Digital Media and Democracy: Early Returns

Digital Media and Democracy: Early Returns Blog Image

The relationship between digital media and democracy is complicated, because it is difficult for researchers to draw causal connections between adopting new social computing technologies and promoting what Joseph Kahne, Mills College professor and head of the Civic Engagement Research Group, has characterized as behaviors and values consistent with an “effective, just, and humane democratic society.” Kahne asserts that there is “no doubt” that multimedia literacies can promote civic participation, because “looking up information,” “having access to networked communities,” and “communicating and sharing perspectives” depends on having developed those literacies, but having basic literacies with computational media and content on distributed networks does not necessarily translate into more meaningful and robust democratic participation.

He observes that the Internet serves as a “real site for activism in all its glories and frustrations,” and having access to information and opportunities to share one’s perspective that is “not mediated by elites” can be “both good and bad."  “It provides access to both information and misinformation, for example.”

Kahne has good reason to be cautious about jumping to conclusions that either celebrate or condemn the impact of digital culture on civic life, given the limited “evidence base” about the possible correlation of online practices to offline political behavior.  Although “we have descriptive data about what people do online” from groups like the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Kahne argues that “we don’t know “how much these activities ultimately impact the quality, quantity, or equality of civic and political engagement.” He notes that democratic activity can take many forms, “ranging from symbolic displays, to protests, to working with others on community problems, to working on campaigns.”   “And new media are creating many new forms and mechanisms for participating and for learning how to participate.”

“One thing that is clear is that new media are creating new possibilities. Access to information and perspectives that are not mediated by authorities, experts, and organizations clearly shifts the dynamics of a democracy.  While communication on TV networks is from one to many, new media networks enable communication from many to many.  Individuals can get an audience for their views without connections to traditional institutions and organizations.  This means a dramatic change in possibilities for voice, access, and participation.”

Kahne specifically emphasizes that “recruitment” has been under-studied by researchers.  “Many people get involved because someone asks them to – and being online may make it much more likely youth will hear about issues and be asked to get involved.”

New Study To Shed Light On Issues of Gaming and Inclusion

Together with colleagues, Kahne is currently wrapping up an analysis of a large survey of high school juniors and seniors in California. It will enable analysis of the ways varied kinds of participation with new media does, or does not, promote forms of civic and political engagement.  It will look, for example, at the ways interest-based online participation relates to traditional forms of civic and political life such as volunteering, voting, and working on community issues. It will also enable examination of whether online participation expands or contracts exposure to those with whom one disagrees.

His group’s research on games shows that “there is civic value to some video games,” but not all video games “model engagement in civic activities or in political life.”  Games can simulate civic life and can provide opportunities for skill development and leadership.  These opportunities may be very relevant if they are about running a society, managing the needs of a community, or weighing varied values, as might games that develop skills that are needed in democratic institutions, such as working with others, being a leader, or being a respectful member of a group.  As Kahne puts it, “we need to stop talking about whether games are good or games are bad, and focus more on the kinds of experiences young people are having when they play games.  Some games have more opportunities to learn than others.”

“One interesting finding from the study was that race and ethnicity and social class were unrelated to the likelihood that a young person played a video game with civic content during their free time.  In contrast, schools provide youth of color and those who are less well off with fewer chances than others to engage civic issues. Thus, even though young people are equally interested, when schools are in control, they give some youth many more civic learning opportunities than others receive.”

The Need to Shift Our Focus

At a time when many schools and libraries block access to games and social network sites, Kahne warns that “it is important to model values that are consistent with democratic principles."

In a democratic society “free and open access to information and perspectives” should take precedence over a “panicked response.” As an education professor and former high school teacher, Kahne isn’t ready to give up on schools, however.  “Though many schools struggle to tap new media’s potential or to support their students in this area, some schools are doing very interesting things.  Schools should be part of any broad strategy, but civic learning and engagement will occur in many other contexts as well.”

Unfortunately, Kahne reminds us that too often “the focus is on the quantity rather than the “quality or equality” of civic participation.  This is understandable, he claims, coming out of “the nineties when the rate of civic participation was going down” among young people, but “it doesn’t tell the entire story,” because “an effective and just democracy requires much more than mass participation.”  

“We need to ask about the qualities of the deliberation and analysis and the values that drive participation.  We also need to ask about who and what groups are or are not participating or getting the opportunities they need.”  

Could Software Limit Free Speech?

I tend to be skeptical of the hyperbolic claims made by people like Tim O’Reilly in championing Government 2.0 and the neo-libertarian contempt for traditional political institutions that Gov 2.0 boosters promulgate.  Furthermore, I worry that federal, state, and local authorities often adopt corporate proprietary platforms too uncritically, because they are attracted by the easy access and cost savings and ignore the risks of what Siva Vaidhyanathan has called “the Googlization of government.” 

Hardware and software are inevitably engineered with certain architectures of control built in to their systems that limit how consumers can use any given product. If civic participation is mediated by particular technologies with algorithms and disclaimers that constituents don’t fully understand, how might citizens be compelled to participate in particular copyright regimes that constrain speech, submit to corporate user agreements that rewrite the social contract, or divulge private information to commercial vendors without their knowledge or consent?

Looking at these issues from the perspective of government stakeholders, I also worry that too often technology is actually just used to preserve the status quo rather than to test new forms of deliberation and decision-making.  In my book, Virtualpolitik, I argue that both liberals and conservatives feel anxiety about the fact that digital files on distributed networks can reach unintended audiences and be used for unanticipated purposes.  And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle remain very suspicious of everyday digital practices like file-sharing, using social network sites, or playing videogames, even if these activities promote civic engagement.

Check back for more of my conversations with theorists and researchers about the politics of digital media and learning.  In the past year, I’ve talked with scholars from political science, game studies, education, comparative literature, media studies, philosophy, history, law, design, communication, and anthropology.  I will also be talking with some teachers who are creating classes about civics and AP Government for elementary, middle school, and high school students that acknowledge the importance of their students’ online lives.  For more about the rhetorics of e-government, you can refer to my preliminary bibliography on the subject.