Digital Democracy and You (Part Two)

As the dust settles after one of the most controversial and contested U.S. presidential elections in history, unprecedented attention is being paid to the adverse influence of emerging technologies on American democracy. Critics argue that echo chambers lock opinion in rather than expand our horizons, and amplify bad behavior, making civic engagement a race to the bottom. While some have disputed this reasoning, others have set up considerable monetary prizes to investigate it, while others extend the logic further and point towards the tech industry’s disruptive effect on the economy. In response, tech employees have formed secret task forces to combat the fake news epidemic, and quit high-paying jobs to enlist in the effort to tackle these challenges.

So, our focus for this issue is to help readers grapple with these challenges and identify the opportunities, in addition to the liabilities, presented by technology for democratic participation in the internet age. Part two of this two-part issue, will feature interviews with David Ernst, Tiana Epps-Johnson, Walter Quattrociocchi and Alice Siu about their work building digital tools to empower governments and citizens to help form a more perfect union.

We hope you enjoy this issue of Inclusion.Tech, and look forward to your ideas and feedback, growing our community, and together making the world a better place.

Best,

Savannah Kunovsky, & Claire Hsu

Retooling Democracy

In this article, we connected with Tiana Epps-Johnson (The Center for Technology & Civic Life), David Ernst (Liquid.Vote), Walter Quattrociocchi (IMT School of Advanced Studies Lucca) and Alice Siu (Stanford University/Reframe It) who talked about their work using cutting edge technology to revitalize the democratic process.

IT: What is the role of civil society and tech companies in promoting inclusion and diversity, and especially through civic engagement?

Tiana: Meeting people where they are with key information they need to be engaged is important, with the goal of promoting civic engagement broadly. Information like how to register to vote, or what will be on your ballot, or how to contact your elected officials, for example. This cycle is interesting as lots of folks in the tech and corporate worlds are moving away from hesitance and towards promoting civic engagement broadly, such as with Facebook’s presenting fact-based non-partisan information in its news feeds, and Google continuing to make similar info available through search and other tools, and the Turbovote Challenge, where they built partnerships with Starbucks and tons of other corporate companies that were previously less interested in getting engaged, but are now actively informing their users and employees on how to take a more active role in civics.

“This cycle is interesting as lots of folks in the tech and corporate worlds are moving away from hesitance and towards promoting civic engagement broadly”

David: I grew up talking about politics around the dinner table. My parents were always involved, on the local level, and volunteering in some of the elections. I’ve always been fascinated by it, spend way too much time reading political news, and studied subjects in school like political science, history, political philosophy, and social theory.

So what’s the problem now? Let’s start with the fact that when Americans are asked “Do you approve of the job Congress is doing?”, nearly 9 out of 10 people say no (Gallup Congressional Approval Rating). That’s really bad! We’ve had terrible gridlock, inaction on pressing issues, even the federal government temporarily shutting down because of political power games. So much of the rhetoric is us-versus-them, fear mongering to protect and maintain power.

On top of that, many many people are skeptical that their voices matter to the powers that be. This anti-establishment mood exists on both sides of the political aisle: examples are Bernie and Occupy Wall Street on the left, and Trump and the Tea Party on the right. It’s sad to say, but our current institutions don’t seem to be working all that well for a lot of people.

Walter: Arguments against tech companies and newsfeed algorithms which promote the polarization process, are not helpful, as these algorithms are just imitating what we do. And although Facebook is not just another tech actor given its powerful instruments to form/discuss opinion and influence over the echo chamber structure, it simply can’t tackle this issue alone and new partnerships amongst various actors and sectors, are required to effectively respond to this behavior. In recognition of this, we have set up the Pandoors project, where the aim is to create synergies between journalists, scientists, and healthcare workers, and with this observatory, we use data science tools to track what is happening on social media. What are the narratives? Competing? Dominant? Although the project is just getting started, we’re really encouraged by the enthusiastic response it has already received from colleagues at the World Economic Forum, EPFL, etc.

“Instead of fact-checking, we need to teach people to deal with complexity. While a large amount of information is true or false, a huge domain of phenomena exists in which we cannot say what is true of false, and which is beyond falsifiability.”

