EDem10. Micah L. Sifry: The Promise and Contradictions of E-Democracy, Obama Style

Notes from the EDem10 — 4th International Conference on eDemocracy 2010, at the Danube-University Krems, and held in Krems, Austria, on May 6th and 7th, 2010. More notes on this event: edem10.

The Promise and Contradictions of E-Democracy, Obama Style
Micah L. Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum

Expectations that the Obama administration would continue the tone of the Obama campaign: lowering barriers to participation, opening the government, etc. But it does not seem that expectations have been accomplished.

The Campaign

The open government directive was the first one to be issued when entering the White House. It claimed for a more open, more participative, more collaborative.

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Obama campaign, from the primary elections, was a different campaign (and a different candidate too).

And the voters were different too: almost everyone in the US is online and is not only online to get information but able to participate. For instance, amongst the total videos mentioning Obama or McCain (circa 150,000) only 10% of the were made by the candidates.

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Obama metrics: 13m e-mail addresses, 3.9 individual donors (double the highest score since), 2m profiles on MyObama, 200K offline events created, etc.

The Government

There was no small-donor revolution, at least not in the early money (money raised in the previous year to the election), which is very important in the US: the candidate that raises more money that year, wins the election: money votes, the money primary. $1000+ donors dominated and almost doubled donors below $200. Indeed, the only candidate that fliped the profile and got more than 50% in small donations was Howard Dean.

Obama believed in the structure that the volunteers had created, and to make it last beyond the election, to help him in not surrendering to the powers of the lobbies and the machinery of Washington, D.C. But often the idea was to circumvent mass media and beam a packed message directly to the voters, without letting this “structure” to participate in that beaming.

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And this is still happening: Obama runs out of the filter of mass media whenever he can, being present in less open interviews and more available to closed ones or youtube-aimed videos.

The Open Government Dialogue worked quite well, but got an infinitesimal share of attention that the campaign did — maybe because the average citizen is more interested in their daily problems.

Data.gov has also been a good initiative to be transparent (schizophrenic, though, with other initiatives to avoid accountability).

Opinion Space to register your opinion about some international issues. While the initiative looks interesting, the real purpose behind it has never been disclosed by the government.

But, the general public is not responding to these initiatives, people do not feel engaged, people do not find that the government is more transparent, accountable, listening to people, etc.


The Internet does not empower anyone, we empower ourselves. One-to-many communication and many-to-one is easy, many-to-many is hard.

If we’re going to empower ourselves, we need better tools.


Ismael Peña-López: Let us assume these open government initiatives are genuine. If people do not feel engaged — for whatever reason, but maybe because they still tend to mass media to get their political information —, are not mass media missing the point of “translating” what’s on the “open” websites to the general public? Or maybe these initiatives are not that genuine? A: Mass media might be not knowing what is their role. They are fascinated by this new media, but they do not how to handle it. On the other hand, people do not understand that a government can become a media itself, and not be mediated by others. We are in a transition: the mass media think their role as gatekeepers is over, people have to learn what their (new) sources are, there is no balance in focusing on the real participation (vs. the extremes demonstrations of opinion). Existing mass media give as a distorted view of what citizen engagement is, and this blocks more fruitful encounters.

Matthew Allen: why online tools are so week? is it because ties are also week? A: All Blue platform allows anyone to raise money for a candidate, cause, etc. or the case of Move On are ways to crate more committed ways to participate, and to strengthen the bounds between the candidate and the voter, and set the former freer from the big money. Impact + real time feedback can create a positive loop of engagement.

Q: why such low engagement in open government platforms? How to manage the tension between top-down and bottom-up approaches? A: people interested in these issues are not many. About the tension between approaches, the truth is that there was no plan for day 1 after the election concerning participation, engagement, etc. even if the campaign supporters kept on calling and writing to the campaign office with “now what?” and “how now?” questions.

More information

EDEM10 – Five Questions – Micah Sifry from digitalgovernment:

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Other reactions on this session

EDEm10 - 4th International Conference on eDemocracy (2010)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “EDem10. Micah L. Sifry: The Promise and Contradictions of E-Democracy, Obama Style” In ICTlogy, #80, May 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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