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Cheryl Contee Headshot

Can the Internet Fix Politics or Just Change the Nature of the Game?

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If I didn't think the internet could have a positive impact on people & their politics, I wouldn't have co-founded Fission Strategy with the super-genius Rosalyn "Roz" Lemieux. Fission Strategy focuses on helping clients use social media for social good. We've had some success and received some recognition for our efforts to match innovation with citizens' imperative to organize and express their will to the powers that be for the benefit of all.

Can the Internet Fix Politics? I'm honored to have been invited to speak at the Personal Democracy Forum this year. I'll be speaking on In Search of a Theory of Change: The Internet and Democratization with Evgeny Morozov, Ethan Zuckerman, Ory Okolloh, and Micah Sifry -- the far-sighted visionary behind the PdF conference. There was a time when a conference talking about the intersection of politics and technology seemed futuristic at best and a bit presumptuous at worst.

I wouldn't have launched Jack and Jill Politics with the brilliant Baratunde Thurston if I didn't think that using blogging to express opinions from African-Americans that were common, and yet seldom seen in the media, might have an impact. Our voices and that of our community have helped change the way the media portrays issues of interest to African-Americans. We've successfully helped put pressure on black legislators and have celebrated positive role models in politics and beyond.

Now that one-third of the African population owns a mobile phone and Kenyans can use Mzalendo to communicate directly with their members of Parliament to ask questions and raise concerns, I know that increased access to technology is making a difference in politics globally. In the last election cycle, America elected a president who raised two-thirds of his campaign funding from donors online and used a social network to drive phone banking to get out the vote. GlobalVoices brings the insights from people around the globe from whom we might never have heard in years past. As we watch the digital divide close, African-Americans, who are heavy mobile users, now comprise 25 percent of the world's tweeters, at twice their actual population. Twitter is one of the fastest way to share news and information and provides often direct access between ordinary individuals and policymakers, celebrities, newsmakers and intellectuals from around the world.

I'm looking forward to sitting down with Micah, Evgeny, Ethan and Ory to discuss whether the internet can change or even fix politics. Their work inspires me, and I can't wait to learn more. Here's what I think from both my professional and personal experience -- I think that only people can fix politics. And that politics has been with us since the Sumerians, the dawn of civilization. Politics can't be fixed but I do think the game can be changed.

The watchers become the watched when every citizen has a mobile phone equipped with a camera and internet. During the Iranian election protests last year, the Iranian government forbade foreign media teams from leaving their hotels and confiscated protest footage in hopes of diminishing the extent of the election uproar. Yet it didn't matter because Iranian citizens were able to show the world what was happening in their country, and for the first time, the world discovered a government that was de-legitimized in the eyes of its people, rather than monolithic and oppressive. Call it "Little Brother Grown Big."

I agree that there are real concerns about government oversight and oppression using the internet. Governments like China and even the U.S. may spend a lot of time reading their citizens' email and social media messages, looking for conversations they deem dangerous. Governments like Iran and Pakistan may arrest people who seek reform or block social networks for fear of new ideas. It doesn't matter because the human drive for freedom and participation in our shared destiny will always be the mother of ingenuity. There are many ways to escape censors or climb firewalls if that's needed. We may not be able to use the internet to fix politics overnight, or ever, but the internet is surely changing the nature of the game we play with our governments to expand and defend our precious freedoms.

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