Case for A Networked Community of Enlightened Voters in the times of Facebook & Cambridge Analytica


Case for A Networked Community of Enlightened Voters in the times of Facebook & Cambridge Analytica

EDITOR'S PICK / From the pen of Jitendra Varma   /   Apr 15, 2018


By Jitendra Varma
With Excerpts from his forthcoming book The Politics of Collective Conscience

For Millennial who are sick of doddering relics making a mess of this world


Look around you. Earth today is full of environmental dooms day predictions, killings, sufferings, extreme poverty, government excesses, corruption, aggression, war, nukes and guns It is not the dark ages. We are in 21st century and we have chosen this to be our fate. Aliens will never believe us if we tell them that we decide our future through our votes and we have wanted this dysfunctional, corrupt, destructive world for ourselves. Almost all major governments are elected and still billions sleep without food, suffer from diseases and have no shelter from the elements. None of us want this sort of world but still we have it.


The social networks are inundated with the cry of anguish from every corner of this world. We hear hollow palliatives like Change the world, World be one, Humanity is one, Youth power. We hear thinkers and social scientists telling us that if we don’t do something fast the humanity will destroy itself. We keep telling ourselves how bad things are, but we don’t know what to do about it. We see march for life, write and hear soulful songs of agony and hope, face bullets, witness wars, killings and suicides but no solutions. We are beaten, incarcerated, and deprived of our dignity and freedom but no solutions. We see nature being destroyed for caprice by corporations, governments and poachers but no solutions. We see only power, politics and profits. Everyone thinks that someone else will come and provide a solution and destroy the evil. After all, our scriptures say that every time the society is on the verge of collapse, we have a messiah among us who either sets things right or pays for our sin with his life. Our history is replete with instances when every time people were pushed to the extremes there were sordid tale of civil wars, rebellions, revolutions. Every time we failed in our duty as a citizen in a democracy we got leaders who morphed into Dictators or Fascist rulers.


In this sense democracy is much worse as a political system than all others. It becomes a haven for all crooked political leaders. A rogue democratic leader is much more dangerous than a dictator because he has the sanction of the people as his shield. You cannot fight your own elected government. A new case study by Harvard Business School asserts that U.S. politicians have rigged the system to such a degree that the U.S. is becoming a failed democracy. The authors of the case-study use the word 'hijacked' to describe what the political parties have done to governance in the United States. Every democracy in the world will send a similar study report. No one has a solution to this.


So why are we electing such bad people in this age of information?


Jason Brennan’s argument that many people owe it to the rest of the population not to vote as bad choices of representatives may result in unjust laws, needless wars and calamitous economic policies, is not an indictment of the democratic system but a case for enlightened voters who are obligated to make informed decisions in voting booths, to base their votes on sound evidence about what will create the best possible policies and to promote the common good rather than their self-interest. (The Ethics of Voting – Jason Brennan)


Anyone can be an enlightened voter. All she needs is informed decisions, sound evidence, best policies and common good.  And for this she has to go back to that eternal fountain of information, the internet.


But with Facebook as a ‘friends’ platform, Twitter as a witty people’s platform, Pinterest as book marking and Instagram as media sharing platform we are suffering from, as per Rozenblit & Keil, an acute Illusion of Explanatory Depth (IOED). There is abundant access to information, but we consume it in very superficial way.  160 characters can explain to us the Iran-Iraq war or a friend’s post on Facebook can make our understanding of Trumps entire administration. Everything is distilled into tweets, viral videos, memes, explainer web sites, sound bites on comedy news shows, and daily news letters. So much for Informed decisions.


Mainstream media is now a saleable commodity. It is fighting a losing battle with the internet and online social media for readers eyeballs. Sensationalism is the only way they can still survive. And by selling their souls to the political parties the media is at least assured of the party followers as their captive audience. So, finding sound evidence for evaluating the candidate has been crucified to the new media paradigm.


