Four Years in Fast Forward: The Evolution of Infogagement

Matt Leighninger, Public Agenda

Credit: Jason Corey

Four years ago, the worlds of journalism, technology, and civic engagement seemed to be on a collision course, and I was asked by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) to write a paper on what that meant for the landscape of civic engagement in America. The result was “Infogagement: Citizenship and Democracy in the Age of Connection.” The paper described a number of fast-moving trends: the development of “thick” and “thin” forms of engagement, the financial upheaval in journalism, growing skepticism about the objectivity of experts and journalists, the importance of networks for overcoming inequality, and emerging questions about trust, privacy, and big data.

Four years later, we’ve witnessed the collision between media, tech, and engagement, a fusion that inspired the term “infogagement” in the original paper. While most people viewed our increasingly hyper-connected, hyper-informed state as an annoyance or even an opportunity, rather than a potential calamity. Four years later, some of the dangers evident in the paper have become front-page calamities.

We noted that citizens felt increasingly powerless to affect government and other institutions, a frustration that has since become a central theme in recent events, including the 2016 US presidential election. The growing skepticism about journalists as “truth-tellers” has become a crisis over “fake news.” Furthermore, most media organizations are still seeking a business model that can sustain their work financially. The paper also predicted that “the future of big data may depend less on the skill and expertise of hackers, journalists, and other curators, and more on public trust” — and that trust is being called into question more now than ever, as scandals over data and privacy have embroiled Facebook and other tech giants.

Against the backdrop of today’s tumultuous social dynamics and political uncertainty, so much about our lives, communities, and social compact is being examined and re-envisioned — even more than we could have anticipated when originally releasing this paper in 2014. Given this reality, we felt it was a uniquely opportune time to revisit this inquiry into infogagement. This 2018 re-release comes in the midst of tremendous shifts in this space, and is accompanied by a series of contributions from thought leaders on the front lines of innovation, making strides toward ensuring an inclusive, participatory democracy in this new and rapidly evolving landscape.

Center-stage problems — but are the potential solutions still stuck in the same silos?

Today, there is more concern from more quarters about the state of infogagement, as debates across the field and commentaries in this new edition attest. However, if we aren’t careful, the solutions could remain stuck in the same silos — purely technological fixes to our tech challenges, purely journalistic answers to the problems facing journalism, and so on — rather than joint solutions that advance a broader framework for a new public square.

Journalists are thinking more about engagement, but most still seem to see it as a transactional relationship, a way to build a broader audience for their products rather than a way to reclaim a public role. Technologists are more aware of the civic impacts of their platforms and networks, but instead of shoring up the “public foundations” of the Internet (as Micah Sifry suggests in his commentary), they only seem to be considering solutions within those platforms, like new algorithms to determine what people see in their social media feeds. Engagement practitioners still tend to describe their work as a way to involve people in decisions made by policymakers — as props for conventional political processes rather than building blocks for new forms of democracy.

While many silo-based solutions may be worthwhile, none seems sufficient for addressing the erosion of trust in public institutions, in journalism, and in experts. Few people are tackling the overarching questions the paper raised, which ask what kinds of infogagement roles, skills, and infrastructure we need to facilitate the nourishing, equitable flow of news, information, and engagement. The solutions being developed within the fields of journalism, technology, and engagement are more likely to succeed and support one another if they are incorporated into a larger, more comprehensive strategy.

Inequitable impacts, unequal attitudes

“Infogagement” also described how technological shifts were exacerbating socioeconomic inequity and inequality. Because of advances in Artificial Intelligence, the gig economy, and the changing future of work, these trends may now be accelerating: millions of truck drivers and cashiers, for example, may lose their jobs in the next decade.

As their economic prospects change, middle- and low-income people may be looking for ways to articulate their political interests — and not finding many places where they feel their voices will be heard. The lack of meaningful engagement opportunities makes people (understandably) more alienated and alarmed, and perhaps even more likely to turn away from the institutions in their lives, rather than trying to fix them. The tension between experts and citizens laid out in the original paper seems to be turning into a harder division, and that could leader to even greater tension and gridlock at every level of government.

Furthermore, as Kelly Born describes in her commentary, misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda campaigns are calling the premise of facts and objectivity into question and creating siloed communication online that deepens social divisions and disproportionately affects minority populations. These are growing challenges that continue to undermine our democratic norms and values, and are beginning to receive focused attention from funders like the Hewlett Foundation.

Promising developments, under the radar

Despite these troubling trends, it isn’t all bad news. There are a number of positive developments in the evolution of infogagement, and they deserve more attention. Most of these developments have to do with the new ways in which technologists, journalists, and engagement practitioners are borrowing features and practices from one another. Josh Stearns, Paul Waters, and Tom Glaisyer list many exciting experiments in collaborative and participatory journalism, solutions journalism, community listening, and the ecosystem of local news from their vantage point at the Democracy Fund. The organization also recently led the NewsMatch Challenge, the largest ever grassroots funding campaign to support local nonprofit news journalism, raising over $4.8 million from a coalition of individual donors and foundations.

