The Need for Empowerment-based Design in Civic Technology



Extended Abstract

In a June 2017 post, Mark Zuckerberg introduced a change in Facebook’s mission from “make the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Facebook may not be able to give people power, but the goal of empowering people and building community is language familiar to civic engagement and participatory democracy, similar to the core idea of relational organizing—building interpersonal relationships that can be mobilized for collective action. In a February 2017 post, Zuckerberg first articulated this new thinking: “In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” Companies like Facebook often claim to serve the public good through their products; however, this particular language and the depth of explanation in Zuckerberg’s posts imply a recognition of ethical responsibility and at least an intention to design for true citizen empowerment.

I believe it is fair to insist that if the creators of a technology platform seek to make claims about empowering users, they must set explicit design goals for citizen empowerment and evaluate their platform against those goals. Facebook continues to face steep challenges to providing equal access to its platform. To aim for communities that can be effective and serving the public good is an even loftier goal. How Facebook will know whether it is actually making progress on its mission remains to be seen. However, technology companies have a reputation for religiously articulating goals and measuring them empirically. In fact, one of the architects of the data science team at Facebook claims that they invented the term “data scientist” to describe this important role (Hammerbacher 2009).

Democracy that values citizen-centered governance requires citizen empowerment (sometimes called “civic agency”), and empowered citizens need certain skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits that lead to effective civic engagement (Boyte 2009; Levinson 2012; Gibson and Levine 2003). Empowering experiences and learning opportunities can promote a virtuous cycle of reinforcing citizen empowerment and strengthening democracy. Spaces like town hall meetings, protest marches, the voting booth, and the civic education classroom traditionally represent where these experiences and opportunities take place. The emergence of networked digital media have created new, pervasive civic spaces—the networked public sphere. Whereas public spaces offline have seen a decline (Zick 2009), their online replacements, largely private spaces like Facebook, have grown to astounding size and influence with limited accountability to governments and the public.

Social media platforms like Facebook, government communication tools like We the People, and smaller civic technology platforms like SeeClickFix are increasingly the spaces through which citizens seek empowerment in the form of direct response from their government on key issues. As important actors in U.S. democracy (as well as other polities), the creators of these spaces have a responsibility to design for citizen empowerment and ensure they are advancing empowering processes and outcomes for citizens by evaluating whether their platforms are actually serving this mission. These creators of digital technology used for civic engagement should be understood as stewards of democracy with an ethical obligation to serve the public good.

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


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.