A Purpose-Built Platform to Strengthen Democracy

In brief, the argument presented in this post is that:

  1. The health and future prospects for political democracy are facing serious threats in the U.S. and the world.
  2. The history of Facebook, Google, Twitter and other online platforms and services have demonstrated that digital information and communication technologies (ICT) can support improvements in the function of our political democracy.
  3. However, this same history, especially recent revelations about their role in the 2016 election, and the fundamental nature of their business models, strongly suggest it would be unwise to rely on today’s dominant digital platforms to serve as the primary direct digital support structures for strengthening democracy.
  4. What’s needed is one or more digital platforms designed specifically to support healthy democratic functions, and funded and managed in ways that enables a robust and ongoing evolution of platform functionality free of control by those in political power and/or those wielding concentrated economic power.

Is Zuck’s lofty vision compatible with Facebook’s business model?

In a long February 16, 2017 post shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said this about the future role of Facebook:

“the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us…for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.”

One need not doubt Zuckerberg’s sincerity to question whether Facebook—even after it implements promised reforms and Europe’s GDPR takes effect—is an entity we can trust to play the role he suggests in the above statement. Among the reasons, which also apply to Google and other dominant platform companies, are:

  1. Supporting healthy political functions is not the primary focus of these platforms’ business models. This raises questions about whether they would consistently prioritize the evolution of what would hopefully become a vital public infrastructure whose “political democracy enhancement” goals do not seem well suited to enterprise models fueled by advertising revenue and prioritizing growth in shareholder value.
  2. Their economic and strategic interests may at times come into direct or indirect conflict with the achievement of some socially valuable reforms. This carries risks that those reforms may be ignored or even opposed by the companies that control the platforms citizens rely on to support healthy political democracy.
  3. There are many and sometimes severe obstacles facing efforts to maintain and strengthen healthy democratic functions, which suggests that a strongly and consistently focused effort will improve prospects for successfully overcoming these obstacles.

These factors, coupled with what I believe is a sincere desire by Zuckerberg, Google’s founders and others in the tech industry to support healthy democratic functions, leads me to recommend that the giant platform companies (and perhaps the tech industry as a whole) jointly support (but do not control) the creation of an online platform whose sole purpose is to use digital technology to strengthen political democracy.

Designed to bolster democracy, not shareholder returns

Though I don’t claim to have a comprehensive set of recommendations about how such a project should be developed, below are some initial thoughts intended to stimulate discussion aimed at developing such recommendations:

  • It seems essential that a “democracy platform” operate as a strictly non-partisan entity, with a clear charter committed to supporting a well informed and civically engaged citizenry and an electoral process and governmental bodies reflecting the will and protecting the rights of that citizenry.
  • This platform would not issue market-valued stock and would preferably be designed as a non-profit entity.
  • I’d recommend that development costs be supported by some combination of funding and in-kind support from platform companies, the broader tech community, the federal government and other sources (e.g., foundations). Similarly, its operating expenses could be funded by these same sources through an earmarked tax and/or federal budget allocation that is reliably immune to political manipulation.
  • Support for operating expenses might also come from service fees and/or advertising, but: 1) the use of fees should in no way discourage citizen participation, especially by those lacking financial resources and; 2) the priority of the platform’s approach to advertising should not be revenue growth, but rather the encouragement of fact-based communication and effective yet First Amendment-friendly constraints on the spread of misinformation that targets lizard-brain stimulation and fuels prejudice, hatred and violence.
  • The platform’s design and operation should focus intensively on protecting privacy and security, and work with the tech community to develop, test, implement and continually refine strategies and tools to enhance this protection, and proliferate these throughout the digital economy.
  • To help ensure that the platform politically empowers all citizens, it should be coupled with an ambitious program to achieve universal broadband access and digital literacy (I’ve proposed strategies for achieving these goals in a series of blog posts on this site and the Quello Center site and a policy brief focused on the state of Michigan).
  • The platform’s management systems should be well insulated from manipulation and pressure from politicians and the companies that support the effort with funding and in-kind services.

In a 2015 post on the blog of Michigan State University’s Quello Center, I briefly discussed a number of efforts to leverage digital technology to improve the quantity and quality of citizen participation in our democratic systems. That post included videos of several presentations at the 2015 Voting and Elections Summit, co-sponsored by Fair Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Overseas Vote Foundation and the U.S. Vote Foundation.

One venture featured at that conference struck me as closest to my own vision of what is possible and desirable in terms of democracy enhancing digital platforms: the Global Social Network for Voters (GSNV) project being developed by Reinventing Democracy International (RDI).

The rationale and design of the GSNV platform, described in a text document and infographic, is based on what RDI calls the Interactive Voter Choice System (IVCS), for which RDI founder Nancy Bordier holds a U.S. patent. Key features of the IVCS are discussed in a three-part series of blog posts co-authored by Bordier’s RDI colleagues Joe Firestone and Henk Hadders.

