The State of the Union: A Speech- An Experience

by Dr. Janet Johnson on January 10, 2016

For the past two years, I’ve been lucky enough to watch the State of the Union at the White House with a chosen few Americans who like me–LOVE social media and LOVE politics. We tweeted, we instagramed, we facebooked. We engaged our friends to take part in our experience. I had students and friends tell me they wouldn’t have watched the speech otherwise.

I can’t tell you how honored I’ve been to have had that opportunity two years in a row. As we look forward to President Obama’s LAST State of the Union on Tuesday night, it’s important to show how in the past 8 years the White House’s Office of Digital Strategy has engaged more citizens to take part and engage in this annual January tradition of the President addressing the nation.

What prompted me to write this blog post?  Chief Digital Officer Jason Goldman’s article Meeting People Where They Are: How the White House Office of Digital Strategy is preparing the 2016 State of the Union Address

Goldman’s article shares with you the most innovative State of the Union Americans will see yet. Emerging media allows The White House to expand on President Obama’s speech in interactive ways that allow citizens to not only listen, but actively engage in the content. Tuesday’s night speech will not just be a speech–but will make those citizens who take part through the Internet to have an experience.  The Office of Digital Strategy understands the multitask–mulitplatform– ways Americans consume media to gather messages. And that’s the point–how to engage citizens and deliver a message in ways citizens 1. understand 2. become more civic minded 3. and take action

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When I first attended the 2014  State of the Union Social, I started writing an article to capture the interactive approach the White House took to the annual ritual. I wanted to see how past Administrations engaged an audience and what may be transpiring as the White House became more digitally interactive during the State of the Union. Here’s a snippet of what I hope will emerge into a larger project–a book about political engagement in the age of Social Media. (remind me to send out that book proposal soon! So many ideas!)

President Obama’s Directive

The State of the Union has not always been this innovative. It started when President Obama, on May 23, 2012 issued a directive titled, “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People,” which stated,

It creates a space for citizens to become partners in building a better government, where “every man,” as Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs.[1]” (The White House 2012)

The White House has evolved since that 2012 directive and has created an interactive, and accessible government that didn’t exist before President Obama took office. When digital citizens are allowed access to government easily, one can assume citizens may take more initiatives than they did before the Internet. Through social media and the White House’s Web site, the President’s messages can then become viral in hopes more people will watch and take part in such events as the State of the Union address. The goal of the White House is to create an accessible, dialogical interactive White House where people can take part in the conversation.

[1] “Digital Government: Building a 21st Century Platform to Better Serve the American People WhiteHouse.gov, last modified May 23, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/egov/digital-government/digital-government.html.

A Short History of Technology and the State of the Union

The United States of America’s Constitution states in article 2, section 3 that the President, “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” The one item the Constitution fails to mention is how this information is presented to Congress. In modern times the State of the Union address is carried out through a lot of pomp and ceremony where the President delivers his State of the Union address early in the year in front of Congress, usually in the evening. Typically, the audience listens and/or watches on television, radio, and most recently live streaming on the Internet. The State of the Union is a tradition that is not normally known to engage citizens—not until President Obama’s administration.

Today’s State of the Union Address is very different from what Americans were used to 224 years ago when George Washington delivered the first Annual Message to Congress. The Annual Message was given midday without much notice to inform Congress of the President’s plans. The message is typically a deliberative speech, which plans out future initiatives for the country.

