Digital platforms took center stage in the election process when former President Barack Obama used them to reach young voters and win the presidency in 2008. Since then, its growing use and influence has also raised alarms in the form of possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
“The social media platforms we have today usually do not create the kind of productive discourse useful for accurate representation and good government,” Crawford wrote, attributing their shortcomings to the profit motive of the providers. He then called for the creation of “an idea-based debate in a space where money doesn’t overwhelm and distort the process.”
I agree 100 percent.
We need to create a platform that’s not entirely driven by money. Before the technology can be built, however, we need to acknowledge what our goals are for a democracy-enhancing tech disruptor. Here are some thoughts on what such a platform would look like:
Promote productive and civil dialog between elected officials and voters
We all know that etiquette and civility quickly become casualties on the internet, and the normalization of these hostile exchanges are bleeding into the real world in disturbing and damaging ways.
Users flock to platforms that give them maximum freedom of expression: What can be done to attract serious and civic-minded users to engage in online political discourse while protecting their freedom of expression?
Let’s look at two wildly different platforms, Twitter and Nextdoor.
Nextdoor isn’t perfect, yet communication among users is consistently less hostile than on Twitter. One possible reason can be the lack of anonymity. Nextdoor requires users’ real names to be displayed and connects people who live in close proximity, which seems to encourage users to reign in hostile remarks. Perhaps a technology platform aimed at increasing civil political discourse needs to follow a similar model.
Encourage government and elected officials to respond to constituents’ concerns directly on the platform in (near) real-time
We need go no further than Facebook and Twitter to find models that provide individuals and small groups with responses from larger entities.
People use social media to publicly speak to brands and corporations, particularly to complain about issues or demand a redress of grievances. The best brands use social media to respond in kind because of the public nature of these platforms. A complaint left unanswered makes it seem as if a brand doesn’t care about its customers, and the same is true in politics.
We need a civil political platform where people can publicly communicate with their elected officials, and elected officials (or their staff) can respond to their constituents in near real-time.
Promote mass civic participation online and offline
It’s been said that America does not have government by the majority, but government by the majority who participate. Any new technology to bolster our democratic principles needs to increase real-world participation.
It’s one thing to tweet about a political event or post a missive on Facebook, but the impact of those civic actions is often minimal unless that energy is transferred to the real world.
Eventbrite saw a 30 percent increase in political activist events in 2017, with the number of people participating in those events nearly doubling—up 93 percent from 2016.
New civic tech should translate into real-world change.
Motivate action between elections
Currently, our loudest and most widely broadcast calls for political action are heard only during election seasons. Candidates, parties and special interests need your vote and are willing to spend lavishly on media messages to get you to the ballot box in their favor.
Once the election is over, however, there are fewer calls for civic action until the next election cycle.
We need technology that encourages consistent civic action between elections. Fitness trackers help keep people consistent in their workouts by reminding them of small tweaks or actions they can take every single day. Any new platform should do something similar for consistent civic action between elections.
Prioritize civic good over profits
And here we come full-circle. We must build a platform that doesn’t adopt a business model that gives the most access and loudest voice to people with the most money.
Perhaps this solution is not a technological one, but a people one. Americans need to find value in the democratic principles of equality and fairness, and to use brands that promote this. Brands must create brand value by promoting their commitment to increase social and civic good.
If these past two years are any indication of a need for civil and civilized discourse, maybe we’ll soon get the platform our country deserves.
Amit Thakkar is founder and CEO of LawMaker.io, an online crowdsourcing platform that enables users to propose new policy ideas to elected officials.