The Data Driving Democracy

Report Goals and Methodology

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Christina Couch
Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship

The goal of this report is to identify the key indicators experts believe point to how this field is transforming and to showcase how researchers track and study online civic engagement. Specifically, this report examines:

  • The data and research methodologies those within the field use to explore how the Internet is changing democracy.
  • The types of inferences they believe can (and can’t) be reliably drawn using these resources.
  • The barriers that prevent researchers from understanding this field better.

The influence of online activity and platforms on civic engagement is an enormous topic, one that already fills several books. This report is not comprehensive. It does not lay out all the questions facing those who work in the online civic engagement space, nor does it systematically address all data sources, research methods, and research or researchers operating within this field. It is also not intended to be an objective piece of journalism. It is instead designed to give a snapshot to a lay reader of work from a handful of leading researchers—fifteen to be exact—and to provide a broad overview of common practices, takeaways, and challenges from their perspectives. Though the author hopes that this report offers something of interest for researchers who work in this field, the report was written for a more general audience who may not be familiar with the underlying data and methodologies that drive this area of study.

Experts included in this report were selected to represent a wide spectrum of work happening within this field. They include computer scientists, data analysts, political scientists, sociologists, media studies scholars, legal experts, and others, but the list of individuals interviewed is by no means exhaustive. Many important voices are not found within the pages of this report, mostly due to time and resource constraints. The report summarizes key points from these interviews and incorporates additional research for context, but it does not provide a comprehensive view of the field.

One major limitation of this report is that it does not include insights from those working on the industry side. This was a conscious choice made in part because of length constraints and because industry perspectives continuously receive widespread media attention. Titans like Facebook and Twitter have their own platforms to broadcast their messages as well as access to mainstream media resources that aren’t as readily available to individual researchers. It is worth noting that researchers within digital platforms and tech companies have made extremely valuable contributions in this space.

Another limitation is geographic scope. This report is almost entirely focused on work happening within the United States and work that is centered around U.S.-based media, technology, and politics. As such, it does not address important social issues, valuable projects, and many major voices leading international initiatives in this space nor does it address the pivotal role the Internet played in events like the Arab Spring and the Rohingya refugee crisis. It also does not reflect the fact that the vast majority of users of social media platforms are not in the United States or that millions of Americans are active on social media platforms that are not based in the United States.

One final disclosure: This report highlights one expert and some research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The author also works for MIT, but not in a public relations capacity.