And as for fighting the misinformation problem, fact-checking is the most stupid thing I’ve ever heard. If you’re looking for information related to your narrative, you don’t look to see if it’s true or not. In fact, our findings suggest that only one percent of echo chamber populations actually engage with dissenting information, and that this interaction had the counterproductive result of further entrenching them in their preexisting beliefs, making them more extreme than before and actually worsening the polarization problem. Instead of fact-checking, we need to teach people to deal with complexity. While a large amount of information is true or false, a huge domain of phenomena exists in which we cannot say what is true of false, and which is beyond falsifiability. Needless to say, there is much we need to learn in order to engage in complex thinking, and that calls for synergy over censorship. No one is listening anymore, we are just listening to the echoes of our own voices, and we must build bridges to other echo chambers, to the voices of others. As for those, such as Brendan Nyhan, who question the idea of the post-truth society and who promote really good fact checking as a potential solution because of some limited success with this approach, this is yet another instance of confirmation bias by the Elite, as their world is crashing down around them. In a way, it is very romantic.

“The skills of deliberation, the act of weighing competing arguments, etc. are things that we all need to consciously teach ourselves as we frankly don’t do them on a normal basis and we don’t get to practice them very much.”

Alice: The point of view of our research center as a civil society actor, informs our commitment to engaging the public and promoting civic participation, which can be tough because, let’s face it, people are busy! And given the vast number of things competing for our attention these days, making the effort to be engaged, be it by reading the news, attending town halls, or voting, is a very deliberate choice to sacrifice time that would have been spent on other things we may want or have to do. In our work with tech companies in the past, it’s exactly this kind of intentional and deliberate mindset that we’ve tried to promote and support when clients ask for our help promoting civic engagement amongst their workforce. The skills of deliberation, the act of weighing competing arguments, etc., are things that we all need to consciously teach ourselves as we frankly don’t do them on a normal basis and we don’t get to practice them very much.

As for civil society’s role promoting civic engagement, if all the different actors help to engage in deliberation, that would be a wonderful thing for society as a whole. Civil society groups work with people on a day-to-day basis and we engage them on a scientific basis, by using a random representation of the population. It’s really important to have diversity in representation, but this can take lots of time, there’s therefore a considerable risk of engaging in self-selection bias, and of engaging people who are already very interested in the topic. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you may leave out folks who are interested but who may need a little push to be involved, and all actors need to think more carefully about that.

“The media has talked about folks feeling that their needs are not addressed, and this indicates that more effort needs to be made to accurately represent the voices of all groups.”

The media has talked about folks feeling that their needs are not addressed, and this indicates that more effort needs to be made to accurately represent the voices of all groups. Each of the actors has a role, and their approach to engaging people should be carefully considered, both in terms of who they are engaging and the types of questions they’re trying to answer or problems they’re trying to solve, as their efforts, ineffectively executed could actually counteract their good intentions.

IT: Speaking of which, can you talk a little bit about your work revitalizing democracy with modern technology?

Tiana: At CTCL, we help local government use tech to modernize the way they engage with the public , and are currently focusing on modernizing the voting process. We do this by providing training and free/low-cost tools that local election officials can use to update how they engage their communities and improve how elections are run. For example, our Election Toolkit contains a dozen tools that help election official incorporate data, social media, and good design into how they make decisions and engage the public.

In addition, we publish free open-source data sets that help answer the most common questions asked by voters, 1.) what’s on my ballot? and 2.) “who are my elected officials?”. This data has been used by Google and Facebook, and helped power a variety of other tools at the state and local level targeted at explaining how to engage in the electoral process.

As for addressing situations in which people are turned away from polls due to long lines or confusion over voting procedures, in our Election Toolkit, we provide training on a number of tools election officials can use to guide resource allocation decisions to minimize long lines. For example, the Polling Place Resource Planner is a tool that allows users to run a simulation to help you predict how busy polling places will be. Folks can use known or estimated data — like how many voters will use the polling place and how many check-in stations there will be — to calculate how long it will take for voters to check in and to cast their ballots.

And in regards to the issue of incorrectly asking for ID, one area in election administration where there is a ton of room for improvement is training the volunteer poll workers who are responsible for things like asking (or not asking) for ID. We hope to add guides on effective poll worker training to our curriculum in the coming years.

