One of the big questions in the digital world is whether the way people use the Internet will lead to stronger democracies — or, in fact, have the opposite effect. This debate is playing out in the United States and around the world. In China, activists use online bulletin boards to organize themselves for the first time across geographic boundaries. In Iran, young people are using blogs to make their voice heard when the state is shutting down established media outlets. At the same time, China and Iran are using the same technologies for quite different aims: to censor what political activists are saying, listening in on their conversations, and putting activists in jail for what they’ve said and done online. The vibrant political blogosphere in the United States has become a political force, to be sure, but many question whether its influence is for good or for ill.
Alexander Heffner and his team at Scoop08 are proving that we have reason for hope. CNN, appropriately, has just made him one of its “Young People Who Rock.” Alexander’s leadership, and the engagement of more than 400 young people, is an inspiration to those of us who have been pushing hard to ensure that the Internet has a positive impact, not a negative one, on politics in the long-term. There’s been a lot written about them: here, here, and here. Alexander has a radio program, too.
Alexander’s work is so important because he is providing a means for young people to prove to themselves that they can have an impact through social action. The Internet is secondary to this story, in a way: the point is that Scoop08 draws young people into a public, civic space. It enables young people to have a voice that is heard all around the world. It demonstrates the power of collective action. It can help teach the responsibility and accountability that come with power, as young people come to see the impact of their words when they have a digital megaphone and are participating in a high-profile public debate.
The output of what Alexander and Scoop08 also gives us reason for hope. Scoop08 is a vibrant community that is helping to bring new and greater perspectives to election coverage around the country. One of the fears about the Internet and democracy is that we’ll each just surround ourselves with words and images from those with whom we’ll agree, famously called the “Daily Me” in the words of law professor Cass Sunstein. Scoop08 doesn’t fall into this trap. The student writers, based around the world, are telling their stories in a positive, careful, generally balanced way. Their coverage is serious and authentic. Their effort is to focus on substantive issues (policy, character-driven) — and distinctive and unconventional beats to generate new interest among young people — rather than exclusively horse-race-oriented coverage. The students writing up the reports are grappling with what it means to write without an exaggerated slant, presenting facts in a more or less neutral way, learning by doing in the process.
I look forward to Scoop08′s first big scoop. It will be a great day when one of Alexander’s extended team breaks a big story in this election, or an election to come somewhere else around the world.
But even before that day, it’s easy to say that Alexander Heffner and his colleagues have already succeeded beyond any reasonable expectations. What they’ve done, and what the good people at Generation Engage and other similar organizations, is no mean feat. Many have failed to get young people involved in politics. As the youth vote continues to rock — upwards — Scoop08 deserves credit for helping to create and sustain the enthusiasm of young people entering the political process for the first time. And the way they’re going about it stands a terrific chance of having a lasting impact on democracy.
(Disclosure: I am an unpaid advisor to Scoop08.)