How Tech Can Help Save Democracy

One of the major lessons from the 2016 election cycle is that a large percentage of Americans feel our government doesn’t serve them, and their voice isn’t being heard.

Most of the solutions that have been offered to address this popular discontent are tactical, focused on winning the next political battle. Yet while these short-term battles are important, to address the magnitude of the problem we face, we also need long-term solutions more profound than better policies, politicians, or parties; we need a better political system.

Technology has been blamed for much of our current political environment — for creating the social and economic disruption that has led to widespread public disaffection, and for spreading fake and partisan news that has exacerbated our divisions. But well-designed technology also offers the best chance of creating the political system needed to respond to these challenges: a more participatory, responsive, and informed democracy. It just hasn’t been built yet.

Over the past decade, Silicon Valley has invested hundreds of billions of dollars designing technology to dramatically improve many industries — from commerce and communications to travel and transportation. Yet less than 0.01% of that has been invested in designing technology to improve democracy.

Of the money invested in politics, much has been dedicated to political advertising. We needed a better democracy, and instead we got better ad targeting.

In the wake of the election, there are important changes that major tech platforms can and will make to mitigate the impact they’ve had on political discourse — in particular through fake news and filter bubbles. But the tech sector shouldn’t be satisfied with reducing harm; we should be ambitiously investing in new tools that address the key requirements for an improved democracy.

Technology is uniquely capable of creating a political system that addresses the public’s growing frustration by satisfying the following three core needs:

  1. Mass Civic Participation: Citizens need effective outlets for expressing their voice on the issues that matter to them more often than every 2–4 years, and at the local as well as the national level.
  2. Responsive Government: Elected officials need to be responsive to citizen concerns and directly engage with them in a way that ensures they feel authentically heard.
  3. Trusted Information: We need a new channel of distribution for political information that elevates trusted sources to guide citizens as they take civic action — a trust graph for politics.

This is the type of political system we’re in the early stages of designing at Change.org. Over the past few years we’ve focused primarily on the first of the objectives above, and have built petitioning tools used by more than 60 million Americans and hundreds of millions of people globally to take action on the issues they care about. We are now expanding and deepening our platform to realize a much bigger vision for how technology can be used to create a better democracy.

What follows is the first public articulation of our vision. We hope it will contribute to a conversation we need to have about the systemic changes required to maintain a functioning democracy in the 21st Century, the work other great civic tech organizations are doing to address this challenge, and the role the broader tech community might play in this effort.

Step 1: Mass Civic Participation

Each election season, billions of dollars and the collective resources of the worlds of politics, entertainment and media are spent on mobilizing people to take a single civic action: to vote. Yet comparatively few resources are dedicated to mobilizing people to take action between elections, often leaving citizens frustrated and disengaged from government and less likely to vote in the future.

The good news is that technology is making it easier for citizens to take civic action beyond elections to advocate for the issues they’re most passionate about, even if our political institutions haven’t established formal pathways to enable this.

The primary way the public participates between elections is through the oldest tool in political organizing: signing petitions to express their support on the issues they care about most. As technology has made starting and spreading petitions easier than ever, they’ve become ubiquitous; on Change.org alone, more than 350,000 petitions have been launched in the US joined by nearly half of the voting public, with more than 7,000 petitions recently launched on a wide range of issues connected to the presidential election.

Petitions are often criticized because of how easy they are to join. But the goal isn’t to make civic participation difficult — it’s to make it accessible.

Petitions also serve as the entry point for deeper civic participation. We are now expanding our toolset to enable organizers of petitions to more effectively mobilize their supporters to take further action — to attend rallies, raise money, engage media, and meet their legislators. Historically, these organizing tools have been only available to a small number of advocacy organizations. Soon, they will be in the hands of everyone, everywhere.

The response we’re seeing isn’t just an increase in organizing on national issues, but also an outpouring of local organizing, where citizens can often have the most impact and where issues are typically much less partisan.

In short, technology provides unprecedented opportunity for increasing the frequency and depth of civic participation. But to make people feel truly heard, citizens need to be able to do more than mobilize; they need a government responsive to their concerns.

Step 2: Responsive Government

We are entering a world in which nearly every person will be empowered, with the click of a button on their smartphone, to have immediate access to transportation, healthcare, education, and commerce from the private market. In this new world, telling citizens that they can only have voice in their government every couple years is recipe for revolution.

Government is the single largest expense for most citizens, and yet is the least responsive institution to their demands. That’s simply not sustainable.

The good news for elected officials is that the same technology that enables citizens to express their voice also enables government to directly communicate with the public on the issues they care about most.

We recently started working with mayors, members of congress, and government ministers from around the world to allow them to respond directly to petitions via text or video, and the results are striking. Citizens who are accustomed to being ignored by government are sometimes so surprised when they sign a petition and receive a direct response from an elected official on their mobile phone that they don’t believe it’s real. But this shouldn’t be surprising or rare; it should be our expectation.

