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The Changing, Web-Connected World of Politics, And How You Can Get Involved

Web Politics
Social networking gives us a cross-section of virtually every political opinion known to man. Are there racists and bigots? Of course. Tree-huggers and granola-munchers? Absolutely. And that's the magic. They may not subscribe to the same worldview or all check the same box every November, but the political masses are here, online, making their presence known.

What we have before us is, for all intents and purposes, an entirely new political sphere. Politicians no longer speak to us only through statements or press conferences, but head directly to Facebook or Twitter to engage their constituency. Voters, meanwhile, find themselves at the busy intersection of a seemingly infinite number of channels through which they can debate, listen to, and act upon politics.

But what does this mean? How can 'Joe the Voter,' if you will, use Facebook to make significant change? Or, if it's a broader array of political news and opinion you're seeking, how can you possibly make sense of Twitter? What do you do if you just want to make a simple, game-changing statement?

Politics is a complex field; social networking is an even more complex phenomenon. If executed carefully, though, combining the two can be surprisingly easy.

How Did We Get Here?

How Did We Get Here?
Facebook has been around for a few years, and Twitter is only slightly younger. But it wasn't until relatively recent times that social networking began getting cozy with politicians.

The 2008 Presidential election was historic for many obvious reasons. Yet, from a tech perspective, the event marked the dawn of Facebook-based campaigns. During both the Democratic Primary and the general election, then-Senator Barack Obama took social networking-based campaigning to a whole new level. Gone were phone lists and letter-headed paper requests for donations; instead, Facebook posts, mass e-mails and tweets provided a direct -- and cheap -- digital conduit to the Senator's voting base.

Since then, politicians and policymakers have swarmed to the medium in droves, making for curious bedfellows. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, for example, has never been the kind of politician who's open to dissenting opinion. In April, though, Chavez loudly announced his arrival on Twitter not long after publicly equating the online forum with "terrorism."

Politicians aren't the only ones who've sidled up to social networking. A few months after the U.S. election, protesters in Iran used social networking in distinctly different (and more dire) circumstances. With President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad having cut off virtually all traditional media outlets, Iran's outspoken citizens famously flocked to Twitter, where they told their side of the story and called attention to an election of questionable legitimacy.

In other corners of the globe, citizens are gradually realizing that social networking can, at the very least, coagulate popular opinion and raise awareness. In some instances, it can even lead to tangible action.

In 2008, a Colombian man named Oscar Morales started an anti-FARC Facebook group called 'One Million Voices Against FARC.' The group soon attracted hundreds of thousands of members, who eventually organized a massive march throughout the South American country to protest Colombia's notorious rebel group.

Then, in Egypt, a woman named Esraa Abdel Fattah organized a nationwide strike on April 6th to protest the country's rampant inflation. Authorities soon arrested and detained her for two weeks, but the incident only fueled her viral fame -- and her cause. Despite the region or the political leanings of the users, one thing the aftermath of the Obama election made clear is that Internet action is virulent, unstoppable and a medium to contend with.

A Delicate Balancing Act

Balancing Act
The populace, it seems, now has unimaginable access to politicians, to new arteries of societal discourse, and, most importantly, to immense soapboxes from which ideas can be aired. The only problem, though, is that everyone's doing the exact same thing.

Separating your voice from the rest of the Web's noise will likely take a lot more than a torrent of tweets. Nearly every social networker knows "that guy" on his or her Facebook or Twitter feed -- the politically impassioned Internet addict who constantly shares and re-tweets articles corroborating his personal ideologies. "That guy" may very well dig up fascinating articles or raise unique questions. However, with his name and rants popping up so incessantly, there's a good chance that most followers simply breeze past whatever he posts.

Yet, extreme lengths run the risk of being written off as yet another lame baby bird, squawking pathetically for the worm of publicity. That's exactly what happened to Angie Jackson earlier this year. Jackson, as you may recall, made headlines when she decided to live-tweet her abortion. At the time, the 27-year old insisted that her decision was rooted in a desire to "demystify" the procedure. To many, however, her demonstration was nothing more than an ill-conceived publicity stunt. In an attempt to amplify her voice above the din, Jackson resorted to extreme means -- and suffered extreme backlash.

