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Voices Unbound: New Media and the Future of Democracy

By Jonathan Groves, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Communication

In 1948, Harry Truman traveled more than 31,000 miles on the rails spreading his campaign message throughout the country.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan took to the airwaves and asked voters in television ads, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”

Today, the campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are multiheaded, multi-media machines, posting tweets on Twitter, photos on Facebook, and videos on YouTube. They’re mobilizing followers through virtual means in looser but more expansive networks.

New media have disrupted all aspects of society, and our electoral process is no exception. Today, politicians must navigate the 24-7, always-on landscape while voters must become more astute and savvy as a growing amount of noise — much of it inaccurate or misleading — attempts to sway their opinions at the most opportune times. Word of mouth now takes place online, and a simple gaffe can go viral in a matter of minutes, seamlessly shared through lightly considered clicks of the mouse. Serious questions can dissipate quickly as an easily distracted populace becomes entranced by the trending topic of the moment.

Drury’s Theme Year, “Voices Unbound: New Media and the Future of Democracy,” is dedicated to exploring the impact these technological changes are having on our society. No longer do the large media and institutions wield all the power; disparate individuals with shared interests can now link together through online networks to challenge authority and topple regimes.

As the election approached, we brought David Catanese, a national political reporter for POLITICO (and a former KY3 reporter), to campus to share stories about working for the online-only news organization. Also, Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, tackled polling and media usage in the current political environment. And next spring, National Public Radio’s Andy Carvin will provide a glimpse from the international stage as he talks about his experiences from the front line of social media revolutions.

We won’t just be depending on the experts to explore these ideas, though. In the spirit of the Theme Year, we’ve launched voicesunbound.org for people to speak their minds and become part of the conversation.

In today’s environment, developing such sharing spaces is powerfully simple. We hope this theme year will inspire you to find your voice on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever to connect, create and contribute.