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Sturm College of Law


Congress, E-legislation, Social media


The United States has been plagued with a deadlocked, “do nothing” Congress for the last several years, but today there is a new game in town. Senator Chris Dodd declared, when he first encountered the full force of e-legislating, “It’s a new day [in Washington]... Brace yourselves.” Digital technologies have fundamentally changed the relationship of citizens to their governments. Since e-democracy was first identified in the 1990s, at least four subcategories have emerged. This article debuts the newest member of the e-democracy family: e-legislating — the use of Internet and social media to influence federal legislation. The federal legislative process has traditionally been remote for the average citizen. E-legislating attempts to change that dynamic through the use of electronic media campaigns to influence legislators between election cycles. Yet fundamental problems with the process exist and are illustrated by the use of e-legislating to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in January 2012. One negative outcome was manipulation of the public through emotional, multi-sensory messages that may have resulted in impulse-based decisionmaking. Another was lack of accountability for the citizens who anonymously contacted legislators to influence their votes or who submitted multiple electronic messages regarding the Act. In addition, the SOPA Internet blackout raised a troubling, but perhaps unique concern: SOPA opponents were able to use deprivation to coerce political action. Participating websites deprived citizens of their services and were able to divert the users’ newfound time into activism in favor of the SOPA opponents. E-legislating has awe-inspiring potential to empower common citizens and to result in the creation of positive laws that reflect a balance of the will of common citizens with the influence of lobbyists in Congress. However, citizens participating in e-legislating need to be aware that the process can be both obstructive as well as constructive.

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