The trail of contemporary political activism, then, is certainly not without its pitfalls. But, when navigated judiciously, it can pay off huge dividends.

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Throwing Your Hat in the Ring

Throwing Your Hat in the RIng
Before logging in and letting go, you should probably take a moment to think about what you actually want to accomplish online. Do you want to use the Web to get informed? Interact with leaders? Start a revolution? Whatever your reason for jumping on board, there's a forum out there. You just have to decide on your approach.

The Observer

Let's suppose you're relatively new to the social networking game, but you've always been an avid political junkie. You may want to eventually organize a rally or stage a sit-in, but, for now, you'd prefer to better familiarize yourself with what's going on. Twitter is your new best friend.

Find the feeds of major politicians, publications or media outlets, and start following them. More importantly, follow various news sources and politicians from both ends of the ideological spectrum. You don't eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so why should your media consumption be any different?

You should be warned, though, that Twitter is like the Jackson Pollock of the social networking world. Depending on how many people or publications you're following, your homepage can quickly bubble over with a flood of disjointed posts. For some, this deluge can be overwhelming, but calming the clutter is remarkably easy, thanks to the site's all-too-nifty 'list' feature.

Find some of your favorite feeds, and organize them into categories. If you're in the mood for some Rupert Murdoch or National Review, simply click on your pre-baked list of conservative-leaning feeds, and receive the latest breaking stories or op-ed pieces from the right. Then, once you're done, browse through the Huffington Post feed for good measure. Sound a bit too partisan? Try organizing lists of local, national and international headlines. They're all out there.

Two handles you should definitely follow, though, are Politico and WikiLeaks. Politico made its debut on the media main stage during the 2008 Presidential election, and remains an essential read for many Washington insiders. WikiLeaks, meanwhile, has been turning heads worldwide since it pulled off the largest leak of confidential military files in history. If there's a frontier of news coverage, WikiLeaks is probably sitting on it.

The Social Commentator

So, you've caught up on your news, you've heard both sides, and you're ready to dive into the conversation. Your next step? Blog.

Blogspot and Wordpress are steady standards. But, if you really want to disseminate your words far and wide, you'll have to engage in some good ol' fashioned self-pimpery. And today, there's no better place to do that than Facebook.

You don't have to write an opus, though, to make your opinion heard. Sometimes, taking a stance can be as simple as posting an op-ed piece on your Facebook profile with some terse commentary. A single article or video on your Wall can quickly spawn various conversation threads, and, before you know it, could pass to the profiles of complete strangers. You may not be able to follow your post along every step of the way, but rest assured that you've tossed it into the machine, and that someone is probably reading it.

Twitter as Platform for Punditry

The same, of course, can be said for Twitter. If you want to maximize the site's sharing potential, however, you'll have to familiarize yourself with a few tricks of the Twitter trade.

Retweeting someone else's post will certainly help to circulate an article or idea, but try to add your own brief commentary whenever possible. (You really don't want to be "that guy.") It's also a good idea to use hashtags (the pound sign before a phrase), which help you to unite with other people tweeting about the same topic. If you're tweeting about Obama, for example, an extra #obama hashtag will allow your tweet to appear on the list of every other 140-character missive concerning the President. You can follow the most popular hashtagged topics under the "Trending Topics" column on the right side of your Twitter homepage, or you can look up specific hashtags at hashtag.org.

Using hashtags not only helps finding others with similar political penchants, but it also helps to clear one of the site's biggest hurdles: finding an audience. If you're looking to reach others beyond your immediate circle, you might as well begin by following people who tweet about the same things you do. Follow enough people, and you'll probably end up with a few extra followers. (To read more about the phenomena of pleading for a Twitter audience, check out this recent experiment conducted by NPR's Tim Carmody).

