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Can tech save democracy? part III

What can big tech do to improve civil discourse?


As I described in a previous Insights article, our brains are hard-wired for stories. In fact, we derive our sense of meaning and purpose from key stories we learn from childhood through senescence. By comparison, numbers and factual accuracy often elude us. For this reason, many fail to cultivate a capacity for discerning truth from fiction in stories we hear about social and political reality.

To summarize the first two installments of this article—social media platforms like Facebook are complicit in passively distributing fake and misleading news stories. Why? Their algorithms are based on frequency and length of views, which, in turn, drive profits. This is bad for democracy, which requires that electorates be informed with accurate news. It’s now all too easy for hostile players to deceive the public, e.g., Russia’s leadership, who according to the CIA, was behind a calculated effort to sway our November election. (The FBI, as you may have heard, is less convinced this was the case). Regardless, it’s a sure bet that hostile governments such as Russia and countless other bad actors will succeed in executing similar actions in the future.

Additional challenges

  • ‘Micro-targeting’ has been used in recent political campaigns to target individuals whose social media footprints reveal their relative likelihood of voting for one candidate over another. Because micro-targeting algorithms are easy to conceal, there’s virtually no accountability for political campaigns that chose, e.g., to use disinformation to suppress the vote among demographic groups most likely to vote for the opposition’s candidate.
  • Even the most reputable news providers, e.g., the Washington Post, the New York Times, rely on Facebook for clicks and forwards for revenue from advertisers. Unfortunately, articles that readers select aren’t necessarily those of the highest journalistic quality.

Some possible remedies

Silicon Valley has profitably invested billions of dollars designing technology that has improved everything from product/service innovation to customer delivery. Less than .01% of that has been invested in improving democracy. Unfortunately, government at all levels continues to be under-resourced for reaching out to citizens to hear their questions, concerns and assess their genuine needs. This deficit has helped fuel the anger and frustration of many who tipped the scales of the U.S. November election. When government invests in more communication venues with the public, it’s a win-win situation. By comparison, billions of dollars have been spent on highly partisan advertising, which has only resulted in more political deadlock.

Two additional strategies

  • Mobilize People between Elections –Technology is already making it easier for people to engage in civic discourse, to engage in political causes between elections. The more engaged people are, the more likely they are to vote in future elections. Fortunately, organizations now have greater access to online tools to mobilize people in support of causes at the local level. Expect to see more of this kind of outreach in the near future.

    I used to click away from signing e-petitions in support of different issues, but recent research shows it’s more effective in swaying the positions of elected representatives than you might imagine. The downside, of course, is being hit with additional email after you submit.

  • Develop an Online Trust-Based Index for Political News—One exciting proposal for reducing the impact of fake news and disinformation is to develop an online trust index based on the most trustworthy, non-partisan sources of information. It would be similar to Google PageRank, in this case using algorithms that factor in the number and diversity of highly trusted individuals endorsing specific news stories and media sources.

    Such an index would be an invaluable smartphone tool that could help voters access accurate and respected sources of information on specific ballot measures and candidates as they vote. Moreover, if candidates knew that the endorsements of trusted people/sources would be calibrated on their constituents’ computers and smartphones both before and as they vote, they’d have much more incentive to be more responsive to their constituents’ best interests as opposed to those of their biggest donors.

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