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The Pitfalls of Email, The Power of Openness

October 21, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

Here’s a scary indicator of the state of politics. Of all the substantial legislation has gone through Congress this session that people might be reviewing as the midterms approach — i.e. health care reform, financial reform, stimulus measures — the two bills people are viewing most often these days on on OpenCongress are outlandish, non-viable proposals that have no support and no chance of being taken seriously by congressional leaders, ever. These bills are getting twice as much attention as the new health care law, and five times the attention of financial reform. In fact, the closer we get to the midterms, the more attention they get.

The most-viewed bill in the past few weeks is Rep. Chaka Fattah’s [D, PA-2] Debt Free America Act, which would replace the income tax with a new tax on all financial transactions, including paying with cash. The second most-viewed bill is Rep. Bobby Rush’s [D, IL-1] Blair Holt Firearm Licensing and Record of Sale Act, which would set up a nationwide gun licensing system and prohibit the ownership of unlicensed guns. As we’ve discussed several times on this blog, the attention paid to these bills is mainly the result of a gross misunderstanding of what bills in Congress are.

This bill-view data is just one illustration of how misinformation, propaganda and irrational fear drives politics. Of course, there’s nothing new about this. It stems from long-standing issues in our society — the inadequacy of our civics education programs, the corruption in government that leads to general mistrust, the failures of the mainstream media, and the lack of openness in government data that has stunted the development of online civic engagement.

Visitors to these bill pages are coming via search, and has documented the kind of chain emails that spread all the false information. To me, the fact that this stuff tends to spread over email is a testament to the value of open, public communication. If the same text was posted as a blog post, it wouldn’t spread. Indeed, no blogs with any kind of reach have reported on these bills. When the conversation is public and open to public comment, the wisdom of the crowds tends to keep the bad information in check. The technical features of email make it almost impossible for someone with valuable information to keep bad information from going viral. With email, people can choose to forward or not, but they can’t influence the decisions of other recipients. Activists off all stripes have known this and used it for years.

The good news is that this seems to be a generational issue. Surveys show that the older people are, the more likely they are to use email for engaging in politics. The younger they are, the more likely they are to use blogging and social networking for politics. Millenials seems to “get” the value of open networks in a way that older generation, in general, don’t. It’s a good sign for the future of political discourse, but in the meantime it’s important to monitor where and how people are engaging in Congress, and politics at large, and do the time-honored work of educating and demystifying.

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