George Washington gave the first Annual Message to Congress in 1790. Richard Teten explains Washington’s speech, “was little more than an update on the military situation of the day and was very brief.”[1] Thomas Jefferson decided to hand write his Annual Message to Congress. It is suspected Jefferson did not like public speaking and decided to let a clerk read his Annual Message.[2] Jefferson believed the Annual Message was like a king’s pronouncement and did not want to offend the American public.[3] Jefferson’s tradition lasted for almost 113 years until Woodrow Wilson, in 1913, decided to deliver his Annual Message to Congress in person.[4] This political tradition has been carried into modern times, and into the technological age. In 1923 President Calvin Coolidge was the first president to broadcast his State of the Union address on the radio.[5] The New York Times in 1923 reported,

Hundreds of stores dealing in radio apparatus caught the message and gave it out through loud speakers either inside their places of business or to knots of listeners on the sidewalk. So that downtown on every scattered business section of the various boroughs little groups of New Yorkers were drawn together to listen intently to the words of their President, not as embalmed text, but as living things while he was in the very act of speaking them. [6]

 For the first time, technology brought together groups of citizens. Citizens gathered to listen, which means many people discussed the issues the President spoke about in his speech to their friends. In fact, The Washington Post reported,

Radio is preeminently the instrument of mass appeal. In time, the prophecy goes, it will unite the world into one vast brotherhood. It will duplicate the change brought about in civilization by the printing press, travel by steam and electricity. [7](“Tune In” 1924)

In 1924, the radio made citizens feel as if they knew the President of the United States personally, “We can stare at hundred faces in a crowd, but we know nothing of their owners until we have heard them speak.”[8] Technology was bringing an important aspect to the Annual Message—civic engagement.

Technology continued to create more civic engagement. In 1947, President Harry S. Truman was the first president to televise his State of the Union address in the afternoon. The Washington Post reported how citizens watched Truman’s address at the Statler Hotel:

Three television sets with 12 by 15 inch screens were located strategically about the bustling room. They enabled customers to sip their drinks, see and hear the President, and take life easy with all the aplomb of listening to an after dinner speaker.[9]

The television not only allowed people to hear the President’s voice, but they were able to see him deliver his speech. The level of civic engagement increased.

By 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to increase the size of his audience and deliver his State of the Union address during the evening known as prime time television. President Johnson wanted to engage not only Congress, but the citizens watching from home:

For his appearance last night, the President relied on the invisible prompting devise that he favors. But many times he looked directly at the camera rather than at the members of Congress. This personal touch emphasized that the State of the Union Address is not only a report to Congress but also to the people. [10]

The New York Times reported that by scheduling the speech during prime time—more people would be home from work watching with their children. The overall goal was to double and triple the size of the audience.[11] President Lyndon B. Johnson changed how Presidents delivered their speech. Television made Presidents realize that this was technology could bring politicians closer to their constituents. Just as President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped other Presidents realize the power of radio. Roosevelt’s fireside chats created a more informed and engaged electorate.

It was not until President Reagan who transformed the State of the Union into what it is today—an engaging experience for the people watching from home in their living rooms. President Reagan was the first, “ who signaled the new order in 1982 when he pointed to the gallery to honor Lenny Skutnik, the man who had dived into the icy Potomac to save a woman after a plane crash.”[12] Reagan not only addressed Congress, but also chose to create an emotional experience. Reagan set the precedence for the modern approach of delivering the State of the Union.

Today’s media landscape, a president has to compete with more than two types of media. Martin P. Wattenberg in “The Changing Presidential Media Environment” explains, “In some sense, the presidency is a less powerful position than it used to be as presidents have lost the ability to communicate their messages to a broad cross-section of the American public anytime they see fit.”[13] Wattenberg adds that people used to learn about a president’s message on television or the newspaper.[14] The Internet has brought television, print, and even radio into one place where especially young people may not be seeking out the specifics of the State of the Union Address.

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Today, the White House is creating a more dialogical interactive media atmosphere.  I’ll let Mikhail Bakhtin explain why the White House’s interactive atmosphere is creating a deeper rhetorical dialogue with the American citizen.

