DATA AND DEMOCRACY

The solution to US politics’ Facebook problem is Facebook

Obsession
Propaganda
Obsession
Propaganda

In just one short decade, Facebook has evolved from a fast-growing platform for sharing classmates’ memories and pet photos to being blamed for Donald Trump’s election victory, promoting hate speech, and accelerating ISIS recruitment. Clearly, Facebook has outgrown its original mission.

It should come as no surprise then that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has in the past few months issued a long manifesto explaining the company’s broader aim to foster global connectivity, given a commencement speech at Harvard focused on the need for people to feel a meaningful “sense of purpose,” as well as more recently changed the company’s mission to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”

In truth, Facebook has been doing this all along. In just a three year period between 2011-2014, the average number of international “friends” Facebook members have (whether from rich or poor countries) doubled and in many cases tripled. There is no denying that without Facebook, people would have much less exposure to people they would never meet, and therefore opportunities to gain wider perspectives (irrespective of whether they confirm or contradict one’s own). Then there are charities and NGOs from UNICEF to Human Rights Watch that raise millions of dollars on Facebook and other online platforms such as Avaaz and Change.org.

Facebook has just crossed two billion monthly users, meaning more people express their views on it each month than will vote in all elections in the world this year. That makes Facebook the largest player in wide array of social media tools that are the epicenter–and the lightening rod–for our conversation about technology and politics. Ironically, though, while so many of these innovations come out of the US, the American approach to using digital technology for better governance is at best pathetic.

The role of data in American politics boils down to either voter targeting or propaganda. Newt Gingrich famously claimed that Obama won the White House because the Democrats “had better data,” but by 2016 it was the Trump campaign’s contract with shadowy UK-based Cambridge Analytica that turned targeted ads (especially on Facebook) in swing states into a science.

But is it Facebook’s fault that swing states have been gerrymandered for decades? Or that as the least urbanized advanced Western society, America is far more susceptible than its wealthy peers to geographic “filter bubbles” that result from isolated communities, high inequality and poor infrastructure? Surely these underlying factors and grievances had more to do with Trump’s victory than “fake news” digital tabloids. It’s easy to blame Facebook when blaming your government doesn’t get you anywhere.

And that’s precisely the problem. Sloppy analysis, a cynical Kommentariat and an un-innovative government have led America down the path of ignoring most of the positive ways digital governance can unfold. Fortunately, there are plenty of lessons from around the world for those who care to look and learn.

Citizen engagement is an obvious start. But this should be more than just live-streamed town halls and Q&As in the run-up to elections. European governments such as the UK use Facebook pages to continuously gather policy proposals on public spending priorities. In Estonia, electronic voting is the norm. In the world’s oldest direct democracy, Switzerland, citizen petitions and initiatives are being digitized for even more transparent and inclusive deliberation. In Australia, the Flux movement is allowing all citizens to cast digital ballots on specific policy issues and submit them straight to parliament. Meanwhile, America has the Koch Brothers and the NRA.

Initiatives like data.gov and a White House Data Corps are a start. They can make government agencies more efficient and use census and other data to pinpoint vulnerable populations in need of greater public investment. But America is a large country, and to get this right, it needs all fifty states and hundreds of municipalities to be wired to collect and share data from the bottom-up, which is where real democracy comes from.

Even governments that are less respected in the West because their regimes do not resemble our own do a better job of harnessing social media. Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, uses Facebook to crowdsource suggestions for infrastructure projects and other ideas from a population that is a whopping 90 percent foreign.

Singapore may be the most sophisticated government in this domain. Though the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) wins every parliamentary election hands-down, more important is the fact that surveys the public ad nauseam on issues of savings and healthcare, transit routes, immigration policy and just about everything else. Singapore is not Switzerland, but it might be the world’s most responsive government.

This is how governments that appear illegitimate according to a narrow reading of Western political theory boast far higher public satisfaction than most all Western governments today. If you don’t understand this, you probably spend too much time in a filter bubble.

The further down this road we go, the more we will have to come to grips with the reality that digital tools are essential to successful real-time governance, and that elections themselves are just one data-point in the broader stream of information that can help governments craft better policy. Indeed, the success of societies on the whole may well be determined far more by which adopts to the latest technologies than by which most resembles 18th century American democracy.

The US should aspire to be a place where democracy and data reinforce rather than contradict each other.

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