Does Technology Aid Political Action or Distract From It?

Stephanie Keith / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This month, as part of our ongoing series about how technology is transforming civic life, we asked readers to share their own thoughts on two important questions: Is technology hurting democracy? And can technology help save democracy?

One reader, John, worries that passively expressing support for causes online can create an “illusion of action”:

Without even a phone call, people can feel as though they’re engaging in civic action, but it is most often at an extremely superficial level. What is needed is an emphasis on real-time action—effective protests, voting, and phone calls in order to keep an engaged and active public within a healthy democratic society.

On the other hand, Kate, a progressive voter in South Carolina, asks:

What the flying thunder CAN I do to feel as if my political ideas matter?!!!!!

Living in a beyond-change-in-my-lifetime red state, one needs a few moments of active hope. I do make phone calls, but S.C. pols are pretty much oblivious to any sort of progressive reasoning.  Calls to congresspersons geographically beyond my voting purview are accepted, but not (necessarily) tallied for opinion, i.e., largely a waste of time. It’s not as if magazine/blog/e-zine writers return phone calls—unless one is either wealthy or socially well-placed, one’s thoughts are disregarded. Thus, the illusion of positive action via online petitions is valuable to those of us stuck in places in which our votes don’t count.

As George points out, that sense of personal significance might translate to political power after all:

The value in getting people to march or attend a rally or sign a petition is that it gives them a stake in the issue. Are marchers in pink caps going to change the president’s mind? Hardly, but those who marched and those who followed their actions closely are now invested. The arrival of another online petition is a ho-hummer to the recipient, but the signers and especially the organizer are now on record and are more receptive to calls to keep the fire alive until Election Day.

And another reader, Barney, offers four steps for making a difference:

If you feel that it is useless for you to speak up because what you say does not matter, there are things you can do.

One, you can move. That can apply to changing neighborhoods, cities, counties, states, or countries. It can also apply to social neighborhoods, including things like the circle you have on Facebook.  

This leads to thought two. For an activist to be effective, that person needs a base. A lone voice in the wilderness goes unheeded, and it is demoralizing not to be heard. Once you have found your base, start pushing out from the edges of it. Work together with those in your base to enlarge the base and convince those who disagree somewhat but can be convinced if your argument warrants it.

Three: Work to understand the position of others.  First, understand your own positions; sit down and write out what matters to you.  Sort your list into those where you cannot compromise, those where you can bend a little, and those that you might change your position if seen from a different perspective. Do the same with how you perceive the positions of others—and it does not hurt to check with them to see if you got it right.

Four: Avoid trying to change the world overnight. Do not attempt to change the position of someone when you feel they cannot compromise on that issue. (That includes trying to change the position of the President of the United States.) That does not mean than you cannot work with that person on other issues where you agree or where you have workable differences due to different perspectives. Consider starting with something where you have leverage. Perhaps that is your neighborhood council, your school board, your mayor, your state legislator, or other state legislators.  Even if your U.S. Representative does not agree with you, she or he is more likely to listen to you than is a representative from another state. Hearkening back to thought two, look at your base—this is where you get your leverage.  Determine and accept a reasonable time frame for accomplishing a change.

Technology helps make all this happen. You can use the internet to find helpful forums. The internet will help you determine which positions are susceptible to change. Often, others have already started petitions where you can add your voice to theirs. Send emails to legislators—even those that do not listen will take note of your position, particularly if you are someone in a position to vote/help them today or in the future.

Finally, keep your activism within reasonable bounds. Everyone has a limited amount of energy and a number of areas where they have to spend most of it. Avoid becoming burned-out. Keep at it. The world and all its pieces needs activists.

If you’ve got a story to share about making a difference through online activism, we’d like to hear from you: