Democracy may be dead. Either that, or it’s never been better. It all depends on your perspective. No matter how you slice it, though, democracy is definitely changing in the face of new technology. We’ve seen the good, the bad, several instances of the hideously ugly, and if we reach back a few years further we can find even more examples of technology having a massive impact on our democracy.
What you’re reading started as a listicle of such examples, but the more I read the less I could choose between independent occurrences of democracy running up against—or alongside—democracy. This is “Big Picture” stuff, and it’s rare for such phenomenon or interaction to be painted wholly good or wholly bad.
Simultaneously giving the masses a voice and robbing them of their minds, social media has probably had the most outsized effect on modern democracy. A majority of adults in the US now get at least some of their news from social media, and we can expect the percentage to keep growing as the population ages. And of course, social media has an influence on other media, with stories that go viral on Facebook and Reddit frequently finding their way onto cable and local TV news (also popular news sources for many adults).
Participation in a democracy hinges on being informed. If you want your vote to change things for the better, you have to know at least three things. You have to know how things are, you have to know how you want them to be, and you have to know which laws and/or candidates are most likely to bring that change about. It’s long been the news media’s job to ensure the electorate is properly informed—it’s the key reason freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment—but social media might not be up to the task.
I could fill a book with ways social media has influenced our democracy. Brian D. Loader already did and there are probably more. Because of social media’s low barriers to entry (it’s virtually free to post on social media, and it requires no special knowledge) it makes for a shitty news source. Anyone can post anything they want and can make it virtually indistinguishable from actual, verified news from reliable sources. We believe the stories we want to believe without checking the facts, and we vote (or stay home) accordingly.
The social media echo chambers built around our “Likes” and “Favorites” exacerbate the problem, especially in light of these three charts from the recent Pew study on social media news consumption.
60% of American get at least some of their news on social media. Of those, 64% only get their news from one social media site, and only 10% get news from three or more sites.
And the most popular site is Facebook, which is one of the least differentiating platforms available—a post from your 11-year-old anarchist nephew looks the same as a post from a pillar of the community like your parole officer or the prosecutor you’re secretly stalking from an alt account. Because most of us never read the stories behind the headlines we share, it’s easy for ludicrous and sometimes purposefully satirical news to become gospel spread by otherwise reasonable adults. Then, otherwise reasonable adults start believing ludicrous things, and suddenly truth becomes subjective. That’s how we got things like Russian “bloggers” making up stories to influence the US elections, all of the crappy memes put out by Occupy Democrats, and the flood of inaccuracy, twisted statistics, and outright lies flooding in from across the political spectrum.
Social media has it’s pro-democracy uses, too, of course. Activism and awareness built up by social media was instrumental in halting progress on the Dakota Access Pipeline this winter, though the victory is by no means permanent. Eric Schmidt credits social media and the Internet generally with saving lives while fomenting change in the recent Ukrainian quasi-revolution…which has largely been a mixed bag for most Ukrainians. The same can be said for the many revolution-cum-coups that made up the Arab Spring.
Like any great tragic flaw, the egalitarian reach that empowers social media also weaponizes it. In the US, it appears to be doing more harm than help.
The same can be said of Big Data. While it can give policy makers keener, deeper, and more useful insights into the populations they serve, it can also give politicians new ways to parse demographics and manipulate individuals with targeted messaging and selective action. Big Data can give activists better ways to reach out and organize protests and events, and can also give police insights into more effectively suppressing those protests and events.
The more we know about ourselves and each other, the more we can act communally, in theory. The more the government knows about us, the more they can act to control us, and that isn’t just theory. It’s been proved repeatedly; we know the NSA was monitoring our emails and phone calls (and I for one have difficulty believing they shut everything down after they got caught—how the hell would we know if they were still doing it, when it took years for a disgruntled Snowden to commit high treason and tell us about it in the first place?). Predictive policing is already getting a test run. If the voter ID laws of the last several years were able to target minorities without the help of Big Data, then imagine the new ways groups can be targeted once all that information is run through cutting-edge statistical analysis.
We won’t need the concept of thoughtcrime. Big Brother will be able to predict your rebellious thoughts based on the car you own and arrest you with the statistical certainty that you were going to step out of line.
There are some folks trying to put Big Data to use for the power of good, and we’ll be looking at some such folks in just a bit. But, even when handled with the best of intentions, Big Data is ultimately all about manipulation. The idea that you can sway opinion and perception by pulling on the right levers is contrary to the preservation of individual self-determination central to our democracy. So I remain more than a little wary of Big Data’s presence in our democracy.
Digital Voting Machines
The pros of digital voting machines are short and simple. They make elections cheaper, in the long-run, than physical ballots. They provide faster, and–barring any interference–more accurate results than machine- or hand-counting paper ballots. They also make voting easier and clearer for voters, too.
The cons are even shorter and simpler. Digital voting machines are as lot easier to fuck with than paper ballot boxes, given optimal conditions for each. And if they’re fucked with properly, you’ll never know what the real vote count was.
