#SMW12: Twitter and Democracy


Benevolent Media is an official blogging partner of Social Media Week in Washington, D.C. (#SMWWDC). To learn more about social media for social good events worldwide, read our Benevolent Guide to Social Media Week (#SMW12).

A few floors beneath an original, sepia and yellow copy of the U.S. Constitution, panelists from the left and right wings of the political spectrum, an advocate of government transparency and an IT journalist discussed the potential and the limits of federal government in utilizing social media to engage a citizenry with increasing access to mobile devices and the internet. The event, "Social Media, Government and 21st Century eDemocracy," on Friday, February 17, spawned an exchange of ideas, some of which are noted below.

  • Clay Pierre wrote a summary and gathered participants’ live-tweets of the event.
  • The US National Archives tweeted that it would be posting a video recording of the panel on Youtube.
  • Matt Lira of House Speaker Eric Cantor’s office emphasized the need to “depoliticize the issue” and “to develop partnerships with any ally you can” when reforming the House of Representatives’ approach to social media. Lira said it was also important to “set incremental goals with tight deadlines.” For example, one goal might be to establish a procedure that would publish timely versions of new bills at the subcommittee level.
  • Social media profiles are not an official feedback route for comments to proposed federal guidelines, said Clay Johnson of Expert Labs. Johnson argued that a social media profile might be more accountable to a person’s identity than the current requirement of providing a physical address when giving input in the process of making new regulations.
  • Lorelei Kelly described the topic at hand as part of the “modernization of antique institutions.” She expounded on the potential for social media to lead the government in a new tradition of inclusion and participation, doing an about face from Cold War-era policies of mutually assured destruction. Kelly also reminded us that “basic human, socially intelligent ways of organizing can’t be traded off for technology.”

After the panel, Philadelphia grad student Chelsea Hampton said Susan G. Komen Foundation’s recent decision to defund Planned Parenthood “ignited a firestorm” in which “people were taking to their blogs and electronic formats to get the word out, which then resulted in a change on the part of the Komen Foundation.” Hampton said she came to the event expecting to hear “how social media allows for grassroots organizing and connecting people across geographic locations who have the same cause.” While the discussion tended to focus on the perspective of government technocrats, she was not disappointed.

“It was interesting to see it from the other side - from the official standpoint. To hear how people are recognizing the importance of social media and figuring out ways to integrate it,” Hampton said.

Fellow attendee and George Washington University grad student Calvin Garner wrote in an email that he spent several years “communicating with voters or constituents, and I saw the rise of social media as a very powerful force for people to advocate for issues.” His main takeaways for the event were the potential for social media to tap into networks of experts during the regulatory or oversight process, and the need to make conversations between constituents and their Congressional representatives more meaningful.

After the panel, O’Reilly’s sole Washington correspondent Alex Howard said that when Congress got rid of Office of Technology Assessment, it hampered its ability to evaluate topics raised during the panel.

Howard said he agreed with Clay Shirky’s idea that in social media, “we’ve overestimated access to information and undervalued access to each other.” Howard hoped that a more mobile citizenry would hold government more accountable, and that "smart people would prevail" without destroying our civil liberties, he said after the event.

Hampton noted about internet technology and social media: “it gives me a sense of what's going on, and it also gives me a false sense that I really know what's going on.”