June 26, 2019 | 87° F

Panelists discuss the role of digital media in the political process.

As a college student, Sara Tabatabaie had family living in the Middle East during the 2009 Iranian uprisings. She did not follow the events through newspaper or television reports but with her Twitter feed.

Tabatabaie, a special projects manager at Rock the Vote, was among a panel of four speakers at yesterday’s event titled “#politics: Redefining Engagement via Digital Media" in Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.

The panelists delved into discussions on how digital media, including social media tools, can shape political campaigns during the fourth annual Louis J. Gambaccini Civic Engagement Series sponsored by the Eagleton Institute of Politics, The Youth Political Participation Program and the School of Communication and Information.

“Twitter actually rescheduled their maintenance around the Iranian uprising,” said Tabatabaie, who has previously worked as digital marketing manager at Democracy.com. “My mind was blown with what an amazing way (social media) is for the world to connect.”

Digital media can change the low voter turn-out of young adults, said Melissa Aronczyk, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies.

Digital media is one way young adults can and do to distinguish themselves from the electorate," Aronczyk said. "For those of you who watched news coverage last night of the events in Baltimore, the role of social media figured prominently."

Social media is a promising route to connecting millenials to the political process, with examples of its success lying in movements such as #BringBackOurGirls and #BlackLivesMatter.

Hashtags bring visibility to an issue, but are just one piece of the puzzle, said Cammie Croft, chief digital officer and communications officer at Amnesty International USA.

"Amnesty International has been working on women's right in Nigeria for years," Croft said. "Before that hashtag, trying to get someone to write about that story and acknowledge abuses in that part of the world was really difficult. (It) gave us the ability to put our advocacy experts on MSNBC and on CNN."

Online voter registration would increase involvement in the political process, Tabatabaie said. 

"It would be great to be able to register online," she said. "There are very few states where this is an option ... the voting process is really not easy. Certainly, digital tools have a role to play."

Facebook released an "I Voted" button during the last election cycle, she said, which is a tool that ultimately encourages friends and family to also vote.

Eric Schmeltzer, an independent political consultant and one of the panelists, is currently working with a number of clients, including the app Countable. Countable is a civic engagement app that presents a short summaries of House and Senate bills, lists pros and cons of the bill and allows users to vote with one click.

The app is just one example of how digital media is drawing in young adults to the political process, and overall, lawmakers view the app positively.

"Countable users may spend only three minutes on the app, but they vote on a dozen bills," he said. "(Lawmakers) view it as positive because they are going to be running for reelection, so ... they don't want to guess where their constituents stand."

Croft addressed the possibility of online political communication completely substituting physical interaction between citizens and their representatives, which was brought up by School of Arts and Sciences junior Peter McMahon.

Croft, who also notably worked as deputy director for new media at the White House, believes this is not possible.

"I don't think you can replace face-to-face interaction," Croft said. "(Digital media) is more of a complement to that."

It is difficult to create a lasting meaningful connection with voters through digital media, said Dave Cole, a technologist and software engineer at 18F. While creating a Facebook post or Twitter account can "cast a wide net" and garner the attention of thousands of voters, he said candidates need to convey authenticity.

It is also important to use digital media to draw parallels between domestic and international issues, Croft said.

"There are kids in Chicago having the same challenges of trying to get to school everyday without getting shot as kids in Syria," she said. "If we connect those causes ... and use technology to make those connections, it's going to make us stronger."

Although there are clear benefits to using digital media to engage with young voters, which can be exemplified through Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren, the panel also discussed potential pitfalls.

Explaining a complex issue can be difficult in a 140 character tweet, Tabatabaie said.

"Sometimes, connecting the dots between issues that we care about and the ballot box is difficult to achieve in short-form digital content. For example, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments today on an issue that many people feel strongly about," she said. "It's important to know that the President appoints Supreme Court Justice nominees, and Senate members confirm the nominees, so who you cast a vote for on Election Day can directly affect these types of events."

With Schmeltzer's app, Countable, he said the biggest challenge is creating descriptions for ballots that are unbiased and analytic.

It is usually apparent from a user's profile whether they are conservative or liberal, but Schmeltzer said users occasionally cast a vote that contradicts their views, typically on issues not extensively covered in the news.

"It is heartening to see that once you present the information to people and give them the opportunity to learn about it quick and take action quick, you start to see those partisan walls break down," he said.

Avalon Zoppo

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