There’s no doubt that the digital age has drastically changed the political landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, anyone can comment about anything at any time. Gone are the days of traditional media being the only outlets that people pay attention to. Now, pundits and politicians have direct access to their audience, and vice versa.
During this past election season, we’ve seen how quickly issues can rise to popularity, briefly infiltrate dialogue, both online and face-to-face, and then quickly fade away. While there’s no doubt that traditional media still set the narrative for many political discussions, social media give everyday people a megaphone.
More politicians are using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to engage with constituents. Now, instead of elected officials being simply names that people hear occasionally during election season, they can be seen every day online. Citizens can see pictures that officials post of themselves as they interact with constituents face-to-face, and they can interact with them (or their staffers) online.
This information age has created opportunities for engagement between politicians and their constituents. In the past, people knew who their representatives were and understood what they stood for. They would engage with their representatives by meeting with them in person at events or town halls. They hoped to make their voices heard by writing letters, either directly to the representatives or to their local newspaper.
It used to be that civic engagement was a topic for only political junkies. One reason was that the issues can be complex and it may seem that understanding them requires special knowledge and motivation. People want easy access to understandable information, and at times there may appear to be a lack of that in the political world. But there are numerous websites and apps that can help keep everyday people informed and engaged.
VoteSpotter, for example, is a smartphone app that helps connect people to their elected officials and keep them updated on what is happening in Washington, D.C. This free, nonprofit project gives users the chance to read a simple, easy-to-understand version of legislation, plus the ability to see how their senators and representatives officials voted. Citizens can vote on how they feel about the bills and then gauge their own votes against their legislators’ side-by-side. This helps them see how much they differ from their legislators on certain issues.
It’s important that legislators be held accountable, not only at the ballot box but between elections as well. Apps give people another means by which they can have direct access to an elected official. With people becoming more accustomed to communicating with their cell phones, such tools make it easy for everyone to connect with politicians.
While some digital tools make it easier for people to contact their elected officials, others make it easier to learn about them. Websites such as Ballotpedia give people the opportunity to learn more about their elected officials, as well as individuals running for office. This makes it easier for people to learn more about candidates’ backgrounds and their stances on issues. Ballotpedia also helps to fill a need for information for state-level content. The website writes about statewide ballot proposals in a clear, straightforward way as part of its wide-ranging coverage of state-based issues and candidates.
So many people get frustrated with the political process. Often, this is because they think they lack the ability to actually change it‚ which saps their desire to try. The digital age provides more than just the dysfunctional political discussions common on social media: It offers the chance to help increase transparency and accountability in politics. By bridging the gap between people and their elected officials, trust in the democratic process can be restored.
Andrew Koehlinger is the project director at VoteSpotter, a free, nonprofit app that helps connect people with their elected officials.