Can tech save democracy?

Tech & Democracy: Three major global shifts


In Thomas Friedman’s new book, “Thank You for Being Late,” the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner provides a compelling overview of three major ‘accelerators’ that are converging to shape our new century:

  • Moore’s Law– i.e., the exponential growth in computing power that reached ‘an inflection point’ in 2007 with the release of the iPhone, advances in silicon chips, networking and other digital breakthroughs;
  • The Globalization of Markets– its benefits and downsides, including triggering major political discontent in the West and elsewhere;
  • Climate Change and Loss of Biodiversity– adverse environmental changes driving emigration from many failed state regions of the world to Europe and the U.S. –For example, a significantly hotter climate in Central African countries is making them increasingly uninhabitable and ungovernable, driving emigrants to seek refuge in Europe. Also, many political analysts have overlooked the pivotal economic role that drought played in driving the Syrian civil war and the mass exodus of people from that and neighboring countries.

Friedman does an outstanding job of describing the synergistic effects of these ‘Global change tsunamis‘ on the workplace, politics, geopolitics, ethics, and community. While he remains an optimist, he sees a growing need for people in the U.S. and around the world to nurture healthy local communities to tackle problems locally that Big Government has been unable to resolve.

He also believes that the old right-left political divide no longer makes sense and that without a major realignment of political forces electorates around the world will increasingly turn to authoritarian leaders. –The results of Italy’s December referendum and the U.S. November election are cases in point. Reinforcing that concern, international political surveys show that from Australia to the U.S., support for democracy has slipped to record lows (below 50% in most countries).

Friedman hopes that in time new political parties will emerge in the Developed World that combine the left’s push towards a bigger, more effective safety net for the disabled and otherwise disadvantaged with a more conservative, hands-off entrepreneurial agenda for government and the private sector. Of course, even if this eventually proves to be a viable political platform, it would be a hard sell as things are now.

Finally, IF the U.S. and Europe swing to the right, in alignment with Russia, Friedman believes the big winner would be China’s model of autocratic rule fused with their brand of capitalism. China, he believes, would rapidly fill the power vacuum resulting from a disunited West and Western-aligned East Asia.

Next, I’ll provide an overview of strategies for reducing fake news and the impact of social media echo chambers as well as what we can do collectively to make democracy more resilient.

Why social media fail to censor fake and misleading news

So far, I gave you a quick overview of Thomas Friedman’s new book, “Thank You for Being Late.” He makes a compelling case that Moore’s Law (rapid advances in digital power), the Globalization of Markets and Climate Change are converging to create a tsunami of radical change throughout the world.

In this installment, I focus on how social media algorithms, carefully developed to capture the widest possible audience, have opened a gigantic back door to fake news as well as factually misleading accounts of current events that can heavily influence election outcomes.

Will Facebook follow through on its promise to promote objective news?

For a democracy to function, it needs an informed electorate. If people don’t get an objective understanding of a candidate’s record and policies, they can easily be manipulated into voting for him or her and–against their best interests. Unfortunately, social media platforms like Facebook (FB) have become echo chambers, reinforcing the ‘confirmation biases’ people quickly develop about politicians, political parties, and breaking events.

Sources of social media disinformation are by no means limited to radical sources like the alt-right. For example, Jestin Coler, aka Allen Montgomery, heads up Disinfomedia, an organization with 25 domains that are a primary source of fake news in the media. Ironically, he is a liberal who began his work to expose the alt right but ended up spearheading many of the bogus anti-Hillary stories before the election. Why? It’s been an easy way for him to make a living.

Then, there’s FB CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who in his personal life is politically progressive, but nonetheless, heads up the single biggest source of echo chamber news for people in the U.S. –The impact of FB is huge. The average American spends almost an hour a day on FB, with 60% of them relying on FB for political news. Research demonstrates that uneducated and young people are especially bad at distinguishing real from fake news sources. For these people, in particular, a linked article on FB to the Washington Post has no more weight than a fake news item.

Social media algorithms are designed to maximize profits, not civil discourse

FB and Google have received a lot of heat in recent weeks for letting fake news slip into their feed during the past election cycle. As a result, it appears FB is taking stronger measures to vet their content for truthfulness and to hold its advertisers to better standards.

In a response several weeks ago, FB CEO Zuckerberg recently stated–“We have always taken this seriously, we understand how important the issue is for our community and we are committed to getting this right,”

Though it’s too early to know how effective his organization’s remedies will be, FB, like Google and other social media platforms, rely heavily on Big Data-derived data to maximize views, clicks and likes to attract advertisers and satisfy their stakeholders. Bottom line–this means that ‘bad actors’ will still be able to influence what readers see. –Unfortunately, news media like CNN, Fox, and MSNBC pursue profits via ratings. So, they are driven by the same dynamic.

Next, I’ll give you an introduction to strategies that we can apply individually and collectively to counter fake and inaccurate news and improve the level of civil discourse.

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.