In this period of “post truth politics” emotions have become the major tool in seeking votes. Details of policy is omitted. Repeated assertions of some points and ignoring their factual rebuttals has become the order of the day. Campaigning has become an exercise like selling a soap or a skin whitening cream. This post-truth politics is rapidly growing in all the democracies of the world and it pays for the leader who is good at exploiting emotions or in other words who is a rabble rouser, creating a rift which never was, tapping into the numbers of the people rather than the people themselves. As Wikipedia puts it …It (post truth) is as ascendant in American, Australian, Bavarian, British, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish politics, as with other areas of debate, driven by a combination of the 24-hour news cycle, false balance in news reporting and increasing ubiquity of social media.


At a recent panel discussion at Express Thinc the “issue of fake news” was discussed and the panel comprising of some of the best names in the field of global journalism emphasized the need for a dedicated “army” of people who could bust fake news. Content creators in Macedonia, produced fake narratives during the American presidential elections. Fake news has come to mean any hyper-partisan news story, or even a story with which the reader disagrees, regardless of how factual it is. Its rebuttal from people who are the subject of fake news would be one way of curbing the impact of fake news in a democracy.


 ‘Social Engineering’ is nothing more than a euphemism for dissecting the society as slices of “the voters cake”. The election math revolves around identifying and dividing a society through its fault lines and then own a sizable part of it as its leader with copious amount of post truths. The constituency no more consists of people but vote-banks which have been carved out of hapless voter’s community. And instead of the common good they seek such goals as Superior Race, Criminal Immigrants, Worse Religions, Cultural leadership, Inferior Castes and Acceptable color of skin.


Add to this the fact that choosing one’s representative is a periodic exercise. And that too at an imaginary geography of a constituency which only pops up for elections. For pre-internet days such an absence of voters of the constituency for four five years completely cut off from their representatives and other constituency stakeholders could have been understood, but after the advent of internet not having a virtual constituency is almost like a heinous crime being committed on about 5 billion voters in 133 democracies.


Add again to this the fact that now people no more elect their representatives, they elect political systems. So instead of your elected representative who may act as your voice raising your concern in a deliberative body you choose a leftist government, or a rightist government, may be a socialist government or rather elect a religious extremist at the center. The people are no more taking a call as to what their representative has in common with them and what she can do for them. Local politics has been subsumed by the state and national politics. The elected representatives are no more people’s representatives but only numbers for their party bosses, always in constant flux to make it magical enough, to be part of the government rather than the opposition.


And if the society, apart from the normal fault lines, is also divided by extreme poverty, deprivation, illiteracy etc. then the possibility of taking any prudent call about one’s representative becomes more a question of either selling your vote or following someone in the community who may advise you to vote for a specific person or party. Yesterday this was accomplished by the local priest or the head of the family today it is manipulated with fake news, post truths and Cambridge Analytica.


And finally, a major part of humanity from the bottom of the pyramid will be joining the digital world with their unguarded innocence, they will be sharing their every secret with the technology giants who will convert it into saleable commodity for the despot-in-the-making. With the recent Cambridge Analytica exposure, we have started thinking of the doom day when a world government would be controlling us through AI, Social Security numbers, GPS and what not.


Internet is fraught with Russians, Cambridge Analytica and the likes who would manipulate the system to hoist their undeserving but highly paying clients on their hapless users. A kind of democratic coup which happens without any blood bath. 


The Cambridge Analytica Factor


So why so much noise about data mining, data harvesting and data using. We wouldn’t call it data theft. We voluntarily gave our data and we didn’t have any idea as to how our data will be used or misused by the fast-evolving technology. And now that data is being used in the words of Zynep Tufekci – a techno sociologist- to watch us, judge us and nudge us. So long it does not FORCE US, we will have to be okay with it. Or we have another option – not to use Facebook, Google, Amazon & Apple and possibly live in caves again. There is a giant digital grid and we cannot escape it once we decide to go digital. And data will be an inevitable fallout of using technology. It will be better if we recognized the boundaries of the grid and build a counterfoil to it rather than dismantle the grid, which we cannot do.