What’s encouraging is that in many cases government is actually doing much more than citizens realize on the issues they care about, and a short video delivered to someone’s smartphone in direct response to their most acute concern can make people feel authentically heard. It’s much more difficult to be angry with government and see it as a distant and faceless bureaucratic institution when you are receiving personal responses on the issues you’re passionate about.

A more responsive government also creates a virtuous cycle of civic participation; the more likely citizens are to get a direct response from government, the more likely they are to participate in civic life, which also increases the electoral incentive for government to respond.

In the short-term, this is an opportunity for elected officials to improve relations with their constituents. But as the responsiveness of elected officials becomes public knowledge it will also become a campaign issue that challengers can use to call out incumbents for being unresponsive to their constituents, making it increasingly important for re-election.

Step 3: Trusted Information

One of the most common critiques of this past election cycle is that many voters were heavily influenced by inaccurate or highly partisan information. While the issue of fake news has received disproportionate attention, the problem of filter bubbles — the phenomena that many people receive most of their political information from a narrow, often quite partisan perspective — is even more widespread. Every company that personalizes content, including Change.org, reinforces filter bubbles. And we all need to do more to address this problem.

In order to create a better democracy, we believe we need to design for a system that exposes people to information from more independent, trustworthy, and diverse sources. To do this, we need a trust graph for politics.

This isn’t something we’ve yet developed, but since we believe it will be a crucial component of any successful democratic system and an important part of our future, I’ll outline our current thinking here.

The foundation of this trust graph for politics is based on asking each citizen to follow the people and organizations whose political perspective they most trust — whether they’re friends, public intellectuals, business leaders, former elected officials, or public interest groups.

We would use this data to create a trust ranking index, similar to Google PageRank. The measure of how trusted a source is would not be based simply on their total number of followers, but on the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, whose trustworthiness would be measured by the number and diversity of other highly trusted people who follow them, and so on. The result would be to surface the people and organizations of all political perspectives who are highly trusted both by the trusted members of that community and by trusted people with different perspectives.

The purpose of this trust index is to surface the perspectives of these sources whenever a citizen is considering taking a civic action — such as signing a petition on an issue they care about. Before any action is taken, we would surface the perspectives of the people each citizen trusts, as well as the perspectives of the most trusted people who share similar and divergent views.

This doesn’t mean people won’t be able to follow others who are passionate and partisan; we don’t want to suppress speech. But we believe it’s important to design a system that advantages independent and moderate voices.

As we build this trust graph it will become powerful not just for informing civic participation between elections, but also during elections. Currently when citizens walk into a ballot box they are presented with a long list of names they barely recognize. This is especially problematic during primary elections and in down-ballot races where citizens often have very little information about the candidates, and most voters simply choose the most recognizable names.

But most citizens are now walking into a polling booth with the most powerful device of information the world has ever seen — their smartphone. With the data we gather about citizens through the civic actions they take between elections, we’ll be able to show them a personalized ballot with endorsements from the people and organizations they most trust, immediately turning them from a low-information voter to a high-information voter by proxy.

Such a system would dramatically shift the incentives of politicians between and during elections. If elected officials knew that the endorsements of the most trusted people will appear on the mobile phones of a significant percentage of their constituents just before they vote, they would have good reason to be responsive to these people during legislative sessions. And during campaigns, candidates would have strong incentive to appeal to the most trusted people, not just the largest political donors.

Making this a reality

What sort of democracy might result from the three pillars above, if well executed?

We’d have a democracy in which citizens are much more actively participating in civic life, guided by more trustworthy information, and engaging a more responsive and accountable government.

Of course, in practice none of this would be perfect. But our criteria for the success of any new approach shouldn’t be perfection; it should be whether it would lead to a more stable and functioning democracy in the rapidly changing world that technology is hurtling us toward. The distant and unresponsive system we have today is at grave risk of leading to chronic dysfunction and a loss in legitimacy, and we believe that the increased citizen participation and responsive government outlined above is, at a minimum, a necessary step toward avoiding a much deeper crisis in our democracy.

Achieving this won’t be easy, but it needs no legislation or formal government policy. What it requires is participation of a large enough size of the voting public to give elected officials the incentive to engage, and a well designed system through which this engagement between citizens and government can occur. That’s what we’re aiming to build.

We are not alone in this effort; there are many other great organizations doing critically important work using technology to address the challenges of democracy. But the civic tech sector has been consistently under-resourced relative to the importance of the problems it addresses, and that needs to change.

The pent-up frustrations that have emerged this past year have shown the consequences of not sufficiently investing in improving our political system. This negatively impacts every one of us — all people of all political perspectives, and every issue and industry. And if we don’t address this directly, we’re going to have even more to be concerned about than specific policies or parties — we’ll need to worry about the sustainability of our democracy.