Democracy in Jeopardy: Manipulating Feelings

We are doing a 5 part series on how Holochain can save democracy. This is part one.

Of the issues facing democracy, perhaps most notable right now might be the “poison stories” of how information is being used to manipulate our feelings. These stories shape human behavior (including voting) by triggering anger and hatred, for example. Facebook has been found out. They tested whether they can influence your mood via filtering your facebook feed. But that was just the beginning. Then the Verge covered the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Not only is this horrible for actual democracy, this is damaging us as individuals in an experience of everyday life, as if depression wasn’t already at epidemic levels. A link has been established between social media use and teen depression, both of which spiked in the last couple of years.

We, clever humans that we are, worked out that negative content is what humans read, and so we are being fed more and more negative content. The fallout is yet unknown, but so far it has been election processes and who knows how much more is going to be taken down just from how things are today.

Effective Mediums of Communication

Still, for effective democracy, we need the news media, a significant element of the Fourth Estate. It wields an indirect but significant influence on society even if not a formally recognized part of the political system. These mediums of communication must function effectively if people are going to have any chance of steering themselves. Holochain might not only fix what is there, it also adds new capacities that have not been available before.

How did this happen?

What is all this fake news, how does it propagate, and what can be done? Citizens are only able to vote their interest if they have information that enables them to do so. Where do they get information? There used to be giant arbiters of truth, like the NYTimes. In the United States, information was broadcast through tv, radio, and newspapers owned and operated by the elite.

We celebrated the revolution that came about with the internet for enabling us each to be a source of news and a spreader of news. However, news produced by millions of people is way too much for anyone to surf, so mechanisms evolved that started to filter that fire hose on our behalf. Maybe we had some rudimentary tools — like number of followers — to help indicate how trustworthy (or funny or valuable in some way) a person’s feed was. Then that was gamed too. Eventually places such as facebook started filtering a lot more for us and running experiments to see if the filtering was working. Did we engage more on content that provoked anger or happiness, etc. Triggering the human limbic system (emotional centers in the brain) is an effective marketing tool and getting people to keep playing the game is what any reasonable platform needs to do to keep advertising dollars flowing in. How are we even surprised this was the result.

How can we solve this?

As long as these platforms have to generate significant revenue to maintain or grow themselves, they will reasonably use every available and creative option to trigger human engagement. And we can’t change how humans are wired with any degree of speed or accuracy (and would we want to — it sounds like a recipe for cascading unintended side effects). What we can change is the business models those platforms are based on. Since Holochain is run by a community, there isn’t a requirement for a business model to support the heavy costs of servers. We can do things differently and magnify different signals.

  1. Holochain can save democracy by encouraging organization models that don’t depend on the outcome of a manipulation. So, we can build social applications that do not manipulate our limbic systems (feelings) merely to keep us playing the game. And it can do so because the business model doesn’t depend on the outcome of that manipulation. The servers are held by each of us, not a large company swayed by profit motives. Win for us as humans.
  2. Holochain can help enable payment direct to journalists. Journalism is learning that people will pay for quality information. Enabling micropayment for quality journalism can also support solid more rigorous journalism. Holo tests micropayments, showing how they can be run on holochain. Holo hosting is paid with micro payments using double entry cryptoaccounting, so the cost of doing the transaction is small enough to not exceed the transaction itself. An application on Holochain could use similar mechanisms to allow thousands of people to contribute to affordable payment for good journalism by the article and sans advertising. Win for journalists and readers.
  3. Holochain can offer the infrastructure for Vendor Relationship Management. With VRM we can get rid of every day annoying car ads, and yet welcome real offers when we make known our intent to buy a car. When you want to buy something, you can express your intention and companies can make offers to you based on your interest instead of trying to capture your attention when it is elsewhere. Companies can better tune to their audience through an intention marketplace. And they can have more clarity on the marketing spend to already interested buyers. Holochain can increase efficiency in marketing and sales. Win for business and consumers.

There are many ways Holochain can unleash the tools and processes for a better democracy. One of the most important ways is by cutting off the mechanisms for poison stories, so that the information flow can enable a more reasonable (and less limbically driven) democracy.