How Twitter could transform American democracy with two database fields

Twitter has gotten a lot of credit for helping spread democracy around the world in far-flung places like Egypt and Libya. It’s time to import that back to the United States.

With last week’s protests against SOPA, we saw what can happen when the people make their voices known.

“The way citizens communicate with their government is never going to be the same,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, an opponent of PIPA, told The New York Times.

Former Senator Chris Dodd, now the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, was apparently so blinded by the success of the Internet’s anti-SOPA campaign that he didn’t realize that the first rule of Lobbyist Club is that you don’t talk about how Lobbyist Club works. From a recent appearance on Fox News:

Those who count on quote ‘Hollywood’ for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who’s going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don’t ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.

That everything came together on one day was a bit of a surprise. But it doesn’t have to be. Instead of using the Internet for sporadic action, we can use it to better organize people and reclaim our democracy from the moneyed interests.

Two simple database fields can make Twitter an even more powerful force in American democracy than it is already: ZIP code and party affiliation.

When someone signs up for Twitter (or on login for existing users), they would be prompted to enter a ZIP code. Based on the ZIP, the user would be prompted to follow their representative and Senators. (With apologies to folks who live in Washington, DC.)

This would help in a number of ways:

  • Increased connectedness of constituents to their representatives. It would allow representatives to easily communicate timely messages and would allow constituents to interact with their representatives. Tweets from people who live in their district or state could be highlighted automatically. Of course, adoption will vary dramatically based on the specific legislator. For example, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri has both a Twitter account and a Tumblr account. Meanwhile, one of Silicon Valley’s senators, Dianne Feinstein, has neither. Maybe if she sees that hundreds of thousands of her constituents are on Twitter, she’ll change her mind. As the Iowa caucuses showed, elections are incredibly close these days. Even a dozen votes from Twitter users could be enough to make the difference.
  • Revenue for Twitter. Politicians spend a lot of money on advertising, as anyone who watches TV at the end of October can attest. This year, political ad spend could hit $4 billion. Twitter can offer a more targeted form of advertising. One of the big challenges with TV advertising is that there is a lot of leakage. In metro areas, that leakage can be expensive. If you’re running for Senate in Virginia, you have to buy the DC metro area. That includes paying for a lot of voters in DC and Maryland who can’t vote for you. (Cable offers finer targeting than broadcast.) With Twitter, you could target the advertising to just voters in Virginia and to your party affiliation and independents. The real-time nature of Twitter means that it can be dialed up and down based on what’s happening. On Election Day, get-out-the-vote efforts could be mobilized with Twitter in states where it matters. Ad spend on states that are either won or long shots could be dialed down. Politicians are already starting to use Twitter for real-time messaging: after his win in South Carolina Saturday, Newt Gingrich was using promoted tweets to say thanks and solicit donations.
  • Reducing the impact of money in politics. There has been a lot of discussion about the supply side of money in politics — the huge amounts of money that corporations are contributing. With the unfortunate Citizens United decision, changing the supply side may require a Constitutional amendment. By making campaign advertising more efficient and less expensive, we may be able to make a dent in the demand side. A lot of politicians don’t like raising money — but they have to do it to get elected. There is also an incestuous relationship with the National Association of Broadcasters. Politicians give a lot of money to TV stations; they turn around and are among the biggest lobbyists. That’s a cycle that’s begging to be broken.

As with most things, the easier we can make this for people, the more people will do it. Despite California’s population of nearly 37 million people, Senator Barbara Boxer only has a few more than 11,000 followers. If the process were more automated, I expect she’d have at least 10 times that.

To be sure, Google and Facebook could do this, too. But right now, Twitter seems best positioned.

Online voter network Votizen is trying to do this at a more targeted level by tying into voter registration databases. But getting users to sign up for a new service, even one that piggy backs on your Twitter and Facebook networks, may be challenging. Twitter already has significant scale: 37 million unique visitors in the United States in December, according to comScore. Votizen CEO David Binetti says the company can overcome the challenge of getting people to sign up for another service. “Signing up for anything is always about value: Does the benefit outweigh the cost? Traditionally people don’t get involved because they say, ‘My voice won’t make a difference. They don’t listen anyway,'” Binetti said. “But [last] week blew that notion out of the water; that is the most exciting thing about the SOPA experience.”

It’s not too late to make an impact for the 2012 election cycle. The key is to start now.

Newt Gingrich uses promoted tweets after winning the South Carolina primary.

Above: Newt Gingrich uses promoted tweets after winning the South Carolina primary.

Rocky Agrawal is an analyst focused on the intersection of local, social, and mobile. He is a principal analyst at reDesign mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He blogs at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.