Accusations that each major party was going to rig/definitely rigged voting machines in some district(s) or other have been flying around for a year or more, without any hard evidence that any such hacking took place (see: Social Media). It’s been a possibility since digital voting machines came on the scene, though, with lawyer and computer programmer Clint Curtis testifying in court that he was asked to design a program to manipulate votes (he later ran for Congress against the guy who allegedly asked for the code…and lost).
With paper ballots, there’s a physical voting record. Stuffing ballot boxes or throwing away ballots creates physical evidence, and it requires multiple people to be in one the secret and to lend a physical hand in carrying out the plan. With digital machines, one person with enough skill—or an anonymous cabal of two or three—can achieve the same end, all but invisibly. If any recent election outcome were altered through hacking, we’ll probably never find out about it. Or it will be decades down the line when we know longer care. But we already know that hacks have been made and questionable votes have been tossed, so to assume no one’s ever gotten away with it seems sadly naive.
Meanwhile, digital’s promise of making voting cheaper and easier doesn’t seem to have come to fruition. Long wait times for voting were reported at polling places across the country in the recent election, though most states now use digital voting machines at least partially if not exclusively.
The idea that who you vote for doesn’t matter has been around for ages and was certainly a theme in the recent presidential election. Digital voting machines might make the sentiment true. Your vote really won’t matter if someone else can change or override it. And you’ll never know if they do.
We can put this in a similar camp to Big Data, in that the increased capability for government surveillance has some potential positives that are drastically outweighed by its many actualized negatives. Surveillance and Big Data are really two sides of the same coin; Big Data feeds on the information provided by surveillance work, and surveillance subjects can be selected for scrutiny through Big Data analysis. Whether it’s the NSA spying on our phone calls of the UK government recording all of its citizens’ browsing history, our lives are an open book to the government.
Surveillance does not, in and of itself, impact democracy. But the paranoia created by surveillance can limit our desire to seek out information on controversial topics. It can change our behaviors and our perceptions by limiting what we are willing to expose ourselves to. More importantly, surveillance is only conducted when the observer plans on acting on the information they gather—governments don’t watch us just because they’re curious. They watch so they can act, and lest anyone accuse me of being a crazy conspiracy theorist let’s recall some of the known instances of government overreach in surveillance and action. Hoover’s secret FBI files and entrapment tactics. McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Everything Putin has ever done.
You might say that anyone doing nothing wrong has nothing to hide. I say they’ll find something they don’t like about you if they want to. And it’s none of their god-damn business in the first place. And also God bless America, just in case they’re reading.
Enough nay-saying about the government. Everyone in government is a great person, after all, and as someone who contributes regularly to both major parties and leads a life so insignificant he’s not worth sending so much as a drone for I say let them do what they’re going to do. The less I know the better, right guys? Ha ha… ha. Let’s look to some companies who are trying to enhance democracy through technology.
The first is Groundwork, a startup backed by Eric Schmidt among others. It promises to get you better results in your donation campaigns, better turnouts at your events, and better building of your political base, no matter what your cause, all by using the power of Big Data (or at least, modern data analysis—you need to feed it enough data to count as Big if you want Big Data results). Connect all of your outreach platforms to your Groundwork account, and the records and analyzes all the data it can about people interacting with your campaign.
It’s Google Analytics on steroids and built for political purposes, in other words. Given its backing, it’s probably worthwhile for larger issues-based campaigns and individual politicians. The concept is hardly revolutionary, though; it’s the magnitude of the data and resulting precision of the analysis that might make this a game changer. It’s just Big Data in the hands of activists, or in the hands of established politicians, or in the hands of…anyone who can pay for it (it’s free for under 10,000 API calls, but that ain’t much of a campaign).
Useful for grassroots organizing and thus a boon to democracy? Sure. Even more useful to those with deeper pockets? Unquestionably. So hardly likely to move the needle on our current democratic imbalances.
Australian-based Flux is another story. Using the same blockchain concept that serves as Bitcoin’s backbone (which I still don’t understand), Flux is an app and political party (yes, there’s now an app for that) trying to put direct democracy to work in a country with millions of voters.
Flux is running 13 candidates for seats in Australia’s parliament in this coming July’s federal elections. Elected representatives will serve as proxies, and will vote on issues based on popular votes made by Flux members through the Flux app—if Flux users log more nos than yeses for a particular vote, the Flux representatives will vote nay in Parliament, and vice versa. Moreover, Flux voters can trade their votes on one issue for an extra vote on another. If you have a strong interest in sheep farm fencing regulations but don’t give a barbied shrimp about the coral reef, you can give away your vote on the marine environment bill and pick up an extra for that barbed wire standardization initiative.
This is, to my knowledge, the first experiment of its kind, let alone in a government the size of Australia’s. It’s also one of the most innovative marriages between technology and democracy we have yet to witness and can give power to the people in a profound new way. Which may not be a good thing, given the news people get from social media and their ability to be manipulated by Big Data. And the fact that most people are idiots (except SnapMunk readers, of course).
Regardless, I’ll be watching Flux with keen interest. The election results could lead to an interesting few years for Australia. Assuming the results aren’t hacked. Either way, I’ll be bringing you an update in July. If I disappear or die in a freak accident before then, just think of me every time you vote.
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