 Social Media and Dialogism

Bud Davis (2013) studied Twitter and its intertextuality and polyphonic structure. His article shows how “Twitter embodies an intertextual exchange of messages and opinions by which each tweet is connected with another, whether written in response to an event or another’s post” (18). When the White House created their Twitter account, their voices, and citizens merged into an exchange of messages that create a dialogical interaction that should benefit the political process. This dialogical interaction can be explained by Bakhtin’s term polyphony to explain the dialogue that was present in literary novels, but today we can show how Twitter has created this dialogical interactive world that the White House uses to interact and engage with citizens. Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson explain in their book Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics,

The polyphonic author, in short, necessarily plays two roles in the work: he creates a world in which many disparate points of view enter into dialogue, and, in quite distinct role, he himself participates in that dialogue. He is one of the interlocutors in the “great dialogue” that he himself has created” (239).

The White House is the polyphonic author when they create a dialogical interactive community through social media by creating hashtags, and other interactive measures. The White House is creating a world where different points of view enter into the dialogue and the White House itself participates in the conversation. Through Web sites like Twitter, “Every word in such a dialog speech is directed toward its object, but at the same time reacts intensely to the world of the other person, answering it and anticipating it” (Bakhtin 163). The White House and citizens’ s posts then become a dialogue, which both the White House and citizens anticipate each other’s responses. When U.S. Presidents gave their State of the Union speeches, citizens did not have the ability to share their public opinions in real time or create a dialogue with politicians, or even the White House. Davis explains, “Aides now more than ever must listen to how and what constituents are talking about. This should be a point to be celebrated in the political sphere because it contains the potential for widespread civic engagement and discourse” (21).

Since the White House developed a more social attitude by using social media tools outside the static Web site, the creation of a dialogical interactive world between the White House and citizens create a beneficial dialogical exchange that 20 years ago did not exist while watching the State of the Union. The White House creates this dialogical interactive space to engage citizens, even if they respond positively or negatively. Overall, The White House has created a dialogue to help understand public opinion because “The proper way to understand others is not ‘psychologically’ but dialogically” (Morson and Emerson 1990 267).

President Obama’s last State of the Union address on Tuesday night is definitely when you’ll see The White House’s Office of Digital Strategy at its finest. Engaging in conversation, Engaging in the media platforms, Engaging in creating an experience, Engaging to understand public opinion.

My advice to you as you listen to the speech–Think about what Presidential candidates are saying vs. what the speech is saying. What do you agree with? What don’t you agree with? What do YOU want to see in the next President? Next January a new administration takes over The White House. How do you want the future to look? I just hope innovativeness of the Digital Strategy Office keeps finding new ways to engage and inform citizens to continue this conversation.

 


[1] Richard Teten, “Evolution of the Modern Rhetorical Presidency: Presidential Presentation and Development of the State of the Union Address.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, no. 2 (June 2003): 337.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid

[6] Special to The New York Times. “Article 1—No Title,” The New York Times, December, 7, 1923.

[7] “Tune in the First Radio President,” The Washington Post, June 1, 1924.

[8] Ibid

[9] “Article 2-no Title.,” The Washington Post, January, 7, 1947.

[10] Gould, Jack, “TV:Johnson Talk at Night Welcomed,” New York Times, January 5, 1965.

[11] Ibid

[12] Nunberg, Geoffrey, “Heeeer’s George!; The Speech That Turns Mere Presidents Into Talk Show Hosts,” New York Times, February 2, 2003.

[13] Wattenberg, Martin P, “The Changing Presidential Media Environment,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 34, no. 3 (September 2004): 571.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Diana Owen and Richard Davis, “Presidential Communication in the Internet Era,” Presidential Quarterly 38, no. 4 (December 2008): 659.

[16] Ibid, 665.

[17] Ibid

[18] Ibid, 666.

 

 

 

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The post GOP Debate is somewhat better than the debate itself. As I’ve monitored the Twitter feed for selected candidates–I have found that most candidates are on point with sending clear and consistent messages through Twitter–except for one candidate and that is Donald Trump. He is consistently not telling me about his campaign. I just see hyperboles and anger.