The basic idea for IVCS occurred to Bordier (a political scientist by training who had worked at Prodigy back in the early days of online platforms) when she was working on the Howard Dean campaign, arguably the first presidential run that made heavy use of the grassroots mobilizing power of networked digital technology.

To get a better sense of what RDI, GSNV and IVCS are about, I’d recommend this 16 minute video in which Bordier and RDI co-founder Joe Firestone review the problems plaguing American democracy followed by an explanation of how the GSNV would help address them (to save a little time you can skip the intro and start around the 2 minute mark).

The conference discussion continues in the video below, with a group conversation involving representatives from multiple organizations that have developed digital tools for improving democracy. A key point made by Bordier early in this discussion is that the GSNV is intended to provide a platform to support a range of democracy-enhancing tools, similar to the way Facebook has provided a platform for the growth of apps, but with a more clear and specific purpose of enhancing healthy democratic functionality.

As moderator Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat suggests at the start of the group discussion, it is easy to be skeptical about the prospects for success of a project with the ambitious goals targeted by RDI. That being said, my sense is that a Global Social Network for Voters, if well designed, funded and maintained, could be an important and continually evolving platform to support healthy democratic societies in the digital age. I also believe that, in the wake of the 2016 election:

  • there is an increased sense of urgency regarding the need for a solution with the comprehensiveness and power Bordier claims GSNV can bring to the task of revitalizing our political democracy;
  • helping to design and implement digital systems that make the process of democratic self-governance more efficient, engaging and effective is a challenge well suited to the talents, idealism and can-do spirit of the tech community;
  • the role and reputation of platform companies as good corporate citizens could be greatly enhanced if they step up to contribute a small portion of their profits and expertise to an effort focused specifically on strengthening democracy at a time when it seems to be under siege around the world.

********

Below is an outline, with links, to all the posts in this series. Unless otherwise noted, bolding in quotations is mine, added for emphasis.

  • Digital Platforms & Democratic Governance: Standing at an Historic Crossroads
    • The digital anthropocene: a pivotal & high-risk phase of human history
    • Empathy + technology: a powerful recipe for shared prosperity & peace
    • More (and more effective) democracy as part of the solution
    • The tech sector can help lead the next phase in democracy’s evolution
  • The Facebook F-Up as a Wake-Up Call
    • A growing awareness of problems
    • Where to look for solutions?
  • Serving Users (to Advertisers to Benefit Shareholders)
    • An IPO + mobile ads: 2012 as a turning point for Facebook
    • Too busy driving growth to focus on privacy?
    • Serving users or serving users to advertisers?
    • Understanding & addressing social harms
  • Data as Power: Approaches to Righting the Balance
    • Our data is tracked & locked in a “black box” we don’t control or understand
    • The EU tightens privacy protections amid mixed signals in the U.S. 
    • Platforms as “information fiduciaries”
    • Reallocating power & benefits when users share their data
    • Shifting from an “Attention Economy” to a more efficient “Intention Economy”
    • Who owns and controls the data used to develop AI?
    • Data as labor that should be financially compensated
    • Data as an infrastructural public good
    • A “data tax” that generates a “data dividend” we all share
    • Data portability as means to enhance competition & consumer choice
  • The Power of Dominant Platforms: It’s Not Just About “Bigness”
    • New forms of concentrated power call for new remedies
    • Platforms wield transmission, gatekeeping & scoring power
    • Antitrust needs an updated framework to address platform power
    • Creating a civic infrastructure of checks & balances for the digital economy
  • Democracy & Corporate Governance: Challenging the Divine Right of Capital
    • A “generative” or “extractive” business model?
    • Dethroning kings & capital 
    • Moving beyond capitalism’s aristocratic form
    • Embracing economic democracy as a next-step Enlightenment
  • Platform Cooperativism: Acknowledging the Rights of “Produsers”
    • Reclaiming the Internet’s sharing & democratizing potential
    • Scaling a platform co-op: easier said than done
    • The #BuyTwitter campaign as a call for change
    • Encouraging the wisdom of crowds or the fears of mobs?
  • Interactions Between Political & Platform Systems
    • Feedback loops reinforce strengths & weaknesses, benefits & harms
    • Facebook’s role in the election as an example
    • If we don’t fix government, can government help fix Facebook?
  • A Purpose-Built Platform to Strengthen Democracy
    • Is Zuck’s lofty vision compatible with Facebook’s business model?
    • Designed to bolster democracy, not shareholder returns
  • Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers”
    • Facebook, community and democracy
    • Is Facebook a community or a dictatorship?
    • Giving users a vote in Facebook’s governance
    • Technology can help users participate in FB governance
    • Evolving from corporate dictatorship toward digital democracy
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