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The Internet is a never-ending election. Policymakers should pay attention.
Invisible Children was dubbed a problematic organization, and lists to information from more credible government organizations were compiled. The speed of this emergent fact checking was impressive, but there was a peculiar violence to the response that left me uneasy. There is no doubt: The Kony 2012 video was simplistic and exploitative. But complaints about it quickly extended into ad hominem attacks on its creators.
It felt like a turf battle. The organizations used to monopolizing foreign-policy discussions—and begging the complacent to get engaged—were suddenly forced to educate millions who didn’t care about Uganda the day before on the impropriety of Invisible Children’s simplistic idea. While it’s great that Invisible Children greatly expanded the conversation about Kony, this is not how the Internet should inform policy.
In fact, Kony 2012 perfectly demonstrates the flaws with the usual system of focusing as much attention as possible onto one abstract idea. It willfully followed the script of a presidential campaign with Kony as its anti-candidate, but it didn't work outside the context of a national election. The Internet allows for—and seems to demand—a more democratic and nuanced approach.
Over time, agencies will learn how to interpret the data generated by Internet activity (votes) and translate it into better policy. Meanwhile, subject matter experts will start giving input (voting) on more specialized subjects. It's easy to find people outraged by warlords on social media today, but it's still hard to find people with the skills to depose them. This will change over time as policy students representing a range of interests grow up using social media to collaborate with one another, and the greater public, as a matter of course. Smaller policy discussions will then take place between agencies and smaller cohorts of experts.
By “votes” and “voting,” I don’t mean casting official virtual ballots for every decision, of course. The information and data from each conversation will instead be tantamount to taking the nation’s temperature. But the outcome is essentially the same—and this will be much more accurate than the polls currently used by politicians, businesses, and agencies.
The key to make this happen is improved communication. Agencies need to use social media to communicate with their citizens as citizens communicate with one another: briefly, frequently, and directly. When agencies can communicate at the speed of the Internet, they'll be able to use it to inform policy and program design much more quickly.
NASA's has already demonstrated how agencies can benefit from this. Before they used Twitter to share updates from the Phoenix Mars lander in 2008, updates on space missions were restricted to periodic news conferences. Now, people get to follow the daily lives of the engineers, software developers, and scientists who make space missions happen. It’s proven to be an extremely compelling way to get people interested in science and engineering, which is one of NASA’s core goals. It won't be long before NASA's teams regularly get useful insights on how to run their missions from the public in return.
And then, one day: Mars Burger Mob.
Also in the Future Tense package on government and open data: why Yelp and the government should share data; the fight to keep data free from political influence; and how Mexico is using open data to move beyond its authoritarian past.