Even in Ancient Greece, Sophists believed language was powerful. George Lakoff explains in his book, The Political Mind,

Language can be used to change minds, which means it can change brains–permanently, for good or ill. It does not merely express emotions, it can change them; not merely arouse or quell them, but change the role of emotion in one’s life and the life of a nation. (p. 231)

The political power of words lies not primarily in their form–that is, in speech–or even in the meanings they are directly linked to, but in the totality of brain circuitry that activation can spread to: the frames, metaphors, prototypes, metonymies, and the entire systems of concepts. Words matter. They shape our politics–and our lives. (p. 241)

An American citizen checking a candidate’s Twitter feed should be able to see information about their campaign and their stance on the important campaign issues. A candidate’s Twitter feed is a quick glance at a candidate’s campaign. Twitter and even Facebook are easily accessible without a laptop or desktop computer. If a candidate is mentioned and a smart phone is nearby, a social media feed may be the candidate’s first impression to the potential supporter.

Aristotle

First, lets address what Aristotle said in his work Politics:

Now, that man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure or pain, and therefore found in other animals (for their nature attains to the perception of pleasure and pain and the intimation of them to one another, and no further), the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and the inexpeident, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the like, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state. (1253.a.1)

Yes, we are political animals and we have been given the gift of speech. As Americans, our voices are louder than ever before thanks to social media. When choosing leaders, speech is important. Language is powerful. How we use language online and offline can show the true character of a person.

Aristotle, in his work, Rhetoric, says there are three modes to persuasion:

The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself…. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able to (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand the emotions– that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited. (1356.a.1)

You will find ethos, pathos, and logos in all of the candidate’s Tweets below. Some you’ll find one more than another.  Either way, when assessing candidates you may want to evaluate by looking at how their campaign is framing each candidate. Twitter is a very good example because it’s text driven by the campaign with no media middleman.

The Tweets

I chose campaign tweets from Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiornia, and Donald Trump. Clinton, Bush and Trump have the highest poll numbers and Carly Fiornia won the Happy Hour debate. Carly also has been one of the most talked about candidates in the news. I wanted to see their tweets after a debate. Did they push harder for Americans to get to know them? Twitter could be a potential supporter’s first impression of a candidate post debate.

Below is the number of tweets since the debate on August 6.   I collected these tweets on August 8 at 2:50 pm.

  • Jeb Bush: 14 Tweets
  • Hillary Clinton: 12 Tweets
  • Carly Fiornia: 19 Tweets
  • Donald Trump: 71 Tweets

Jeb Bush (Career politician, family name produced 2 presidents)

Jeb’s first tweet after the debate is to quote a follower who says she’s voting for Jeb.

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 4.05.39 PM

 

Jeb is shown campaigning in New Hampshire.

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 4.17.12 PM

Responds to an immigration issue.

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 4.18.54 PM

 

And, Jeb called out Donald Trump tapping into the emotions of people who are angry at Trump.


Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 4.23.08 PM

 

The tweet about dealing with Putin reminds me of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign commercial asking who would you want to answer the red phone? Jeb Bush is asking, who do you want dealing with Putin?

<you may have to refresh your browser to see the video below>

 

 

Hillary Clinton (former First Lady, senator and Secretary of State)

Marco Rubio pointed out during the debate that if you looked at the resumes of the candidates, Hillary Clinton would be the most qualified. But, that doesn’t mean a thing in Presidential campaigns. Choosing the best candidate depends on who people have the most confidence in. We all know people can look good on paper. They may even look good on Twitter.

Hillary’s campaign team tweeted during the debate. Even Hillary added a touch of humor to the night:

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 4.35.59 PM

Hillary’s campaign tweeted about immigration:

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 4.44.35 PMThe tweet directs you to Hillary’s Facebook page. 

Then, Hillary’s campaign tweets about American’s first voting experience with a nifty graphic with the hashtag for others to join in on their Tumblr page.