David: Liquid Democracy is an experiment in a different way of doing politics. This project is especially thanks to the dedication and encouragement of two great friends: Jared Scheib and Rohan Dixit. The three of us have worked together these last 6 months to put our technical skills to use for the health of our democracy, and this is where we’re the most excited.

We want much more inclusion and participation, while still keeping the process practical enough for the everyday, busy person. Liquid Democracy rethinks the legislative process, aiming to make it both authentically representative and practical. A blending of the best parts of Representative and Direct systems.

Instead of holding really nasty, winner take all elections, each citizen can use an app to choose a *personal* proxy, called a delegate, to vote for them on daily legislation. You could imagine picking a name, like sending someone money on Venmo, which gives them two votes for & against individual bills. This means you can be represented by people you actually know and trust, instead of someone you were introduced to from yard signs and 30 second TV ads.

It’s important to point out this is a personal delegate, not a winner-take-all “let’s pick one representative for a million of us” decision, like we do right now for Congress. There’s a strong case to be made that winner-take-all plurality elections always lead to just two dominant polarized parties. So instead, in Liquid Democracy, you’re only represented by someone you picked, who you can change at any time, introducing real accountability.

“Never again would our best option be to just “write letters to our congressperson”, which feels like something out of a feudal system! We shouldn’t have to beg to take our feelings into account. We can speak for ourselves.”

And more than that, a Liquid Democracy offers each person the ability to vote directly on any legislation, overriding their delegate’s vote. So you get the best of both worlds: someone else handling the busywork of understanding policy to represent you in most cases, and the opportunity to vote and speak for yourself on the issues you really care about. Never again would our best option be to just “write letters to our congressperson”, which feels like something out of a feudal system! We shouldn’t have to beg to take our feelings into account. We can speak for ourselves.

In a Liquid Democracy, each delegate is just another citizen with their own delegate, ad infinitum, which means even if your personal choice of representative never votes, maybe their delegate did, or theirs, all the way up the inheritance chain. This means that each person can vote on bills where they feel informed, and leave the rest up to their personal network of trust.

The whole process is meant to be just as easy if not easier, and more authentic than our current way of doing things. It should strictly win out by every consideration. In the long-term, this could replace legislative bodies like City Councils, State Senates, and U.S. Congress, but it doesn’t directly change the executive or judicial branches of government.

“Imagine we didn’t have just a few powerful positions as our only full-time lawmakers: right now concentrated at 535 federal legislators for 320,000,000 Americans, or 00.00017%. More than half of them are millionaires, 80% are white, 80% male, and we’re surprised the rest of America is upset that the establishment isn’t representing them very well?”

Imagine we didn’t have just a few powerful positions as our only full-time lawmakers: right now concentrated at 535 federal legislators for 320,000,000 Americans, or 00.00017%. More than half of them are millionaires, 80% are white, 80% male, and we’re surprised the rest of America is upset that the establishment isn’t representing them very well?

At this stage, most people ask: “Okay, let’s say I agree this sounds good but how do we actually do it? If you want to get a constitutional amendment passed, that will take 100 years.” Agreed. Instead, we can work within the existing system and elect new Liquid Democracy Candidates into office. Their one job would be to represent the network by voting on each bill how their district’s Liquid Democracy votes. If more than half of the people vote for a law, the Liquid Democracy Candidate votes for it in the legislature. If more than half vote against, the candidate votes against. This means a single district can upgrade to Liquid Democracy, instead of changing the system top-down all at once.

“we can start to show how representative current politicians truly are, with something like an ‘authenticity-meter’. Each of the candidates say ‘vote for me because I really listen to the people’. Now we can compare real data to test that.”

Even sooner, we can start to show how representative current politicians truly are, with something like an “authenticity-meter”. Each of the candidates say “vote for me because I really listen to the people”. Now we can compare real data to test that. You could imagine going to a page about your local Senator, and seeing that they actually vote against the majority of their district, 35% of the time. This gives us a simple way to guide the existing politicians into actually representing their constituents better. And it helps to highlight the areas where there’s a large discrepancy between what the people want and what the politicians vote for, which hopefully sparks some much needed conversation.

