There’s no dearth of discussion about the effect of social media on culture and politics. Facebook and Twitter, especially, are credited (if that’s the word) with facilitating everything from the Arab Spring to the surprise victory of Glenda Ritz here in Indiana. Political observers tell us that sophisticated use of social media was a major factor in Obama’s successful GOTV effort, and that bungled use of that same media hampered that of the Romney campaign.

During a discussion about the Media and Policy class we’ve been team teaching this semester, John Mutz wondered aloud whether these forms of communication might be destabilizing government, making it much more difficult to engage in the sort of negotiation and deliberation that democratic theory prizes. ¬†I think he’s right, and I think this is an unfortunate and under-appreciated consequence of our current, frenetic media environment.

It’s not just the speed with which information, innuendo, rumor and half-backed conspiracy theories circle the globe. It’s the partial nature of that information.

The goal of democratic societies is informed participation. Not just voting, not just agitating for this or that change, but thoughtful¬†engagement in self-government. Today’s communication technologies facilitate immediate engagement: Sign the petition to XYZ, telling them to vote for ABC! Join the protest against so-and-so! Don’t let ‘them’ change this program–it’s all that protects grandmas and kittens! We are given tools with which to send a message, but all too often, the message is not based upon a full explanation of the issues involved.

I know there have been several instances where I’ve gotten such a “call to action” that initially seemed appropriate to me, but upon further research into the policies involved, turned out to be promoting a result that was neither practical nor possible. (The federal budget really isn’t like our household budgets–it’s a lot more complicated. Sometimes, well-intentioned programs that are meant to help one population or another have negative unintended consequences that really do need to be addressed. It’s usually more complicated than that email blast would suggest.)

Despite their considerable merits, Facebook and Twitter and all the other methods of rapid communication at our disposal too often get us to fire before we aim.

It’s important to be engaged. It’s important to communicate quickly with our elected representatives when we think they are about to act in ways that will damage important institutions, or harm vulnerable constituencies. Social media allows involved citizens to mobilize others, and to have a much louder and more effective voice than was previously possible. The downside is that the folks most likely to be involved are the partisans, both left and right, who tend to be more ideological than informed.

It’s so easy to click that link and sign your name. Who has time to read up on the arguments, pro and con?

As Captain Picard might say, “Engage!”


  1. Being 75, deaf and disabled, my computer is my source of information and communication. Without it, I could not “engage” on any level in political and social issues that affect me in many ways. I do try to research questionable information sent to me before responding; I also consider who sent the information. Relying on E-mail newsletters and somewhat on Facebook is a necessity for me and others in my situation. As with anything else we encounter in life, logic, common sense and responsibility is needed to accept or ignore what comes our way.

  2. An ardent Republican who has a history of near-violence when it comes to politics, started the kerfuffle all over again at a luncheon on Saturday. The gist of her rant was that years from now, we will finally learn “the truth” about our recently re-elected President. About his birth, legitimacy, about his schooling/grades/and on and on ad nauseam. Hooray for me! I held my tongue as did the fellow sitting next to me. We’re never going to change her–not even for the supposed calm and serenity of a luncheon.

    See JoAnn’s last sentence! She is soooooo right!

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