Essay V: The Internet Knows Where You Are

Democracy and citizenship continue to evolve, spurred by new threats and new opportunities. In order to exert some control over these changes, we need to understand the nature of the threats and how they developed, the shifts in how people are thinking about politics and community, and the democracy innovators and innovations that are emerging today. This series of essays, to be released weekly in advance of The Future of Citizenship: The 2023 Annual Conference on Citizenship, will help set the stage for a national discussion on where our country is headed.

By Matt Leighninger and Quixada Moore-Vissing

In 2016, women in several cities began receiving pop-up ads on their smartphones whenever they went near or inside a clinic providing abortions. The ads, which had been sent by anti-choice/ pro-life organizers, offered advice to women who were contemplating abortion. These particular women had been targeted because they had previously looked for Planned Parenthood information online. This incident, which was subsequently ruled an illegal infringement of personal health care data, was one of the most striking examples of how subconscious technologies can be used to locate and target individuals.

Over the last twenty years, protesters, organizers, and mobilizers of all political stripes and ideologies have been using the internet to connect and coordinate their movements. Their values and goals are obviously very different, but they are all taking advantage of new tactical opportunities for reaching supporters and achieving their political objectives. One major opportunity arises from the way in which the internet has become increasingly tied to geographic location. In addition to the geographic information system (GIS) capacity of smartphones, the number of people who have joined hyperlocal online spaces has risen exponentially. By connecting to people where they are and where they live, activists, officials, and other leaders can advance their causes in ways that are more direct and “in your face” – and in ways that leverage political power because they fit the geography of political jurisdictions.

By bringing the revolution(s) to our doorstep, the capacity to make protest and mobilization hyperlocal and geo-locatable has helped to make political conflict more extreme and more personal. It raises new questions about the rules of the game, the role of tech corporations in the public square, and whether these new conditions also present possibilities for bridge-building and compromise.

Geo-locating protest

There are multiple factors that affect whether people are willing to join a protest or movement, but across many different societies and situations, the psychological reasons often seem to be the most influential. The mere fact that people are oppressed or discriminated against doesn’t necessarily mean that they will mobilize, rebel, or simply speak up. They are more likely to act when they begin to feel that they are not alone, that their voices will be heard, and that their cause can achieve critical mass.

Some existing, widely used digital technologies have helped organizers build a broader movement consciousness:

  • Photo-sharing, which is a core component of almost every major social media platform, allows people to see their movement in action. For example, many of the students who participated in “Text, Talk, Act” during the National Dialogue on Mental Health tweeted photos of their groups. By uploading, sharing, and tagging pictures and videos, people can provide visual evidence that they are part of something larger than themselves.
  • Participatory mapping, one of the first uses of geo-locating capacities of our devices, enabled people to see themselves in relation to a physical space. Protesters during the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, Yellow Vests protests, and others were able to map their locations, producing visual proof that they could peacefully dominate the streets and plazas of their cities.
  • Posting and commenting through social media, in itself, has allowed people to contribute to or even dominate the narrative on a particular issue or cause. Recognizing this new threat, many governments and corporations have created “troll farms” and other sophisticated operations to try to retake control of the narrative, amplify their own messages, and even to target, harass, and intimidate protesters.
  • Instant polling, which can be accomplished through a wide array of tools, apps, and platforms, can also be used to gauge support for particular actions and to show that large numbers of people stand behind a given cause or movement.

Organizers are using these and other tools to compel people to consciously step forward and join causes and movements. Protesters used social media posts to rapidly gather and heckle Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen about immigration policies as they dined in public restaurants. Increasingly, organizers have the capacity to use subconscious technologies, like the anti-abortion/pro-life protesters in Massachusetts, to target potential recruits and people they are trying to influence.

Two maps collide

The technology of geo-location, or geo-fencing, relies on the fact that many smartphone applications track our physical locations, and many social media platforms recommend or require our mailing addresses. It is becoming very difficult to hide where we are and where we live.

