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Craig Newmark Headshot

Advancing American Online Grassroots Democracy?

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Right now, we're seeing House members launch what could be a site where they listen to the American grassroots. The challenges are to minimize abuse, and to encourage the grassroots to listen to other viewpoints. Big challenges, but I feel many Americans are ready.

The folks at Sunlight Foundation tell it way better than I could:

House Republicans are today launching a
new site, America Speaking
Out
.

The site provides a forum for a broad, public discussion of the GOP's
agenda, in a similar vein to the Administration's Open for Questions,
or the RNC's previous effort to open its platform to broad
participation.

This effort is a bit different, though. Unlike Open for Questions,
it's intended to be an ongoing, permanent forum. And, unlike many other
similar efforts connected to campaigns, this is not an electoral
effort, but an official site made by Republican leadership in the House.
The site reflects the nature of party leadership in Congress --
official, but not non-partisan, ideological, but not campaign-related.

Better tools for listening
are in everyone's interest, and House Republicans deserve credit for a
forward looking experiment with public dialog online.

It would mean that we'd need people from both sides of the aisle to put aside
partisan differences. I feel the American people want that to happen; excessive
partisan behavior disappoints an increasing majority of us.

Two really big lessons from online grassroots efforts, generally speaking:

-- they can excite people, and get people to actually vote; the term is "voter
enthusiasm"

-- the grassroots takes control of the message, and faster than expected

The deal is that you can sign in, and tell the US government what you have in mind,
helping set the national agenda.

People can vote up or down your ideas.

You can sign in using your Facebook identity, showing it's really you. (Remember to
set your privacy details!) Your identity won't be visible to other citizens, but
will be to administrators. I'm pretty sure this will limit abuse and astroturfing,
and promote civility, based on a lot of experience from my day job.

The deal is that Facebook identities are generally real. You can fake 'em, but
that's expensive, usually more so than an astroturfer can afford in quantity. A
troll might hesitate to get really ugly if his real identity is visible to admins.

Okay, this effort might not work out, like the Dean campaign, where we learn a lot, and
get it right the next time, like the Obama campaign.

If it works, might discourage a lot of ugly behavior, and encourage a lot more
people to get involved. There might be a slight initial Republican advantage, given the way
questions are initially framed, but remember... the grassroots takes control of the
message.

I feel this needs to work, so maybe I should help out:

  • leave my politics at the door. (Disclosure: I'm a libertarian pragmatist.)
  • help minimize abuse, asking people to chill and refrain from personal abuse. That's a big problem online; I see it every day, and you probably can guess how tired I am of that.
  • encourage fact checking, and have already started talking to the big fact checking guys about this.
  • already working with Facebook to deal with identity and privacy issues, and related matters; have blogged twice about that, trying to cut through the noise and set the record straight.

Yes, my normal mode is couch potato, but it's time to step up, figure out what makes sense, and do it ...

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