On a large scale, Liquid Democracy isn’t really possible without digital technologies. As a start, viewing and voting on weekly legislation requires an internet connection, anything else would be way too expensive.

There are some very interesting engineering problems going on behind the scenes. Building the delegation network-of-trust requires recursively traversing a linked list. Then we need a cycle-detection algorithm to avoid endless loops. And counting the votes in a trustworthy way involves something called “end-to-end verification”, so that each voter can audit that their vote was entered correctly while still protecting their privacy, which we’ve developed ourselves using some clever cryptography.

On a more meta level, a huge inspiration for this project is the open-source world. How cool is it that so many incredible initiatives come from collaboration among regular people with time to help out? Anyone is allowed to get involved and publicly contribute. What sort of world might we find ourselves in if public service worked the same way?

Walter: We conduct experiments in which we exploit social media so that we can actually analyze the consumption pattern related to different kinds of narratives, namely scientific and conspiratorial, and look at how users jump on that narrative and then more often than not, get stuck on one of them. This then leads to polarization, as people tend to engage with a narrative and remain there, and by interacting with these pages end up finding like-minded people. This approach has enabled us to provide the first empirical evidence of echo chambers as a result of the interaction of the users, and measuring out those polarized users and their interaction with debunking and dissenting information.

“we interpret things how we want to, which is not a problem of social media, the scale is perhaps a side effect, but confirmation bias is an inherently human problem.”

What we found is that conspiracy proponents, like in the case of the chem-trails conspiracy theory, select several, specific bits of information that are consistent with their beliefs and generally ignore whatever else is presented to them. This kind of pattern bars diffusion within the new post-truth society, and information is valued by how we can fit it into our narrative, that is to say that we interpret things how we want to, which is not a problem of social media, the scale is perhaps a side effect, but confirmation bias is an inherently human problem.

“Some people criticize the deliberative polling process because it takes people out of their lives for a weekend and is very structured and they claim that once they leave the process they go back to their lives and remain the same person. But ultimately, they have had a unique life experience and although many people will say the impact is not monumental, it still has an effect on how people will behave in the future and encourages them to be, if not necessarily model citizens, at least better citizens.”

Alice: When we do deliberative polling, it’s time intensive, requires preparation, and is not something that can be done the next day, in a way, however, we can see it exist in nature in large, diverse cities, where people have the opportunity to engage with others from different walks of life. People who move to large cities become exposed to other cultures and people, and think, “Wow! This is life? This is amazing!” And you wish everyone else could experience that, but it’s not very realistic at this point and maybe this is something that technology can help with. Some people criticize the deliberative polling process because it takes people out of their lives for a weekend and is very structured and they claim that once they leave the process they go back to their lives and remain the same person. But ultimately, they have had a unique life experience and although many people will say the impact is not monumental, it still has an effect on how people will behave in the future and encourages them to be, if not necessarily model citizens, at least better citizens.

Reframe It implements deliberative society, and the idea is to try to engage everyone online and offline to make sure everyone or as many people as possible can participate in the process to create something. In particular, our approach involves annotation software which allows people to annotate and comment, with the deeper idea being that people engage in healthy discussion as they annotate a document, and engage in face-to-face discussions later on. We’ve implemented a modified version in different places in the world, with the ambitious goal of engaging the entire society, and we are inching toward achieving this goal with every project, this not only refers to perfecting a process, but actually making people engage in more deliberation. In many ways, this problem is due to human nature and the way we’re raised, and what people normally do.

So one of the things we’re doing is bringing deliberation to high schools, so people can get more practice, and into middle schools as well, to expose students to the idea of deliberation and best practices for engaging in discussions. We have to start when students are younger, and hopefully we can provide some assistance and curricula, which is absolutely necessary, and although it’s probably already mentioned to some extent, it’s not as emphasized as it should be.

IT: What inspired you to take on this challenge, and what opportunities are their for engineers to get involved or follow suit?

Tiana: For our team, we all believe we should have a voting system that works for everyone, which means that there is a process that is clear and smooth and people have the information they need to make informed decisions. This involves lots of work to make that a reality, especially because of the ways in which technology has changed how people consume information. Helping government adapt to these changes and bringing our current voting system up to date with the expectations of a changing public is a huge challenge and opportunity.

