27 April 2021

The Atlantic: “How to put out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire”

Among many other experimental projects, Tang has sponsored the use of software called Polis, invented in Seattle. This is a platform that lets people make tweet-like, 140-character statements, and lets others vote on them. There is no “reply” function, and thus no trolling or personal attacks. As statements are made, the system identifies those that generate the most agreement among different groups. Instead of favoring outrageous or shocking views, the Polis algorithm highlights consensus.

Polis is often used to produce recommendations for government action. For example, when the Taiwanese government designed a Polis debate around the subject of Uber, participants included people from the company itself, as well as from the Taiwanese taxi associations, which were angered by some of Uber’s behavior—and yet a consensus was reached. Uber agreed to train its drivers and pay transport taxes; Taiwan Taxi, one of the country’s largest fleets, promised to offer better services. It’s possible to imagine a world in which local governments hold such online consultations regularly, thereby increasing participation in politics and giving people some influence over their society and environment.

Anne Applebaum & Peter Pomerantsev

Interesting proposals, but this particular one sounds a bit too idealistic to me, bordering on impractical. In principle it is a good idea to seek input from citizens, but the issues lie in participation and proper representation. Nowadays people barely bother to vote every four years in many democracies, so expecting a sizeable portion of the population to come up with proposals for governing and to vote on them seems unlikely. A digital-only system raises problems with barriers of entry, as it favors people with a certain degree of digital literacy needed to interact with the system, something that has slowed vaccination programs as well. Popular proposals could prove wildly impractical – I’m sure that most people would blindly vote to raise their salaries and cut taxes, but that would collapse social services – but if authorities decline to implement some of them on grounds of practicality, people could draw the conclusion that their suggestions are not heard anyway, and abandon the system altogether.

The EU doesn’t want to create a 1984-style “Ministry of Truth”, Věra Jourová has said, but it cannot ignore the existence of “organized structures aimed at sowing mistrust, undermining democratic stability”. Action must be taken against “inauthentic use” and “automated exploitation” if they harm “civic discourse”, according to the EU’s Digital Services Act, which seeks to update the legal framework for policing platforms. The regulatory focus in Europe is on monitoring scale and distribution, not content moderation. One person writing a tweet would still qualify for free-speech protections—but a million bot accounts pretending to be real people and distorting debate in the public square would not. Facebook and other platforms already track and dismantle inauthentic disinformation and amplification campaigns—they all have invested heavily in staff and software to carry out this job—but there is hardly any way to audit their success. European governments are seeking ways that they and other civic-minded actors can at least monitor what the platforms are doing.

Independent oversight over social media amplification algorithms would be a better starting point, considering how Facebook is unwilling – or at least very slow – to tackle fake engagement and other manipulation on its platform.

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