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 4.51.48 PM

 

Go Hillary goes International:

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 4.51.33 PM

 

Hillary’s feed is very citizen focused. She focuses on her supporters and their contribution, whether it’s sharing their story or creating opportunities for Question and Answer sessions. Her campaign also retweets:

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 4.52.00 PM

Her Twitter feed guides you to more information as well as creating quick bites of information in well designed graphics.

Carly Fiorina (Businesswoman turned politician)

Carly is definitely seizing this moment to make a name for herself in this campaign. With a clear win during the Happy Hour debate on August 6, she tweeted her media opportunities for supporters to watch:

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.21.38 PM

 

I also worry when candidates use the word momentum. I’m not a fan of reminding people you’re behind. I would rephrase this tweet to say: “Chip in $3 to support #Carly2016.” Don’t make it a question… make the tweet more motivating without using the words “Can you” chip in $3. I would actually have made it a $1.

Then she adds video clips:

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.29.21 PM

 

In both videos she discusses why she is running and her plans.

Carly talks about reestablishing leadership. Here she is establishing her ethos with people unfamiliar with her:

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.32.27 PM

The links in the tweets leads to a detalied statement on how she plans to reestablish the leadership in America.

Then, Carly tweets about Donald Trump with these two tweets. She tapping into the anger of the crowd who despises Trump’s tweets about Megyn Kelly.

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.32.42 PM

 

Donald Trump (Businessman and celebrity)

Donald had 71 tweets and many of those were retweets.

While the above candidates were moving forward from the debate–Donald Trump kept rehashing and bashing.

As I went through his post debate tweets, all I found were retweets praising him and/or helping him bash FOX News. I will say, I did not learn much about the plan he has for America. I know many Americans find his harsh rhetoric refreshing. I am all for not always being politically correct, but his tweets didn’t lead me to find out much about him, the politician. As I read his tweets I saw a desperate attempt to show the reader he’s popular in the polls, but those were limited. He then bashed people who didn’t agree he won the debate. If people disagreed with him he uses such words as clowns, fools, etc to lash out at critics. Trump is shaking up the GOP party and the overall election with bombastic language. During the debate he was the clear winner because he was able to gain more air time than any other candidate. But, as a rhetorician, I wonder if he can keep his momentum with such language and lack of logos in his arguments.

His first two tweets after the debate shared a quick poll by The Drudge Report and then a picture with his family. 


Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.44.11 PMScreen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.44.22 PM

 

Then a lot of retweets praising Donald Trump.

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.45.11 PM

Trump won’t move forward from the debate, but instead decides to attack Megyn Kelly and Frank Luntz. Yes, he may have been targeted by Fox News, but he also could choose how to react to the situation. He chose to name call and decided to call the focus group a dumb panel. If he listened to the focus group–the focus group said they walked in supporting him, but changed their mind due to his rhetorical choices during the debate. I’ve heard many people voice the same concerns–and they are not a part of focus groups or related to the media.

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.45.50 PM

 

And, when the focus group criticized Donald Trump he decided it was all a lie. Within the tweets below Trump says nothing about his plan for America or talks about campaigning. He does retweet and focuses on ratings and calling people names such as clown and dopey. These are great tweets to gain attention and to spur emotion within Trump’s supporters.

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.47.31 PM

 

Then he decides to discuss how many people believe he won the debate. He also calls people who criticize his name calling as “politically correct” fools, which could alienate some voters if he is serious about campaigning.

 

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 5.47.56 PM

 

Trump taps into the anger of Americans through his post debate tweets to provoke emotional responses from his supporters. Trump understands his audience who seems to be responding to these outbursts. But, can his lack of ethos and lack of logos win Trump the election? Trump earned credibility as a businessman, but he still needs to earn credibility within politics.  I doubt Putin or any other controversial leader will allow anyone to call them dopey, fool or clown.

