Can a Social Media Campaign Get People to Vote in the Real World?

By Mark Hannah | Mediashift  PBS

MEDIASHIFT - We've been hearing a lot lately about alleged attempts to suppress voter turnout, as so-called "Voter ID" laws introduce new obstacles to voting that may thwart turnout (primarily among college students, minorities, and senior citizens). Amid this backdrop, and with the election just a month away, two advocacy groups have joined together to launch "The Internet Votes" initiative, seeking to tap into the power of social media to get out the vote.

The two groups, Personal Democracy Media and Fight for the Future, are emboldened by recent research showing the political impact of social media. A report issued last month by the Pew Internet and American Life project found that more than a third of the people on social networking sites such as Facebook say the sites are important to them "in keeping up with political news."

James Fowler, a political scientist at UC San Diego, conducted an experiment that showed people who were exposed to reminders to vote on Facebook were more likely to vote in the 2010 midterm elections. And the recent online protests of SOPA and PIPA proposals are being used as a case study of how online political influence can have an offline political impact. 

'The Internet Public'

For Election Day 2012, The Internet Votes project seeks to get pledges to vote from at least 1 million members of what it's calling "The Internet Public." I recently caught up with Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, to discuss his initiative. First, I wanted to know what qualifies someone as a member of this "Internet Public." Rasiej explained that this was a term coined by Dave Parry, a University of Texas professor, who was referring to "what happened when (Egypt's ex-President Hosni) Mubarak shut off the Internet in Egypt and it just made the protests bigger and louder." Rasiej says he "fashioned the term to mean any person who self-identifies with the Internet and for whom it is central to their lives, either economically, emotionally, or spiritually."

This constituency may be growing, especially when it comes to political news. As mentioned above, a significant number of Americans get political news from social networking sites. At the same time, Gallup just announced that distrust in traditional media has hit a new high, with 60 percent of Americans saying they "have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly." Rasiej insists that the Internet will continue to gain influence as a source of political news, telling me the "Internet has helped organize and open up such a vast wealth of information ... without the domination of gate keepers like the mainstream media."

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