Using Social Networks Politically


How do I? – John Gilchrist of questions the panel on social networking and political change. Between the subject and the occasional bass from a session in an adjoining room, no one slept after lunch at this session.

MEMPHIS (Jan. 13) – The “Bubbling Up: MySpace, YouTube, Social Networking & Political Change” breakout session at the National Conference for Media Reform promised to cure the after-dinner sleepies by discussing the future of independent media and political activism through an examination of social media.

James Rucker, of, helped the 2006 election coverage through Video the Vote, which recruited voting activists who had a camera or cell phone to document the disenfranchising of any voter.

“What you have with the Internet is a publishing platform that anyone can participate in,” he said. “As we heard problems developing, we’d deploy a volunteer who’d signed up online. They’d document the problem and upload it to our site.”

The site acted as a front end into the YouTube database, which Rucker said is hard to navigate due to its lack of consumable packaging. Video the Vote took the disparate videos and produced video essays, some of which were picked up by corporate media. Rucker plans to use the same idea for CopWatch, which will document police brutality.

“Everyone knows a story of police brutality,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing that’s very hard to get a feel for what’s happened when it’s in print. With cell phones, people capture things of cops being rough.”

Rucker said he believes in the power of citizen media and thinks it will change corporate media from the kind of force that it’s been. While at the moment many of the smaller players are not necessarily trusted nor do they carry the brand name, Rucker looks to bloggers as an example that the market place has been forced to acknowledge.

“I actually think corporate media will have a hard time competing with people producing citizen journalism,” he said.

Dina Kaplan, one of the founders of, echoed the idea of a citizen media, noting that anyone can shoot stories with a camcorder, digital camera or cell phone and share that information with the world.

Kaplan told the story of Brian Conley, who went to Baghdad after becoming disgusted with the lack of corporate television coverage of the war. Conley used a camcorder and dial-up modem to begin reporting from the war’s front and even obtained footage that the networks never got, which he aired on his Web site,, and on other sites including, and MySpace.

Kaplan said Conley recently won an award for best video blog of the year, and he just set up Conley has no money, but is just bootstrapping along and making it work, partly by using Iraqi stringers now that he’s back in the United States.

“If there’s something you want to feature, something you want to show the world, all you have to do is do it,” she said.

Kaplan recommended turning on the comments on blogs so people can start commenting on the work and building a community around the issue of contention. Bloggers can then use questions asked through the blog to demand answers from those under scrutiny.

Joan “McJoan” McCarter, of DailyKos, notes few bloggers can claim to be paid professionals, but she is one. Members of DailyKos climbed out of cyberspace and into the 2006 election with considerable contributions through volunteering, lending experience to the campaigns and, in one instance, even running for political office.

McCarter said “Kossacks” did not stop with the end of the election, but have continued instigating change on issues ranging from energy policy, bird flu and Net Neutrality.

“The entire online community stopped a very bad, very consumer unfriendly piece of legislation from moving forward in the Senate,” McCarter said. “These examples show how a social network developed on political lines can affect new change. It also shows the new direction of political activism. … They end up feeding larger activist communities.”

Yet more than activists are using the technology.

Kaplan notes candidates also videoblog, providing the example of Tom Vilsack and his weekly videoblog on She calls the phenomenon “Politicians Unfiltered.”

“This is the first time in history that politicians can communicate with voters on their own terms without having to buy a 30-second ad,” Kaplan said. “Now for the first time you can see behind the scenes of a campaign, and listen to the important issues of the day without CNN deciding what sections to air.”

People can even ask videoblog questions to presidential candidates. Kaplan noted John Edwards was at the forefront as one of the first politicians to answer questions through videoblogs.

“I think videoblogging will change politics. I think the real, down-to-earth politicians will benefit,” she said.

Some videobloggers even create political ads for their candidate of choice.

“So I say the political future is in all of our hands,” Kaplan said. “This is grassroots campaigning at its best.”