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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Democracy Needs Storytellers

Kawandeep Virdee

Kawandeep Virdee

Kawandeep Virdee

This article was originally published in The Atlantic on May 6, 2017.

Technology can both centralize power, and it can subvert it. It can broadcast one voice, or it can cultivate a multitude of voices. It can foster opposition, and it can bring empathy.

But instead of describing how technology can improve our democratic process in the future, I’ll highlight a social action that’s already building momentum toward such an improvement—and consider how technology can support that.

The 2016 election cycle demonstrated what happens when media outlets favor views over integrity, and audiences favor validation over depth. Outlets subsidized by ad impressions—coupled with audiences willing to share articles that confirmed their biases—provided feedback loops to push some outlets to cater to bias. The walls between points of view thickened. There now seem to be multiple realities, each with media outlets to support them with fragments of a story instead of the full picture. Because of this divisiveness, people cannot understand each other, and even choose to ignore each other.

Post-election shock among those who did not believe Donald Trump could win the presidency appeared online, followed by organizing and action across a range of expressive outlets. In this, a new form of media emerged. Sticky notes placed on subway tiles revealed fear, love, and hope. Posters were made for protests, and then displayed publicly afterwards. For many, this public expression offered a renewed sense of purpose and confidence around activism.

Interactive and participatory media allows viewers to get involved, to become expressive, and give voice. It is inviting and contagious for those who share views—seeing enough notes and posters in public makes it more welcoming to add your own. Visible support for a cause can translate into momentum. The communication is both digital and physical—exemplified by handmade posters and stories, which are then shared online. These stories build solidarity among those who share a vision for the future of the country, and they remind people that they aren’t alone. Stories can be personal, and convey vulnerability. They can also cultivate empathy to thin the wall between dissonant points of view. While most of the stories may not resonate across different opposing views, even just a few can start building bridges of understanding.

This kind of public participatory media encourages civic action. It moves from digital support to public support only when it is clear that such actions have an impact.

My tech suggestion isn’t a shiny new product or algorithm. It’s something simpler and familiar, but essential. People must document recent victories to give them visibility. When there is no sense of impact, people can feel jaded. Document the legislation that comes from public action. This isn’t a complex tech solution, but with the proper attention it can have a wider lasting impact. It can celebrate public creativity, voice, and civic action.

Exploring interactive and participatory media encourages public expression and builds momentum. Documenting the impact closes the feedback loop. When purpose and momentum wane, these narratives show that participation can create change, and build a stronger democracy.

Kawandeep Virdee works on the product team at Medium, where he focuses on interactivity and expression.

This article is part of The Democracy Project, a collaboration with The Atlantic.

May 17, 2017