N e t P u l s e

The Spamming of Washington:

Pushing a button doesn't make democracy wired

by Howard Fienberg, contributing editor
April 2, 2001

WASHINGTON - We all want to do our part. We all wish to impact certain causes or issues, to convince our leaders in one direction or another. With the Internet’s speed and simplicity, we thought we could finally have our say, and government would listen. But the revolution in electronic communication has actually decreased government accountability. Those e-mails we sent Congressman X were probably deleted, never having been read. Internet-based advocacy may move us emotionally, but is not helping our cause.

According to a recent report from the Congress Online Project (COP), Congress regularly drowns in e-mail messages, most of which go unread and unanswered. The House of Representatives received about 20 million e-mails in 1998. That number rose to 40 million last year, particularly boosted by the 7 million received during the presidential election recount in December. The number of messages appears to be growing by an average of one million per month. Earlier this year, the deluge of e-mails regarding the nomination of John Ashcroft for Attorney General ground Senate e-mail servers to a virtual standstill. While Congress has reasonably effective systems for the processing of regular mail, it cannot handle half this much electronically.

Media coverage of the report focused on ways in which Congress could better deal with all the e-mail, forgetting the other side of the equation - - us, the public. We pat ourselves on the back every time we fill out and send an e-mail to save a rainforest or outlaw TV smut. But we are being deceived. Probably, we were not only not helping, we were actually ensuring that our cause would receive no electronic input from ordinary people.

Web sites like the Freedom Channel and Dick Morris’ Vote.com were launched in order to mobilize the American public - - to get us interested in politics and to get our viewpoints expressed. Particularly, such “empowerment” web sites claim to get officials to pay attention to public opinion. In practice, this usually means bombarding policy-makers with pre-formatted messages at the push of a button - - the equivalent of spam (junk e-mail).

Congress already gets oodles of regular constituent e-mail messages, but the COP says that the “seemingly easy electronic access” to Congress has “fostered a public misperception that individual Members should be accountable to all citizens who write.” What makes us think a Congressman would prioritize any communication, let alone a pro-forma e-mail, from someone outside his constituency? The COP blames “advocacy groups and grassroots lobbyists,” which encourage “high-volume mass communication because they assume that offices will simply tally incoming e-mail,” regardless of its source. The COP laments that Congressional offices respond to such non-constituent e-mails just like they do with non-constituent regular mail they ignore it. In fact, if Congressional offices follow the suggestions of the COP, such e-mails may eventually be filtered out entirely, before they even make it into a staffer’s in-box.

If we accept that this spam activism is a reasonable gauge of public opinion (which it probably is not), it has not gained that opinion a fair hearing. The medium of electronic mail makes replies easy, but these methods have managed to devalue all e-mail messages. Instead of bringing the government and the governed closer together, the predominant tactics of web activists have further isolated us. The White House e-mail scandal plainly demonstrated how easily people lose track of digital communications. The sheer volume and the ephemeral nature of e-mail makes it all too easy to ignore already and Congress needs little extra incentive to ignore ordinary people’s wishes.

We need to remember that pushing a button or flipping a switch does not make a person politically involved. Norman Soloman of the Institute for Public Accuracy emphasizes that “no matter how dazzling, technology doesn't empower people.” On the contrary, he notes that “the prevailing concepts of e-government are fully compatible with a wide variety of regimes that have little or no use for democratic decision-making.”

Soloman correctly worries that we have confused convenience with democracy and technical advances with civic ones. The Internet may yet have the solutions to the problems of (un)representative government, but right now it is also part of the problem. We need to find better ways to express our opinions to policy-makers perhaps even boring, low-tech ones.

EDITOR’S NOTE: NetPulse contributing editor Howard Fienberg is research analyst with the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C.

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