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How Silicon Valley Can Support Citizen Empowerment

Link

https://scholars.org/contribution/how-silicon-valley-can-support-citizen-empowerment

Introduction

The 2016 U.S. presidential election stoked concerns about the potential of digital technologies to disempower citizens and erode democracy. Such concerns followed years of promises from tech companies and investors about the democratizing power of the internet. Since their founding, Twitter and Facebook have touted themselves as tools for democracy and citizen empowerment. A closer look, however, reveals that tech company incentives are often poorly aligned with the social goals they espouse and the type of good they promise to do for the world.

A new crop of companies — self-titled “civic technology” companies — are now taking the democratic mission more seriously by designing their platforms and tools with the explicit intention of promoting civic engagement. Some of these companies are nonprofits or ventures with the dual mission of making a profit and providing social benefits. Others are traditional startups financed by venture capitalists. In both cases, these companies need better metrics to ensure that their products and business designs remain aligned with their social missions.

Unfortunately, Silicon Valley companies are often judged simply on their ability to attract exponentially rising numbers of users and maintain user engagement. This standard for “success” encourages companies to work with paying customers who advertise to users and exploit their attention and data — rather than serving users in empowering ways. In turn, such standard measures are what matter to business leaders and investors. Measures of success need to change in order to encourage more tech companies to pursue democratic goals. Industry leaders, governmental and citizen users, and investors — all must create new performance standards to redefine success and hold tech companies accountable. New measures for evaluating company performance should be tied to service to democracy and to citizen empowerment.

Youth Digital Activism (United Nations World Youth Report)

Full Report

Link to UN World Youth Report PDF

Presentation at the United Nations

Starts at 27m 40s

https://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid1722935254001/?bctid=5037493690001&autoStart=false&secureConnections=true&width=432&height=232

Introduction

The terms “civic engagement” and “activism” traditionally evoke images of voting and volunteering for campaigns or marching in the streets, banners hoisted high. While these are still fixtures of political participation, a broader set of practices enabled by digital technologies is being created and applied by young people. Cathy J. Cohen, Joseph Kahne and others call this broader set of practices “participatory politics”, defined as “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern”. They emphasize that “these acts are not guided by deference to elites or formal institutions”.

This is part of a larger trend of youth avowing low confidence in national decision-making bodies and disaffection with elected officials and their ability to address issues. The biannual Harvard Institute of Politics poll indicated consistently declining levels of trust in government institutions among 18- to 29-year-old Americans between 2010 and 2015. According to a 2013 LSE Enterprise study, when European 16- to 26-year olds reflect on voting and institutional politics, they find “the political ‘offer’ does not match their concerns, ideas, and ideal of democratic politics”. At the same time, there are high levels of youth participation in issue-oriented activism, boycotting and buycotting, and protest activities. W. Lance Bennett refers to this new generation of young people as “actualizing citizens”, “who favour loosely networked activism to address issues that reflect personal values”, in contrast with “dutiful citizens”, who maintain a more collective and government-centred set of practices. Similarly, Cohen and Kahne found that interest-driven participation was a strong predictor of engagement in participatory politics among American youth.

If one thing defines this era of youth digital activism, it is the ability to make and widely share media. It is possible for “widely distributed, loosely connected individuals” to work together to solve a problem or create something new—a practice called crowdsourcing or peer production—because the costs of building loose networks of contributors and disseminating information digitally are nearly zero. When people make their own media they can assert power by framing issues in ways that compel others to change their minds or to adapt to new realities and perspectives. This form of “media activism” is not a new theory of change in itself; however, its practice is being transformed by the use of digital technologies for coordination and amplification. Agenda-setting power is shifting to a broader set of political actors with the necessary tools, savvy and timing.

Mobile computing, in particular, is allowing a new generation of citizens to access the Internet and enjoy lowered coordination costs. In Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, 9 in 10 Millennials have a smartphone and spend 50-100 per cent more time on their mobile device than on a desktop computer. Affordable wireless Internet access and mobile phone ownership around the world constitute the most potent force for expanding the pool and potential of young digital activists.

However, the young people best poised to transform the practice of democracy around the world are those who not only create media but also build the tools and platforms through which they are made, shared and organized. Lilly Irani calls this new movement of civic hacking and cultural remaking “entrepreneurial citizenship”. This represents a small but powerful cohort that is taking its cues for solving the world’s problems from Silicon Valley and identifying primarily as social entrepreneurs and designers and secondarily as political or as activists.

These new forms of digital activism are not without problems and controversy. Many youth are still excluded from civic and political participation. That is why it is important to comprehend the wide range of contemporary tactics, tools, and trends and the unique challenges youth digital activists face in connection with current laws, norms, market forces and educational practices. The current thought piece outlines those trends and challenges but also highlights relevant opportunities and offers recommendations for supporting youth digital activism.