Meanwhile, more and more people are voluntarily connecting their digital lives and their residential locations in “hyperlocal online spaces,” because these platforms provide convenient ways to organize politically, build community, and solve daily-life problems. Some of these hyperlocal networks are easier for outsiders to access than others, but once you recruit a few people who are already inside a neighborhood network, you can more quickly reach many others.

This is a new asset for organizers because it allows them to reach and mobilize people in ways that match up with the political process. “You can have a million people talking about something on Twitter, and Congress may not care,” says Keesha Gaskins-Nathan of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. “But if you can show a member of Congress that there are 1,000 people in their district talking about something, that representative will care.”

As people join hyperlocal networks or are identified by organizers according to their geographic location, they are bringing together two previously separate maps of how people connect and how power is distributed: the old map, based on physical geography, in which residents belong to jurisdictions according to where they live, and decisions are made by officials elected to represent those places; and the new map, based on digital connections and communities. The first map still matters, because it is the framework by which political representation is configured, public decisions are made, and public funding is allocated. Since many people live in communities that are economically, racially, and culturally homogeneous, and since people are increasingly distrustful of public officials and unwilling to go along with any compromises reached by those officials, the first map doesn’t provide many possibilities for avoiding political gridlock.

The second map matters because it shows other ways that people are connecting and communicating that both deepen and extend beyond geographic connections. The fact that these two maps are now joined in many locations could create new possibilities for organizers: neighbors can join together more easily to pressure elected officials, and elected officials can more easily reach citizens to get their input on policy questions. These networks may also present new ways of overcoming gridlock by fostering communication between people in different jurisdictions. Even without capitalizing on hyperlocal networks, examples like “On the Table” have been effective at bringing people of different backgrounds together to discuss common concerns. Notions of space and place are changing, and all of this will affect how we think about community and neighborhoods.

Who owns the public square?

One key distinction about the second map – the one that depicts how people are connected online – is that most of the platforms and networks through which people communicate are owned by private corporations. Social media is dominated by Meta (formerly Facebook), X (formerly Twitter), LinkedIn, and other tech giants, and the most extensive set of hyperlocal online networks is Nextdoor, another for-profit company. Google has received criticism for tracking the locations of its users; the company has denied that this information is used for targeting messages and advertisements.

For observers like Micah Sifry of Civic Hall, corporate ownership of the platforms for online communication is an enormous red flag. “Public life cannot be built on private servers. It’s that simple,” he writes.

Other observers point to silver linings in how tech corporations support online communication and networks. “The big platforms are attuned to the potential for manipulation now – they are monitoring trends in fake news and figuring out how to deal with them,” says Northeastern University’s David Lazer. “The companies see it in their business interest to not be manipulated.”

Corporate control of the public square may have an ominous ring to it, but there are certainly potential upsides and downsides, depending on the situation. Even when authoritarian regimes try to use social media for their own purposes, the people living under authoritarian regimes are probably better able to get unbiased information if they have access to global social media platforms than if they don’t. In the U.S., the role of for-profit companies seems more problematic: they may be relatively tolerant of citizens “colonizing” their platforms – especially since that may bring them more profit – but it is unclear how far they will go to define and protect individual rights.

Ultimately, the geo-location of protest, the proliferation of hyperlocal online spaces, and the influence of corporations in public life may produce even higher levels of polarization than we have witnessed so far. “Polarization is real,” says Lazer. “It’s not an academic argument anymore. The phenomenon of ‘affective polarization’ – for example, when you are concerned about your adult child getting married to someone of the opposite party – has become a real problem, which it wasn’t fifty years ago.” If you get political messages on your phone whenever you go near a clinic…if friends ask you to protest at a restaurant when a public official is inside… if neighbors want to engage you in political discussion online…then polarization may become even more present and personal.

This essay is adapted from Rewiring Democracy, a publication of Public Agenda.


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