The Data Driving Democracy

Introduction and Context

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Christina Couch
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

It started with “a love letter to Black people.”1 In the summer of 2013, when George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, Alicia Garza, then an activist and community organizer in Oakland, California, took her feelings to Facebook. She wrote an impassioned post: “I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter. And I will continue that. stop giving up on black life.” She ended with the following words: “black people. I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Patrisse Cullors, a friend and fellow activist, added a hashtag and announced that #BlackLivesMatter was a movement. Opal Tometi, an immigration rights activist in Brooklyn, built the group’s social media strategy.

#BlackLivesMatter gained traction as an organizing tool and online campaign for amplifying anti-racism voices.2 In 2014, when eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was killed by a White police officer, Black Lives Matter (BLM) became a mobilizing force behind nationwide protests. It has since grown to encompass a broad spectrum of work from anti-racism and Black empowerment groups, and has given rise to the Black Lives Matter organization,3 the Campaign Zero policy reform group,4 a political action committee (PAC), and at least one BLM Super PAC.5

Born and fueled by digital political activism, #BlackLivesMatter showcased the Internet’s capacity to mobilize social and protest movements, quickly disseminate political messages, and amplify new voices. Frank Leon Roberts, an activist who teaches a BLM course at New York University, called it “the first U.S. social movement in history to successfully use the Internet as a mass mobilization device.”6

For some, BLM and other cultural moments galvanized online, including #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #NoBanNoWall, exemplify ways that the Internet can upend civic engagement, creating a mode of political participation tailor-made for the rising distrust in traditional legislative and media institutions and redistributing power to underrepresented citizens. The Internet has also worked in the opposite direction by bolstering existing political power structures, offering new ways to manipulate behavior and information flow, catalyzing hate campaigns, and creating an opaque landscape where users aren’t aware of what biases they are being subjected to or how their data are being used.

How the Internet has transformed the practice of democracy and how the on- and offline worlds of political participation bleed into each other are questions that become more complicated to answer every second that goes by. These questions encompass everything from non-state election interference and the spread of disinformation to voting security and political polarization to petition and crowdfunding avenues and mainstream media manipulation. They reach from the highest levels of governments worldwide all the way down to daily small talk in communities across the geographic and socioeconomic spectrums.

The rise of online civic engagement presents a veritable mountain of new data, communities, tools, and ways to study political participation as well as new ways to augment and reframe traditional research in this sphere. This report explores what data and methodologies researchers use to understand the Internet’s impact on the democratic process and the obstacles that prevent them from getting the answers they seek. For the purposes of this report, civic engagement is broadly defined and includes voting, political volunteer work, fundraising and individual-level donations, protest activity, attending political meetings, boycotting and politically motivated consumer spending, on- and offline engagement with representatives, political mobilization, broadcasting political messages and opinions, and working within organizations to influence the political landscape.