From John Edwards' haircut to Hillary Clinton's tear, Web videos have played a well-publicized role in generating buzz about this year's presidential candidates. As influential as those viral clips may be, though, a broader role is arising for so-called voter-generated content. Civic-minded techies are increasingly bringing Web 2.0 to political activism, developing new watchdog tools that open up congressional machinery for ordinary citizens to scrutinize and critique.
Representatives from a growing cadre of participatory democracy sites gathered last week in New York City at the Personal Democracy Forum, a national conference on the intersection of technology and politics. They demonstrated an array of new tools that enable voters to annotate and edit prospective legislation, monitor congressional speeches and trace links between political contributions and voting patterns. Some of the still nascent tools blend the advantages of crowd-powered sites like Digg and Reddit with the social networking of Facebook and LinkedIn.
"Modern-day technology will reinvent democracy," says Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which uses the Web to shine a light on the work of Congress. "It allows people to participate in huge numbers and in ways that will fundamentally challenge power structures, that will demand accountability from their elected officials."
Web 2.0 activism has moved from simply amassing information to wiki-fying the data and enabling it to go viral. Anyone interested in the factors influencing politicians' earmarks, such as their personal finances and campaign contributors, can now dig into that data, sifting, sorting and commenting on it, and sharing it with others using maps, charts and other visuals. By presenting data in widget format, the sites are encouraging dialogue and jump-starting activism (blogs then spread their findings backed by the live data). In so doing, the sites are helping to illuminate subjects like revolving-door lobbying in ways that help motivate civic participation in the political blogosphere and beyond.
The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) and the Sunlight Foundation, both nonpartisan groups, have been leading the digital-watchdog charge. CRP's site, OpenSecrets.org relaunched recently with a new palette of offerings to let people dig up and expose links between political contributions and subsequent decision making. "Watchdogs are most effective these days when they're not the only ones barking," says CRP executive director Sheila Krumholz. "Our goal is to get the data in as many hands as possible, to enlist others in making the connections between money's influence on policy."
Numerous sites are taking advantage of CRP's open spigot, including Maplight.org. Last week Maplight merged CRP info with voting data from GovTrack.us to assess the 94 House Democrats who had originally opposed immunity for wiretapping telecoms but then shifted positions to vote in support of the Bush Administration. Maplight's analysis demonstrated that those who flip-flopped on immunity had received nearly double the amount in PAC contributions from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon as those who remained opposed to the legislation.
Perhaps even more significant than analyzing bills after the fact is being able to influence debates beforehand. "The holy grail of this new movement is to develop the technology for collaborative analysis of bills online," says Rafael DeGennaro, a longtime congressional staffer and former president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. An example of the impact of legislative annotation took place as far back as a year ago, when conservative blogger N.Z. Bear posted a PDF version of the 2007 Senate Immigration Bill, helping opponents of the bill rally around particularly controversial details that might otherwise have escaped their attention. The text of the bill had been closely guarded prior to the leak the weekend of May 20, 2007. Were it not for the online annotation, the bill might not have been widely analyzed before the debate scheduled for May 21. DeGennaro says the bill's ultimate defeat demonstrated the impact online legislative annotation can have.
DeGennaro now runs ReadtheBill.org, a nonpartisan start-up trying to build consensus around the idea that bills should be posted on the Web for 72 hours before congressional debate begins, so the public can assess and respond to pending legislation. The site is aligned with OpentheGovernment.org, which aims to reduce government secrecy. Key to reducing secrecy is exposing more and more about where the $16.8 trillion in federal spending ends up, which is the aim of Fedspending.org, a site that has been searched 7 million times over the past 20 months. A related project is Lawrence Lessig's Change Congress, a new grassroots effort focused on gaining government transparency and challenging the role of money in politics.
The digitization of political data isn't new. Year after year, fund-raising information has been emerging in steadily growing volume. What's new in 2008 is the usability of the information, the collaborative ways in which sites are linking data together and the degree to which the new tools are motivating civic activism. While Barack Obama's online fund raising may set new records and the Obama "Baracky" video may someday land in a museum, the long-term legacy of this presidential campaign season may have more to do with the monitoring of government's mundane details than with flashy fund raising or viral videos.