The last time you cast your ballot, did you get your #democracysausage? In his 2016 book Social Media and Everyday Politics, author Tim Highfield exhibits his #democracysausage Instagram photo from 2015 (p. 147). As he explains, the ritual of compulsory voting colliding with Australian culture and participatory media led to the emergence of the #democracysausage and #democracycake hashtags with detailed maps and dedicated accounts tracking the availability of such food at polling places across Australia. Alongside Highfield’s 2015 polling booth selfie in the introduction (p. 2), these personal examples illustrate the book’s central premise that social media-oriented practices of politics are also the practices of everyday life, performed and documented at the blurry intersection of the private and the public.
Social Media and Everyday Politics provides an extensive look at the state of political communication theory and Internet scholarship covering social media and politics. Highfield intends the book as “a lens for examining the ways that individuals engage with political and personal issues as part of everyday social media activity, and by extension what this means beyond the social media context” (p. 11). Not only does he touch on many of the key debates and findings over the past decade to shape this lens, but he also complicates our understanding of these practices with caveats that account for gender, race, and other social and cultural categories. As an introduction to the research and theory on the topic through 2015, this book is a welcome addition to the scholar’s shelf.
However, rating the book as a helpful contribution of new research rather than a textbook-like compendium is more complicated. As an emergent research area, the landscape of social media and politics is inherently understudied and undertheorized. Highfield’s approach to the topic emphasizes comprehensive coverage of existing theories rather than a novel, narrative argument. To summarize the findings we have at the intersection of private, public, and political lives played out on social media, Highfield borrows the concept of “everyday politics” from civic studies scholar Harry Boyte (2004). Highfield’s use of everyday politics provides a new frame to researchers conversant in this literature and binds together the ideas and research he cites. However, a deeper dive into the civic engagement literature would be necessary to explore Boyte’s vision of everyday politics more fully.
High levels of mistrust in governments and politicians around the world, connected to anti-elitist sentiments among both liberal and conservative citizens, has signaled a need for effective strategies and technologies that support monitorial citizenship.
“Monitorial citizenship is a form of civic engagement in which people independently track issues or communities of interest in order to be prepared to take action when necessary. Common activities of the monitorial citizen include collecting information, sharing stories and insights, co-ordinating with networks of other civic actors, and pursuing accountability for institutions and individuals and their perceived responsibilities” (Graeff forthcoming).
With the outcome of the 2016 American presidential election, in particular, we are seeing increased interest in monitorial practices from both citizens and technologists, who have responded by developing new digital tools.
But because many projects recreate the design features of existing tools, there is a significant and immediate need to know what does and does not work.
Prior technologies for monitorial citizenship have been documented under names like sousveillance (Mann 2002), social monitoring (Fung et al. 2013), and accountability technologies (Offenhuber & Schechtner 2013), and they have been deployed for a range of endeavours from activism to participatory governance to disaster response (Madianou, et al. 2016).
This paper is a qualitative meta-analysis of the existing literature and additional original case studies, organising monitorial citizenship tools into thematic groups by their theories of change and design features. Based on the success of prior work, Erhardt proposes a set of design principles for tools supporting civic activities such as accountability, critique and solidarity, and insurrectionism, alongside recommendations for deployment.
I was recently prompted to think about what should be included in a new civic participation index. My first inclination was to brainstorm all of the behaviors that are hard to measure or capture:
The cause and reasoning behind various forms of social media participation
Accurate self-assessments of people as “political” or “activists”
Perspectives of people who don’t want to take surveys about civics
Informal knowledge of and engagement with government (e.g., zoning disputes)
Downloads of civic apps versus active user base numbers (usually proprietary data important for startup valuation)
Political news consumption and participation across screens: TV, social media, news sites, offline
Political/ideological values and commitments that drive emotion-based voting versus rational, informed citizen self-images and self-assessments
Internal and external political efficacy around different issues or in different venues (local, state, national)
Trust in whole institutions or classes of institutions (legislatures) versus trust in individual politicians or officials
Nonpolitical and casual activities: traditional forms of monitorial citizenship (Graeff forthcoming) or “eyes on the street” (the kind of intangible close-knit community practices that Jane Jacobs celebrated)
Differences between youth and adults on the same indicators (often surveyed separately)
Baseline levels of political efficacy and participation levels for people with different backgrounds and in different contexts (we need more baseline research, super important!)
Triggers of political activity: word of mouth, news story, formal invitation to participate (social movement theory tell us this is important, but we need to make sure we capture it)
Tracking of a citizen’s development across discrete, seemingly isolated, actions
Conservative activism that uses similar tactics but is conceived of differently by the civic actor
How might we really track Bennett’s (2008) “actualizing citizen”?