The other three candidates have chosen to concentrate on the issues. When you visit Jeb’s, Hillary’s, and Carly’s Twitter page you understand their stance on the issues. You also see how they focus on their supporters. Their emotional appeals are not about attacking groups of people, but helping voters understand their stance on the issues. Two of the candidates addressed Trump’s comments on their Twitter feed. I’m not opposed to a strong in your face type of candidate to get things done, but Donald’s rhetorical choices are filled with too strong of pathos.

Aristotle found pathos useful. And as Jay Heinrichs says, ” You can persuade someone logically, but… getting him out of his chair to act on it takes something more combustible.” (Thank you for Arguing, p. 40).

When a citizen examines a candidate’s website, speech, Twitter feed, Facebook feed, etc– citizens should evaluate a candidate using Aristotle’s three qualities of persuasive ethos:

Jay Heinrich’s explains simply that those are:

Virtue–the audience believes you share their values

Practical Wisdom–or street smarts–you appear to know the right thing to do on every occasion.

Selflessness, or disinterest— the audience’s interest seems to be your sole concern.

(Thank you for Arguing, p. 56).

When you evaluate each candidate, you may ask yourself if you see these three qualities in the candidates’s language.

And, as Trump keeps tapping into the anger in America–he’s really tapping into the audience’s–

experience and expectation–what your audience believes has happened, or will take place in the future. The more vividly you give the audience the sensations of an experience, the greater the emotion can arouse…. When you argue emotionally, speak simply. ( Jay Heinrichs, Thank you for Arguing, p. 80 & 82)

Trump does speak simply. He uses the words such as stupid, fool, and clown to describe issues and people. Trump is said to be “stirring the pot” and I believe that is true. He is motivating an audience to act whether it is to tweet support, to spar with him, or to even ban him from events. He is creating a stir. Trump is credited for bringing in 24 million viewers to the first GOP debate, which made it the most watched cable news program ever. Yes, Trump is motivating a crowd. But, how long will it last with no substantive information? How long will his momentum last? How long will citizens support bombastic hyperboles and unapologetic attitude?

The rhetorical choices a candidate makes now can make or break their campaign. I’m not sure the controversy surrounding Trump’s campaign can survive much longer, especially while verbally attacking a woman. Unfortunately, if an audience can stick by a show called Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and make a successful franchise out of Real Housewives then I believe anything is possible for Donald Trump. The in your face, attack and react world is here. The race for the Presidency has changed drastically. People are confusing politics with entertainment. The criteria for choosing a president is not the same as it was 20 years ago. I saw a tweet in passing that said they wished Americans could vote one candidate off the debate stage–such as they do on American Idol or Survivor. One day… one day…

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#GOPDebate: The React and Attack approach in the Social Media Age

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The #GOPDebate had two debates. The “Happy Hour” debate, which consisted of seven candidates with the lowest poll numbers and then the prime-time debate, which consisted of the ten candidates with the highest poll numbers. I missed the first debate, but watching the clips it looks like an interesting twist of events with Carly Fiorina […]

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Technology in The White House: From the Telegraph to Twitter

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When I finished my dissertation in 2010 about the 2008 United States Presidential Campaign, my first chapter traced the history of technology through Presidential Campaigns to show the dialogical interaction between candidate and electorate. But, when new technology becomes popular in a campaign the same technology becomes a significant part of the White House. Today, I feel as […]

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#SocialCivics: A Challenge for the Digital Citizen

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Today, I read an article by the new White House Chief Digital Officer, Jason Goldman (@goldman). His role, he says in his article The Internet, The White House and You (and Me) is,, “to help create more meaningful online engagement between government and American citizens.” Then Goldman asks for the American citizen’s help: Here’s what I would […]

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International Women of Courage Awards: Celebrate Women’s History Month #IWOC

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How do you celebrate Women’s History Month? You attend the International Women’s Courage Award ceremony at The State Department. On March 6, 2015, I attended the International Women of Courage Awards at the U.S. Department of State. The State Department folks were very informative and transparent about their goal to engage citizens in new ways. The […]

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