feeds and Google search results may just feed us information from the people who already think like us and about news that confirms what we already believe. By using indicators we provide about ourselves — when we "like" Sarah Palin's Facebook page — Pariser suggests social networks may be tailoring content to our biases, filtering out precisely the opposing views a globally connected Internet was supposed to facilitate.
Evgeny Morozov, author of The Net Delusion, suggests meanwhile that "group fetishism" has led us to confuse quantity with quality in online activism. After all, it's easy to be "engaged" in politics when all you have to do is "like" a candidate or her cause.
This, Morozov writes, "all too often leads to civic promiscuity — usually the result of a mad shopping binge in the online identity supermarket that is Facebook — that makes online activists feel useful and important while having preciously little political impact."
Macon Phillips, the White House director of digital strategy, sounds certain the net effect is positive for invigorating civic participation. Speaking Tuesday at the Brookings Institution, he cited a Web debate the White House organized last month after Obama's major Middle East policy speech. The White House tapped NPR's Twitter guru Andy Carvin and George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch to interview national security adviser Ben Rhodes, with the help of the Twitter-sphere.
"They were facilitating a conversation between a large group of people and an American policy official," Phillips said. "That's to my mind a new model of engagement."
But Phillips also brought up another recent event from the White House's digital engagement strategy. The administration has been releasing regular "white board" videos showing, for example, Austan Goolsbee explaining the president's agenda for patent reform. That particular video has about 8,000 views on YouTube right now.
Recently, the White House also released a clip showing the president miraculously calming a crying baby on a rope line. That one instantly went viral, with 1,270,250 views as of this writing on YouTube.
"For us, it's frustrating to see these videos go viral, get a lot of views," Phillips admitted, "when our policy videos don't get as many views."
And does watching the president calm babies — or kill flies - count as civic engagement? Phillips is now wondering if there's a way to blend the two (the president calms crying babies while explaining patent reform?).
Lee Rainie, director of Pew's Internet & American Life Project, has done research that suggests many of the grimmest predictions about social media's impact on politics have actually not come to pass.
"The bad news story just isn't there," he said, speaking alongside Phillips at Brookings. "The theory and potential threats that the use of social media were thought to be bringing to politics — pulling people away from real friendships, pulling them away from their communities, distracting them, pulling people into cocooned spaces where they're not encountering different views — all of that is not sustained in the work that we've done."
Research that Pew released last week suggests quite the opposite: Facebook users are more politically engaged than most people, and they're more trusting of others and have more and stronger relationships in the real world. The study also showed that MySpace users are more likely to be open to opposing points of view.
In response to critiques like Morozov's of "group festishism," Rainie points out that concerns over the phenomenon — individuals slacking when they think the larger group has got things covered — predates social media. He also suggests engagement is a spectrum: We want lurkers to become commenters, and commenters to become forwarders, and forwarders to start knocking on their neighbors' doors.
If social media helps move any of those people a little further down that line, isn't that increasing engagement — depending, at least, on what you think engagement really means.
"Whether it's consuming something or sharing something or signing a petition or sending an email, there are different values to each of those actions," said Mindy Finn, who has worked on digital strategy for several Republican campaigns. "The biggest question is what is the value, and are there activities that in the past we may not have considered real civic engagement or having value that do have value?"