Second, I started thinking that it would be nice to develop an empirical approach to finding and tracking Lance Bennett’s actualizing citizen, who is “rooted in self actualization through social expression” and channels personal interests through loosely tied networks with little distinction between production and consumption or between personal and political contexts (Bennett, Wells, and Freelon, 2009).
A dream study design would be able to capture all of the data listed below. But how we would manage to get data from companies and people’s personal devices, from a diverse enough cross-sample, and of course actually find an ethical and secure way to collect and store it all, I don’t know.
Values assessment: ask people about their stance on particular various issues, so we capture their self-assessed valences
Civic and political identity assessment: what kind of citizen (e.g., Westheimer and Kahne 2004) do they see themselves as when it comes to a particular issue or a particular venue?
Media diary across TV, social media, and websites: see if media consumption and engagement correlates with data of actual activities online or offline
Political efficacy survey items: probe across several specific issues and venues
Cohort study: tracks these data for groups of friends and family members to see the influence between them
Bennett, W. L. 2008. Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age. In W. L. Bennett (Ed.), Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bennett, W. L., Wells, C., & Freelon, D. G. (2009). Communication citizenship online: Models of Civic learning in the youth web sphere (A Report from the Civic Learning Online Project). Center for Communication and Civic Engagement, University of Washington.
Graeff, E. forthcoming. Monitorial Citizenship. International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy.
Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 237–269.
One of the best tricks educators can use is the technique of pulling students out of the classroom to encounter the issues we’re studying in the “real world.” So it’s a gift when an artist of the calibre of Anna Deavere Smith opens a new work in Cambridge just as the semester is starting. And given that our lab, the Center for Civic Media, studies how making and disseminating media can lead to civic and social change through movements like Black Lives Matter, a three-hour performance about the school-to-prison pipeline is an unprecedented pedagogical gift. A dozen of us made our way to the American Repertory Theatre at the end of August for a performance we’ll likely discuss for the rest of the academic year.
Deavere Smith’s work is often referred to as “documentary theatre,” and Notes From The Field: Doing Time In Education follows a model she’s rightly been celebrated for. Portraying individuals she’s interviewed while researching a controversial topic, she recreates their physical tics and speech patterns on stage, telling their stories—and the work’s larger narrative—through their original words.
Part of what makes this work is Deavere Smith’s ungodly skill at mimicry. As it happened, the first character she portrayed during Notes From The Field is a friend of Ethan’s—Sherrilyn Ifill, director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund—and when he closed his eyes, the rhythm of her speech was so similar to Sherrilyn’s voice, he thought it must be a recording. In the next scene, as Deavere Smith donned orange waders to become a 6’4″ 300-pound Native American fisherman, we were all willing to suspend any disbelief.
More important, Deavere Smith has chosen a story that’s best told from numerous points of view. The phrase “school to prison pipeline” was coined as early as 1998 to explain how zero-tolerance school discipline policies were leading students of color to be suspended at much higher rates than white students, and that school suspensions correlated to arrests later in life. But even the connection between police officers in schools and racial disparities in the US prison population only scratches the surface of these complex issues. Deavere Smith’s characters talk about urban poverty, absent parents, police brutality, drug abuse, the effects of trauma on children, the legacy of segregation, and the significance of the Confederate Flag. These are intimate, authentic portraits. Playing an emotional support teacher from Philadelphia, Deavere Smith relates stories of kids with bizarre behavioral issues bearing a strong resemblance to those shared by Erhardt’s mother over many decades teaching the same demographic. Sadly, many of her former students are now in prison.
Facing a challenge as complicated as “Why is American society failing so many Americans of color?” it’s hard to know where to start. In a sense, Notes From The Field starts everywhere: the Yurok Indian Reservation, the schools of Stockton, CA, the streets of Baltimore, the Capitol Building in Columbia, South Carolina. Anyone who’s worked on school to prison pipeline issues knows it’s hard to know where to start. “First, reform American education. And the prison system. And an economy that provides few opportunities for low-skilled workers. And end racism.” But Deavere Smith isn’t content with just providing a nuanced and moving picture of an impossible set of problems—she wants to fix them. More to the point, she wants us to be engaged in fixing them. To scaffold this, the play invites us into an implicit arc of witnessing, civic reflection, and taking action.
