Nicco Mele on Social Media, Technology and Government

Interviewed Doug Gavel on March 7, 2011

The tremendous power of the Internet to affect political discourse in American life first became evident in Governor Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Less than 10 years later, social media have become an invaluable political tool across the world – as demonstrated by the street demonstrations and uprisings taking place in countries throughout the Arab world. Nicco Mele, adjunct lecturer in public policy, was the Internet operations director for the Dean campaign. He now teaches courses at Harvard Kennedy School on social media, politics and power in the digital age.

Q: How do the recent events in the Arab world reflect the maturation of social media as political tools?

Mele: Broadly speaking I think that what’s happening in North Africa is a combination of two trends. One is “the groundswell,” a social trend whereby people use the internet and other technologies including mobile phones to get what they want from each other rather than from institutions.  People use technologies to connect with each other outside of existing institutions, like governments.

At the same time there’s a “youth bulge” demographic. When you see the demographic trends in countries like Egypt – with large young adult populations combined with technology that encourages interaction outside of existing institutions – you end up with significant challenges to the existing institutions and the powers that be.

Q. Would you say this is groundbreaking?

Mele: In some ways, it’s groundbreaking. However, if you look at what happened in Indonesia in the late 90s, that was called the “e-mail revolution.” All these students and people under 35 had email for the first time, and could communicate, and organize outside of existing institutions with less fear of reprisal from the government. It’s very difficult for the government to shut that kind of activity down. So in one form or another, I think we’ve seen for a while now technology providing an alternative to existing institutions in ways that are ultimately damaging to those institutions.

An example here at home would be the Tea Party. In the last election cycle you had some very prominent, establishment Republican candidates defeated by Tea Party candidates because the Tea Party activists used the Internet to build an alternative infrastructure to the traditional Republican Party infrastructure, ultimately providing a successful challenge to the establishment.

Q: In what ways has the power of social media changed grassroots political organizing?

Mele: The way I understand the Internet and social media and technology broadly, it’s intensely personal – it’s about personal communication. The vast majority of the time people spend on the Internet is spent reading and writing emails, instant messages and Facebook messages to people they know. So when I think about social media and digital technology more broadly, I believe that it is facilitating a range of conversations that are happening already. In that sense it really makes traditional grassroots organizing much more powerful, but it doesn’t demonstrably change grassroots organizing. It makes grassroots organizing more important, easier to do, with higher value, and harder to shut down. But the Internet is just a tool or a tactic that does not ultimately change the core strategy of grassroots organizing.

Q: Different governments respond in different ways to the growing power and influence of social media. Please elaborate on the ways in which political leaders can engage effectively with citizens and networks via these new platforms.

Mele: Here in the United States there are many examples of government agencies using the Internet to enhance services and communication with the public. One example is Whitehouse.gov, which has undergone a dramatic transformation under President Obama. During the Bush administration, Whitehouse.gov was a pretty boring place; it effectively served as a warehouse for the President and First Lady’s biographies and the history of the White house. But if you go to Whitehouse.gov today, you will find a full service news site featuring articles, video pieces, photo slide shows, podcasts, etc. It’s almost as if the White House has its own news unit covering the federal government itself. I would argue that under Barack Obama’s Whitehouse.gov, cabinet secretaries have been more accessible to the public than they have ever been before. You can see a real coordinated strategy to make the federal government more transparent and more available to people through Whitehouse.gov.

I’ve been watching Whitehouse.gov’s traffic and it looks like it’s competitive with MSNBC.com at this point and the audience is growing. You could imagine a president who has a larger audience on the web than any single news organization in the United States. That could be a good thing, but it could also be a bad thing.

Q. We’ve seen how social media has changed campaigns, elections, and revolutions. How about ways in which digital tools can be used in a positive way within government, for improving governance itself? Is there anything you’re seeing in that regard that seems exciting?

Mele: There’s an enormous amount of exciting stuff happening at the state and municipal levels online. Sites such as seeclickfix.com help communities to address infrastructure problems like pot holes, broken traffic lights, bike lanes and cross walks that are needed in certain neighborhoods. In some ways we’re in the middle of an explosion of technology and government experiments. A lot of these are happening outside of existing institutions and are run by engaged citizens. For instance, there’s a project called “Code for America” that engages programmers and puts them towards civic projects. The range of experimentation and creativity happening, especially at the municipal level where government, technology, and community meet, is exciting and exceptional.

Q: How do you see social media evolving as a political tool in the next decade?

Mele: Broadly speaking, the way I understand the Internet is as a social trend that lets people connect directly to each other outside of existing institutions. When you want to buy a car, you go on the Internet and buy a used car that way. You’re bypassing established ways of doing business, and that’s true in corporations and business; it’s true in nonprofits, and it’s true increasingly in government and politics.

If we play that out a bit, it’s not entirely true, in fact, that people are connecting directly to each other outside of institutions. They are connecting to each other inside institutions, they’re just new institutions. Facebook, is an institution; Google is an institution; Wikipedia is an institution where people connect and write things that shape public opinion. This creates a whole new kind of challenge – these institutions are new; they don’t have established norms; they don’t have established codes of ethics per se.

When Julian Assange of Wikileaks went to raise money, PayPal wouldn’t let Wikileaks raise money. Why? They let lots of objectional groups like the Klu Klux Klan raise money through PayPal. In Egypt when the government was threatened by protests being organized via text messages and Facebook, the government called the big telecom companies and had everything shut down for a few days. These new institutions wield enormous power without a lot of accountability in a very grey area.

I think that the challenges of the future involve these new institutions, the values that are already embedded in them, and the way we think about, assess, build these new institutions, and the way we hold them accountable is going to be really crucial to the future of civil society.


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When you see the demographic trends in countries like Egypt – with large young adult populations combined with technology that encourages interaction outside of existing institutions – you end up with significant challenges to the existing institutions and the powers that be.

—Nicco Mele