Web Antidote for Political Apathy

A couple of years ago the British Broadcasting Corporation was blindsided by a grassroots campaign against rising taxes on gas. Although discontent had been growing for some time, the BBC didn’t report the story until the British army was called out to protect gas stations from protesters.

Hoping to avoid this kind of blindness to ordinary Britons’ political concerns, the broadcasting behemoth is launching a radical online experiment to reconnect itself with grassroots sentiment.

In October, the BBC plans to flick the switch on an ambitious website designed to help Britons organize and run grassroots political campaigns. The site, dubbed iCan, is designed to help citizens investigate issues that concern them, find others who share those concerns and provide advice and tools for organizing and engaging in the political process.

“It’s a big change for the BBC,” said James Cronin, the project’s technical lead. “It’s ceasing to be just a broadcaster. It’s starting to enable conversations.”

The BBC’s purpose is twofold. On the one hand, the iCan site will help keep the broadcaster’s ear to the ground. By mining the iCan website for leads, the BBC will be better able to respond to issues pertinent to its viewers, or so it hopes.

On the other hand, the effort is intended to counteract what officials at the broadcasting network feel is widespread political apathy in the United Kingdom, marked by low voter turnout at elections and declining audiences for its political programming. As a state-financed institution operating under a royal charter to inform, educate and entertain, the BBC feels it is within its purview to help disenfranchised citizens engage in public life.

Details of iCan’s workings are a bit sketchy – the system is still in development – but an overview was provided recently at the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference in Santa Clara, California.

Cronin and Matt Jones, an information architect with the BBC’s new media wing, told conference attendees that the idea is to provide a loosely structured set of tools to make it easy for ordinary citizens to run their own activist campaigns on the Net.

In fact, the system was designed after a three-month ethnographic study of real-world grassroots political campaigns. Details of the study remain confidential.

The system will consist of two main components: a public forum to help people research their concerns and find others who share them, both locally and nationally, and a “democracy database,” designed to provide a wealth of information on grassroots campaigning and the legislative process.

Say there’s a proposal to build a new highway. The iCan system will help concerned citizens find each other through the forum and begin the process of organizing an anti-road movement.

Using the democracy database, members of the fledgling anti-road lobby will learn how to set up public meetings, lobby their representatives and voice grievances during planning hearings.

Initially, six BBC news reporters assigned to different geographic regions in the United Kingdom will watch the system closely for potential stories for television and radio.

Cronin and Jones noted that television coverage of emerging campaigns on the site likely will form a feedback loop – political activism becomes a subject for the news, which in turn generates more political activism, and so on. If the iCan system takes off, and they think it will, the BBC probably will assign more reporters.

The pair said that as a news organization, the BBC is very concerned with remaining impartial, and will strenuously avoid the perception of endorsing any given campaign.

“We’re not trying to foment revolutions,” Jones said. “We want to reconnect our news gathering with people’s concerns, and we hope our grassroots system will help with that.”

After the presentation, Cronin said the BBC’s upper management also was interested in finding ways to counter political apathy.

Cronin said that while citizens feel profoundly disconnected from national politics, they readily become involved in single-issue campaigns – like protests against the war in Iraq – or issues where they believe they will have an impact. He said BBC executives were impressed by a protest campaign last year against proposed ID card legislation in the United Kingdom, a plan that was tabled after an overwhelmingly negative response from voters.

The protest was led by’s website, which makes it easy to fax members of Parliament over the Web. Cronin was involved in setting up the site.

The protest helped convince the BBC’s management that the Internet provided a unique opportunity to inject politics with some interactivity between citizens and politicians, Cronin said.

However, most citizens have no idea where to start in terms of using the Net. In addition, they feel they are alone – that their voice won’t have an impact. Cronin said these are the two main issues the iCan site hopes to address.

BBC viewers, Cronin added, are tired of watching an endless procession of politicians pontificating about the issues of the day, which he called “output,” and instead want action, or “outcomes.”

“We wanted to work out ways to help people find outcomes,” he said. “People want to have more input in democracy than a single vote every four years for parties that are more or less the same.”

Of course, the big question is whether Britain’s political institutions will be receptive to citizen input. The case notwithstanding, the British government, like most other democracies, has a long history of forcing unpopular legislation on the public, no matter how loud the howls of protest.

Caleb Kleppner, a senior analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonpartisan think tank based in Takoma Park, Maryland, welcomed the creation of iCan, but said it seems as though the system will address a symptom rather than the root causes of voter disenfranchisement. After all, in a representative democracy like the United Kingdom’s, politicians are supposed to be in touch with, and act on, their constituents’ concerns.

“It sounds promising,” Kleppner said. “(But) we elect representatives to promote the interests of the people who vote for them. If there’s a need for a system like this, it suggests that the whole system has broken down.”

However, the project drew kudos from Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, one of the leading companies in the burgeoning social software movement, an umbrella term for a wide range of software for social interaction, from blogs to Wikis.

Mayfield applauded the idea of putting Internet-based activism tools in the hands of ordinary people.

“(The iCan project) is the best use of social software people are attempting right now,” he said. “Anything that uses the Web to foster interaction with the government is what this kind of software is all about.”

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