Scalable Civic Action 2020

Simon Johnson, Andrew Lippman

MAS.720, 15.234 (6 Units)

Meets Thursdays 6:30-8PM via zoom. Project help sessions will be scheduled individually.

Here is the Canvas site for more information.

From massive upheavals great ideas emerge. Let's use class to surface the issues and approaches.

Congrats to all for the great energy and originality in each project. The projects were prototypes that can go further. And some will. Stay tuned!

A functioning democracy requires the knowledgeable participation of its citizens. In the US, this is of paramount importance in a presidential election year. In 2020, we face the unprecedented situation where a pandemic will obviate many of the normal ways by which candidates persuade and mobilize voters. For Fall, 2020, Scalable Civic Action will concentrate on projects that people to vote.

In past years, some of the project work in this course has been involved local, grassroots community organizations and tools to help them function more efficiently. Due to COVID-19, this year will be different: Instead of wearing out sneakers, we will have to wear out keyboards; face-to-face will mean screen time as much as physical canvassing; and the combination of local and national elections may redefine what we consider a community and its issues. The goal is to learn how to effectively organize groups for dedicated action of all sorts using the presidential election as a testbed.

The class is comprised of weekly meetings at which we will discuss issues and techniques. This will be via presentations from faculty and invited guests. We will also set up project teams that will develop and test mobilization techniques. Resources include available social media and purpose-built software. The target audience is graduate students and advanced undergraduates.

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, however to earn credit for this class, you must join a team and see a project through to completion.

Participation guidelines:
All presentations will be moderated by a main host, either Simon or Andy. A secondary host (either Simon or Andy) will follow the chat carefully.

  1. Please keep yourself muted except when talking. Otherwise your background noise may steal the mic
  2. During a presentation, feel free to articulate questions to the moderator either by private chat or to "everyone".
  3. After the presentation, to ask a question either use chat or use the “raise your hand” function in Zoom. You can raise your blue hand before the presentation is over.
  4. The moderator/main host is in charge of running the overall conversation with the guest, assisted by the secondary host (we are just trying not to miss anything!). Unmute at that point, then mute for the response.
  5. We will evolve this protocol as we gain experience meeting together.

Speakers and topics:

Date Place Topic Readings
3 Sept via Zoom Introduction: Action, Invention, Campaigns, News, what ties it together. 1-7
10 Sept via Zoom Structure of projects; The engine of organization; the power in locality
17 Sept via Zoom Donald Green, mobilization techniques and assessment 8,9
24 Sept via Zoom Marshall Ganz, activism 10
1 Oct via Zoom Project Progress meeting
8 Oct via Zoom Daniel Hopkins, scope of issues 11
15 Oct via Zoom Levi Boxell, polarization 12,13,16
22 Oct via Zoom Kade Crockford 14,15
29 Oct via Zoom Aliya Bhatia 17
5 Nov via Zoom Post-election review Your Choice
12 Nov via Zoom Paul Cheng TBD
19 Nov via Zoom Daniel Curtis 18,19
3 Dec via Zoom 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. Bakshy, E.  et al,

    Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter,

    WSDM '11
  4. Tang, J., et al,

    Reflecting on the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge,

    CACM vol 54, No 4, April 2011
  5. Viegas, et al,  

    Studying Cooperation and Conflict between Authors with history flow Visualizations,

    Download here.
  6. Mendler, Bridgit, MIT Media Lab, Conversation Trees, and Learning from Conversation Trees
  7. Awad, et al,  

    The Moral Machine Experiment, Nature, Nov 2018, vol 563.

    Read it here. Or try The Moral Machine yourself! Or try out GifGif-Quantify!
  8. Schein, Aaron, Green, Donald et al 

    A Digital Field Experiment Reveals Large Effects of Friend-to-Friend Texting on Voter Turnout,

    Download here
  9. Green, Donald 

    Turnout Nation: A Pilot Experiment Evaluating a Get-Out-The-Vote “Supertreatment,

    Download here
  10. Marshall Ganz,

    “Speaking of Power”,

    Gettysburg Project, (2014)
  11. Hopkins, Daniel 

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

    SSRN Website
  12. Boxell, L., et al, 

    Is the Internet causing political polarization?,

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

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

    Plos ONE, July 2018
  14. Mounk, Yascha 

    The Rise of McPolitics,

    New Yorker Magazine, July 2, 2018
  15. Daniel Schlozman (2015),

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

    Princeton University Press, Chapter 2, pp. 14-48.
  16. Matzko, Paul 

    Talk Radio is at the heart of Trumpism,

    NYTimes, 10 October, 2020
  17. Bhatia, Aliya, Healing Our Health System, One Vote at a Time, Stanford Social Innovation Review, 10/21/20
  18. Tufecki, Zeynep, Who needs the Russians?, The Atlantic, 4 Feb, 2020.
  19. Henshaw-Plath,Evan, The Shadow Economny: Why Campaign Tech Keeps Failing, Civic

Additional readings of interest:

  1. Bond, etal,

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

    Nature, September, 2012
  2. Manuel Cebrian Slides,

    Class Talk, 2018,

    Read here
  3. Anderton, David, Countering source bias in news, MIT MS thesis, 2019
  4. Hastorf and Cantril, 

    They saw a game,

    Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49(1), 1954
  5. Vosoughi et al,  

    The spread of true and false news online,

    Science, 09 March 2018, vol 359, Issue 6380, pp 1146-1151
  6. Vosoughi, Soroush, and Deb Roy.

    A Human-Machine Collaborative System for Identifying Rumors on Twitter,

    2015 IEEE International Conference on Data Mining Workshop (ICDMW) (November 2015)Download here.
  7. Pew Research, 

    Pew Research Center,

    News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2018
  8. Lippman  

    First Talk Slides,

    Download here.
  9. Robert Putnam,  

    Still Bowling Alone,

    Download here.
  10. Zynep Tufekci,

    AI and civic engagement,

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

    discover what comments and conversations have been buried by the news format: 1 2 3
  12. Stanford History Education Group,

    Evaluating Information: The cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning,

    Executive Summary.
  13. American Press Institute, 

    Who Shared it

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
10 September Initial Proposal Form your team and fill out the google doc form here
8 Oct Design Presentation Present Design sketches and testing plan
29 Oct Progress Report Present progress in class meeting
5 Nov Review in the context of the election Preliminary results
12 Nov Present suggestions for next steps
19 Nov Tabulated results Analysis of success or failure
3 Dec E62-450 Project poster and demo dinner


Andrew Lippman,
Simon Johnson,
Michelle Fiorenza,

Alessandra Davy-Falconi,


Big list of organizing tools

Archived CivicLink slides (keynote, powerpoint)