For folks who are looking at ways to engage with this type of work, there are huge opportunities here, ranging from lending skills and talent to this type of effort long term or volunteering. Software engineers interested in getting engaged should talk with organizations at the intersection of tech and civic engagement, folks like us, Democracy Works, and BallotReady, just to name a few.

David: First, signup, and join the mailing list: https://join.liquid.vote. Second, help spread our message! Our site is https://liquid.vote. We’re on Facebook https://facebook.com/liquidvote and Twitter https://twitter.com/liquid_vote. Third, we have a public 24/7 chatroom for anyone to ask questions or hang out: https://gitter.im/liquidvote/org. Fourth, our product team invites public contribution. All of our software is open-source and on GitHub: https://github.com/liquidvote. You could start at a repo’s Issues page, leave a comment somewhere, or just say hi in the chatroom and ask where you can help. On top of engineering, we could use help with project management, UX design, UI design, copywriting, and more. Fifth, look more into Liquid Democracy, read about it on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delegative_democracy, and talk about it with your friends.

“We also have to learn how to be online, there is all this commitment to proving you are right when a relaxed fun approach would be better. Everyone has to be involved in this cultural revolution, and learn that confirmation bias is an evolutionary driver, we are all looking for someone to blame, but it’s just society. The good thing is now we can measure it, and the scale is unprecedented for the diffusion process.”

Walter: This is an effort for everyone. We have to learn to deal with complexity, and science and complex systems have to be explained from primary school. We also have to learn how to be online, there is all this commitment to proving you are right when a relaxed fun approach would be better. Everyone has to be involved in this cultural revolution, and learn that confirmation bias is an evolutionary driver, we are all looking for someone to blame, but it’s just society. The good thing is now we can measure it, and the scale is unprecedented for the diffusion process.

Alice: If ever you are invited to do something like this, you should participate. If we agree that there are things that all of us as individuals tend to do, such as socialize with people like ourselves and read things that we agree with, then we should make an effort to step out of our comfort zone, every so often. That could mean just reading a different news source, talk to a new person, or travel to a different place. And for those with the expertise, you can find a way to facilitate this, perhaps by building an app, or a Chrome extension, where you could be challenged to face news that you don’t normally read, or communicate with people you don’t normally communicate with, this is particularly relevant for companies that are already involved in reaching millions of people and is definitely something that they could try.

IT: How can global tech and Inclusion.Tech support these efforts?

Tiana: There’s a couple of things that the tech space can hold themselves accountable to:

1. Thinking of civic engagement beyond elections that only happen every 2 or 4 years., There’s a lot of unsexy infrastructure work to be done to drive long-term sustainable change.

“do tech and civic tech and community tech that keeps people at the center of it.”

2. Crucial to this effort is listening to those already involved, and being interested in actually engaging with the users. The challenges of effective tech and public sector partnerships is well documented, and some of the most valuable insights on how to effectively manage these are shared by Laurenellen McCaan via their BuildWith.org. They’ve helped to produce a huge body of work on how to approach civic tech in a way that keeps people at the center of it.

“In trying to create the observatory we are creating synergies all over the world of people who are interested in moving beyond the desire to maintain a position, and who really see the problem and want to do something to solve it.”

Walter: Right now, our society exhibits something much like a child’s brain cognitive development, like a teenager, we are a little bit lost, and the world is scary when it comes to looking for answers in science narratives, and we are currently dealing with that phase, of learning to deal with reality, and learning that science is just a way of knowing, that it is not a religion. So we are interconnecting people and creating an observatory where various actors can create synergy to form and connect, to address these shared problems and fashion possible solutions. In trying to create the observatory we are creating synergies all over the world of people who are interested in moving beyond the desire to maintain a position, and who really see the problem and want to do something to solve it. The first step is to promote the problem and make people aware, then to share findings and provide analysis and to work with journalists, to see what the affect of that information is on people. As a third party agency online, we seek to “open all the doors”, to learn to deal with complexity.

Alice: If readers want to do something, they can help organize, participate in, and run online deliberative sessions. And it would be wonderful if anyone within a company wanted to try something on a global basis if they wanted to have deliberation on some topic and engage people from all parts of the world, anyone who wants to try, however big or small the community.