Scalable Civic Action 2019

Simon Johnson, Andrew Lippman

MAS.720, 15.234 (6 Units)

Meets Thursdays 5:30-7PM alternately at Sloan and at the Media Lab (dinner will be provided at 5:15). Project help sessions in E14-348F, scheduled individually.

Here is the Canvas site for more information.

All teams are invited to present in our final class on Thursday, December 5. To make sure we have enough time that evening, we are expanding class from 5:30-8pm (or as late as needed) -- if you need to be done by 7pm that evening, please tell us and we will make that happen. As you are all still working hard on your projects, we are also CANCELLING class for this coming Thursday, November 21

Democracy thrives when the public is knowledgeable about and active in civic and political life. Past trends show low participation – only 40% of eligible voters turn out for the typical mid-term election; young people even less so. Online mobilization has impact but this is corrupted by mis-use of data, trolling, and a change in the style of civil discourse. Local efforts have demonstrable impact on issues that range from presidential elections to neighborhood betterment. This class will combine presentations and discussion sessions with projects that test a developing technology to aid the formation of grassroots organizations.

Meetings will feature a series of conversations with academic and experienced practitioners in participatory news, civic organization, political campaigns, and field testing ideas. Project groups will test a developmental civic organizational system that is an “organization in a box” akin to the bespoke software that major political campaigns use.

The particular focus of this term’s projects will be independent, grassroots activities that can be started by non-affiliated groups. Students will form teams, develop a scheme, and test it in an organization of their choice, which can be a dorm group, a local newspaper, a political action campaign or one of your choosing. Student teams should ideally comprise either 4 or 5 people; exceptions are permitted if you can make a convincing case.

Target audience: graduate students and advanced undergraduates.  The project teams will be hands-on and cross-functional using tools developed at the Media Lab.

-30 percent class participation, including all kinds of contributions to the discussion and interaction with guests
-70 percent group project, including points for presentations, professional interactions with faculty and Media Lab mentors, and final materials. Also important: documenting exactly what you have done and, if appropriate, making these materials available more broadly.
Auditors will be permitted, if there is space in the room. However, in order to earn credit for this class, you must join a team and see a project through to completion.

Speakers and topics:

Date Place Topic Readings
5 Sept E62-450 Introduction: Action, Invention, Campaigns, News, what ties it together. 1,2
12 Sept E15-359 Structure of projects; The engine of organization; the power in locality 3,4,5
19 Sept E62-450 Project review session.
26 Sept E15-359 Vivian Schiller, NPR Ex-CEO, Director of the Civil Foundation. News in the digital era, Civil 6
3 Oct E15-359 Megan Smith, ex-US CTO, Founder of Planet Out, Director of Shift7 TBD
10 Oct E62-450 Daniel Weitzner, Director of the Internet Policy Research Initiative, ex US Deputer-Chief CTO for Internet Policy TBD
17 Oct E62-450 Luis Videgaray TBD
31 Oct E15-359 Interim project reviews 13,14
7 Nov E15-359 Harper Reed, former CTO for Obama 2012: Software and strategy TBD
13 Nov
Note Date
E62-450 (Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School, Longtime activist, author, and luminary on civic action: Action and Power or progress reports) 12
21 Nov E15-359 No Class This week! TBD
5 Dec E62-450 Final Presentations, class time extended to suit None

Provided Readings

  1. Sifry, M.,

    Obama’s Lost Army,

    New Republic, Feb, 2017
  2. Simon Johnson,

    Restore American Democracy – Mobilize Your National Network,

    Moyer’s & Co website, March 7, 2017
  3. Hastorf and Cantril, 

    They saw a game,

    Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49(1), 1954
  4. Robert Putnam,  

    Still Bowling Alone,

    Download here.
  5. Phillip Rogoway,  

    Morality in Research,

    The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work.
  6. Vosoughi et al,  

    The spread of true and false news online,

    Science, 09 March 2018, vol 359, Issue 6380, pp 1146-1151
  7. Boxell, L., et al, 

    Is the Internet causing political polarization?,

    NBER Working Paper No. 23258, March, 2017
  8. Boxell, L., et al, 

    A note on Internet use and the 2016 presidential election outcome,

    Plos ONE, July 2018
  9. Les Robinson, 

    A Summary of Diffusion of Innovations,

    Good Pointer to real work
  10. Mounk, Yascha 

    The Rise of McPolitics,

    New Yorker Magazine, July 2, 2018
  11. Hopkins, Daniel 

    Prejudice, Priming, and Presidential Voting: Panel Evidence from the 2016 U.S. Election,

    SSRN Website
  12. Marshall Ganz,

    “Speaking of Power”,

    Gettysburg Project, (2014)
  13. Tang, J., et al,

    Reflecting on the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge,

    CACM vol 54, No 4, April 2011
  14. Daniel Schlozman (2015),

    “Political Parties and Social Movements” in When Movements Anchor Parties,

    Princeton University Press, Chapter 2, pp. 14-48.
  15. Stanford History Education Group,

    Evaluating Information: The cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,

    Executive Summary.
  16. American Press Institute, 

    Who Shared it

Additional readings of interest:

  1. Pew Research, 

    Pew Research Center,

    News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018
  2. Bond, etal,

    A 61-million-person experiment in social influence and political mobilization,

    Nature, September, 2012
  3. Kruger, J. and Mueller, R.,  

    Unskilled,Unaware or Both?,

    Journal of personality and social psychology, 2002
  4. Bakshy, E.  et al,

    Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter,

    WSDM '11
  5. Kramer, W., and Gigerenzer, G., 

    How to Confuse with Statistics or: The use and misuse of conditional probabilities,

    Statistical Science, 20(3), 2005
  6. Zynep Tufekci,

    AI and civic engagement,

    TED Talk
  7. a Familyʼs Fight With Google and Facebook Over Disinformation

    discover what comments and conversations have been buried by the news format: 1 2 3

Project Schedule

Please arrange to have either Simon or Andy as mentors for your project and schedule a weekly meeting with the mentor to track progress.

Here is the Google Drive for project templates.

Templates for poster session presentations are here in Keynote and here as a PDF. Ideally, your poster accompanies a brief report.

Date Action Notes
12 September Initial Proposal Form your team and fill out the google doc form here
10 Oct Design Presentation Present Design sketches and testing plan
31 Oct Progress Report Present progress in class meeting
7 Nov Live demo Tune into orgs your are working with
14 Nov Present suggestions for next steps
21 Nov Tabulated results Analysis of success or failure
5 Dec E62-450 Project poster and demo dinner


Andrew Lippman,
Deb Widener,
Simon Johnson,
Michelle Fiorenza,


Big list of organizing tools

CivicLink slides (keynote, powerpoint)