Efforts to ensure equitable representation have also taken center stage, with initiatives to understand the diversity of newsrooms and advance inclusion in the spirit of generating civic engagement. In her commentary, Jennifer Brandel of Hearken describes new ways to support two-way interactions between journalists and their audiences by forging deeper relationships with the publics they serve, and Darryl Holliday of City Bureau illustrates how citizens are addressing the issues of misrepresentation in the media by representing themselves and their communities. Both efforts are making great strides and proving their effectiveness, but continue to face existing power structures in journalism, when newsrooms are reluctant to shift their status quo.

In the world of engagement, practitioners are also incorporating technological features so as to combine the strengths of “thick” and “thin” engagement. As the practice of participatory budgeting has grown from one Chicago ward to over 300 districts in 22 cities, new online PB elements are being introduced. Other formats for sustained engagement have emerged, such as “On the Table,” an annual meal-based discussion among diverse groups of people that has involved over 105,000 Chicago-area residents at its peak; On the Table is now being implemented in 25 other cities. “Text, Talk, Act” has combined texting and face-to-face dialogue to reach over 50,000 people in 50 states. Advances in youth engagement and news and media literacy, as Abby Kiesa and DC Vito of 22x20, describe in their commentary, and as the Parkland students embody in their new public roles, are causing us to rethink how citizens can have more meaningful roles in governance.

The hyperlocal online spaces described in the original paper have proliferated dramatically, with growing pains and speed bumps along the way. At first, these were simple, relatively isolated neighborhood listservs and Facebook group papers. Now, Nextdoor has an active presence, with at least 50 users, in 80% of all American neighborhoods, over 160,000 neighborhoods in all. Over two-thirds of the households in Vermont belong to Front Porch Forum in that state.

These developments illustrate whole new possibilities for the public square — new puzzle pieces that could contribute to the jigsaw of democracy. In different ways, they all emphasize trust, evidence, and listening, and they all move beyond traditional, one-way education and information delivery models. We need to incorporate these ideas and people into a systemic analysis, and produce more systemic solutions for reforming our public square. Cities develop comprehensive plans to guide decisions about housing, zoning, parks, and physical infrastructure; they also need plans for strengthening their civic infrastructure.

What to do next?

In addition to convening these more systemic conversations, particular strategies might also influence the trajectory of infogagement in positive ways. First, as Jenny Choi argues, we need better ways to measure trust and assess what people want from their institutions. To meet that challenge, we could use a range of tools, from simple scorecard systems that allow people to rate engagement opportunities to large national studies like the Yankelovich Democracy Monitor, a new project by Public Agenda to gauge support for participatory democratic reforms.

Second, to begin to address the trust deficit with big data, we need ways for people to sort out whether and how they want their data to be used. While it is true that Google, Facebook, and other companies now possess large amounts of our private data, the nature of Artificial Intelligence means that it requires ever greater amounts of information, delivered in real time. In other words, the horse has not yet left the stable. We may still be able to create the terms of a new relationship, in which people grant permission for their data to be used, exert control over how it is used, and (in some cases) contribute even more data to help researchers and policymakers. This citizen-driven relationship could be one way of establishing public foundations for digital public squares, as Micah Sifry, of Civic Hall, suggests.

One thing that has become clear over the last four years is that public squares don’t just build themselves. Democracy is something we can design, and redesign — but if we want to do so, we have to be proactive about it.

All kinds of people should be part of these discussions: technologists, journalists, engagement practitioners, elected officials, funders, researchers…and residents. “Citizens continue to be left out of the design and management of their communities,” says Lilian Coral of Knight Foundation. “The results: low trust in democracy, poor policymaking, economic and social dysfunction, and communities that don’t reflect the needs and preferences of residents.” If trust is the pivotal missing link, we need to approach these questions in participatory ways that reflect the values of our participatory democracy, and more authentically reflect the lived realities of the people our systems aim to serve.

The discussion of what the public square should look like needs to happen in more places, and with more people. It’s the reason we re-released this paper — in the hopes of furthering those conversations at a time when they feel especially urgent. The fundamental question remains: What kind of democracy do we want?


Matt Leighninger is the Vice President for Public Engagement, and Director of the Yankelovich Center, at Public Agenda. Public Agenda is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that helps diverse leaders and citizens navigate divisive, complex issues and work together to find solutions. Over the last twenty years, Matt has worked with public engagement efforts in over 100 communities, in 40 states and four Canadian provinces. During much of that time, Matt served as Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, an alliance of major organizations and leading scholars working in the field of deliberation and public participation. He also led a working group that produced a model ordinance on public participation and developed a new tool, “Text, Talk, and Act,” that combined online and face-to-face participation as part of President Obama’s National Dialogue on Mental Health. He has assisted in the development of Participedia, the world’s largest online repository of information on public engagement. His first book, The Next Form of Democracy, is a firsthand account of the wave of democratic innovation that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. His second, Public Participation for 21st Century Democracy, co-authored with Tina Nabatchi, is a comprehensive look at participation theory, history, and practice, and explains how we can transition from temporary engagement projects to stronger democratic infrastructure.