One of Deavere Smith’s characters is Kevin Moore, who recorded video of Freddie Gray’s arrest and transfer into the police van. In the interview she recreates, Moore explains that he was detained by Baltimore police after releasing his video, but that he was grateful for help from Copwatch, an organization that trains citizens to observe and record law enforcement actions, especially for buying him multiple cameras. Deavere Smith clearly believes our power to witness and to share what we see can help change the equation around police abuse of power as cameras and the power of sousveillance run as a theme through the performance.
Video leaves us not with justice, but with an indelible image. The image likely to stay in our minds is that of a black high school student being thrown to the ground by Ben Fields, a white police officer (and school football coach) who drags her out of a classroom. Deveare Smith uses the footage as the backdrop of an interview in which the young woman who shot the video of her classmate explains how she was arrested and held in an adult jail for taking the footage. The ubiquity of citizen video creates a steady stream of unflinching videos that demand we don’t turn away, and Deavere Smith’s work holds our head steady and eyelids open.
The play itself functions as a radically deep form of witnessing. It concentrates the affective experience of witnessing for its audience by taking stories and videos and presenting them with careful curation and delivery. Deavere Smith’s acting threads together the individual elements in the school to prison pipeline and the current events that exemplify their problems. Breaking through what otherwise might be perceived as a collage of statistics and headlines associated with Black Lives Matter, she re-humanizes the people at the heart of these stories and invites us to walk in their shoes. The hope is that this will touch the audience in a way that an isolated video, protest march, or social media campaign cannot.
After a riveting 80 minutes of vignettes in different voices, Act Two of the show asks the audience to break into 15 person groups and to reflect on the issues raised and what we, as individuals, could do to address them. While it may be radical to insert a group discussion into a performance, sitting in a room full of well-meaning, progressive Cantabrigians who care deeply about making change but have no idea what to do is an awfully familiar experience for many of us at the Center for Civic Media, and likely for most of the audience.
Rather than prescribing solutions, we are asked to reflect on something larger than ourselves—an effect that is often the mark of a good work of art. This may be the show’s core purpose: civic reflection. We know this kind of reflexivity and analysis is a potent civic skill. There is also a movement-building “public narrative” invoked: a story of self, of us, and of now [pdf]. For those privileged enough to attend the play, we witness those directly affected by the issue and then Act Two’s facilitators ask us step into the Deavere Smith’s shoes as interviewer. We project our own perspectives and hear those of the others in our group. And we try to deepen our appreciation of the issue in a way that will cement its effect on us beyond the theater and give us a sense of urgency.
In a vignette late in Act One, a schoolteacher explains that she cannot solve the problems of the whole education system, so she works to save one child. Deveare Smith calls on us to repeat this phrase: “save one child.”
That’s a tough call to action. We are educators, but the students we work with aren’t ones in need of saving—do we answer the call by teaching at a community college? An under-resourced high school? Given the early start to the pipeline, do we teach kindergarten or preschool? Ethan’s sister is foster mother to a child born to a drug-addicted mother—he has a sense for the incredible sacrifice that can be required to save a child. Erhardt’s sister teaches theatre to urban youth hoping to provide the same outlet for truth Deavere Smith’s work does—but opportunities for such work are few and often poorly supported. How much must we do? How much can we do?
It will take revolutions in thought and policy to address the issues at the core of the school to prison pipeline. Vignettes like the schoolteacher scale the overwhelming task down to what others are doing to make a difference in their small corner of society. Bravely recording violent assaults by authority figures and not giving up on kids that need mentors the most are modeled behaviors that we might strive to emulate. There is not a clear “ask” embedded in the piece,* but it is a starting point that angers the audience and forces us to ask hard questions—a mighty accomplishment.
The play ends with Deavere Smith as Representative John Lewis. His story as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement is powerful and offers a vision of reconciliation with our racist past. He is also a symbol of our representative democracy. We elect people with the hope that they will fix these types of problems. The call to action implies we are all stakeholders—the radical and the procedural—that it will take all of society and we can’t give up on any institution or any person—like the teachers in the piece refuse to do.
“Growing out of Occupy Wall Street, Strike Debt has been working since May 2012 to build a social movement through various forms of media and market-based activism under the banner of “debt resistance.” They cite the history of Biblical jubilees that canceled debt to normalize society (Graeber 2011), the debtor movement like El Barzon in Mexico (Caffentzis 2013), and “mortgage strikes” by Empowering and Strengthening Ohio’s Peoples (Strike Debt 2014, 93), to make an intellectual and moral argument for debt resistance against the contemporary system of debt, which in their analysis causes dehumanizing shame and suffering. They describe debt as a weapon and a web that catches you—as soon as you pay off one loan you are indebted for another reason (Graeff and Bhargava 2014).”