Or, if Twitter cramps your style, there's always Tumblr. As we've explained, Tumblr essentially combines select elements from Facebook, Twitter and blogging platforms to create an entirely new and quirky space. Unlike traditional blogs, Tumblr posts tend to be brief, distilled quips, videos or pictures, which can then be shared and re-posted across the Tumblr community. If words fail you and you'd rather sum up your feelings in a YouTube clip and witty comment, you'll definitely have an audience on Tumblr.

You shouldn't enter the coliseum, though, with sword a-rattlin'. As we know all too well at Switched, few topics are as universally combustible as politics. The waters of social networking are full of political sharks, ready to chomp at the faintest whiff of confrontation. Ostensibly civil discourse can soon degenerate into mudslinging, and, before you know it, a conversation about campaign finance reform becomes a veritable verbal donnybrook.

The Die-Hard Digital Activist

At the end of the day, though, you may be more of do-er than a talker. Say you truly feel compelled to spread your voice to an audience that extends beyond your map of Facebook friends. To stand out from the rest of the rants spewing across the Internet, you're going to have to bring some vinegar to the table.

One obvious place you could start is on Foursquare. The location-based network has picked up steam in recent months, and has seen a growing number of politicians joining the rush. If you want to know where your town's mayor or local representative is speaking at a given moment, you can often find out where they are, and even attend the event yourself. Once there, just find other like-minded Foursquare users in attendance, and actually share ideas face to face(!).

You don't have to go so far as to live-tweet an abortion, but you do have to do something different. Don't be afraid to embrace diverse forms of media, either. If you think your message is more resonant if set to song and dance, spend a weekend creating a music video. Plaster your creation on YouTube, and send it around.

Finally, don't be afraid to ask others for help. Social networking is, after all, an intrinsically social experience. Start a group, draw up a mission statement, and spread the word among your friends. Because we live in an SEO-friendly world, a clearly defined group title will go a long way toward putting your cabal on the map. "People Against Commercial Zoning on Main Street" is much better than "Selling Out Suxxors!"

Unlike, say, petitions, Facebook groups can grow at near exponential rates. An extra member isn't just another name; it's an entire phone book of other contacts. Before long, your anti-Obama or pro-choice forum could grow into a full-fledged sub-community. Whenever like-minded activists gather together, mobilization is never far behind.

Whether or not your movement succeeds, however, depends largely on how you curate your online gathering. In 2008, for example, then-17-year-old Joshua Porter Zeller created a Facebook group to memorialize Lawrence King, an eighth-grader who was murdered because he was gay. Zeller's group, along with various other videos and online fora, helped draw the mainstream media's attention to a story that had previously gone relatively uncovered. Zeller succeeded in inciting a latent national dialogue by simply creating a space for conversation, and letting the Facebook community spread its name.

The infamous 'Everybody Draw Muhammad Day' group, on the other hand, attempted to draw attention to a similarly controversial issue, but ultimately face-planted because of its intrinsically aggressive design. Instead of creating an open forum for users to discuss how the Western media could reconcile its free-speech ideals with those of the Muslim world, the group solicited drawings of the prophet Mohammed from the Facebook community, and ultimately imploded due to excessive hate speech from members. Instead of simply setting the stage and allowing the rest of the social network to act, the 'Muhammad' group was borne out of aggression, effectively starting a potentially legitimate debate with a giant middle finger. Had Zeller chosen to name his group 'RIP Lawrence King, DOWN WITH RIGHT WING HOMOPHOBES!,' he may not have achieved the results he did.

In all likelihood, you probably consider yourself to be a combination of any or all of these hazily defined political archetypes. And that's okay. Just try approaching political social networking in your own, unique way. Take a pinch of Twitter here, a handful of Facebook there and dashes of whatever other platforms you feel comfortable using.

Does today's voter, equipped with Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, have a greater ability to effect change than anti-War protesters marching on Washington? Perhaps. For now, though, social networking is the lingua franca of politics -- grassroots and mainstream, alike. Before heading into the booths this November, spend some time online, survey the landscape, and carve out your own political identity.

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