Is it the scale of such data use which is bugging us? Data has always been used for commercial purposes. The TRP is data based, the political parties survive on the booth level data they harvest through their grass root workers, the entire planning of a nation is data based, the products and services are all data based. All advertisement and media is data based. You do not sell Porsche in Dainik Pratidin newspaper. It seems that we are bothered because Facebook is doing it at a scale which we can never imagine. But there are several things about internet which defy scales. And we have companies which have out of mind valuation only on basis of data which they have garnered or can harvest through their services. Have you ever stopped and asked yourself as to what gives so much value to these companies? And who gives so much value to these companies? Probably most of those who are today talking of data theft. So, if it is only the scales then we are barking but only at a larger tree.


Is the level of encroachment of our social and personal space the bone of contention here? So how many of us will go and ask for a dildo across a counter of a pop & mom store. We buy it on Amazon. Now Amazon knows our sexual leanings. And it would sell this data to sex toys manufacturers and they will inundate us with offers. In a macabre way we are being given better choice, lower prices and newer products without any effort. So far so good. Next the data may be passed on to a male sex agency which send a catalogue of well-endowed males to replace the dildos. Okay till this stage. You share this with your friends on Facebook. So many people become zealous of your great choices. Later every Friday a different sample of lubricants are sent for you to try and use. Some stage later you may receive a mail saying that a political party for emancipated women has been launched and you are invited as a star speaker. Finally, your activities are filtered, and you are nudged to vote for a person who feels that your freedom to do with your body is sacrosanct. You had to be reached in this circuitous way because you never voiced your belief on social media that one should have the right over own body and you weren’t aware that such a candidate existed and that such a right can become a political issue. And it was a genuine belief on the part of the political leader that if you would know you would vote for her.


Had Cambridge Analytica done the same exercise for a consumer brand or a car or a government policy, would we be equally horrified at the misuse of our data. No. It is being misused regularly for commercial end, but we are not raising a finger. Had data of 50 million voters of say Namibia were compromised, would we have cried equally hoarse of misuse of data as we are doing in the case of US. No. So only when these data are elections related and of some big democracy suddenly we all become so aware of our data and the breach. Which seems very hypocritical. So, the noise is mostly from the politicians. 


Even if the data is with someone else. It is only a nudge. Richard Thaler – The Nudge Noble laureate - says public and private choice architects design nudges as people need it to take decisions which are difficult and rare, for which they do not get prompt feedback, and when they have trouble translating aspects of the situation into terms that can easily understand.


No one really forces you to do things. A nudge is still better than the crude ways by which leaders try to play all the tricks in the books to get a majority in the hustings. At least the nudge educates you, informs you, nudges you and asks you to vote for someone, voluntarily.


Are we crying that this brings undue advantage to the other party and you are excluded from the race? I am sure there is no exclusivity clause with any data user and the likes of Cambridge Analytica. BJP can ask them for the data of all Cow loving Hindus and those who can be nudged to love cows and cajoled to vote for BJP and Congress can seek from them the data of all those who are sick of NDA policies and how can they be accessed to start an awareness drive in Congress favor.


Facebook as people’s network is faceless and ineffective in producing any political or social consequences. It is used for political rhetoric. It’s only political purpose is to collect data and to analyze it for its user’s preference. And then push the agenda of any client to those of its users who might be influenced with the message. So, Facebook can know in advance that 12 Voters in Arkansas are still indecisive about whom to vote and they can be nudged towards a certain politician. And voila 12 votes were got.


This is the age of data. Big data. And whoever has it will use it. We cannot call it misuse. The 12 people in Arkansas were uncertain. The political parties were not a help; Twitter and Facebook were not able to remove those doubts; The illusion of explanatory depth took its toll. No one could give them a plausible answer. They needed to take informed decisions based on sound evidence for the best policies for them which might be for the common good. But they could not get it from anywhere. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were aware of this, the rest were not. And Trump won. 


The biggest problem is that Facebook is not a political platform. For that matter none of the social network and media are.  They do not give credence to an opinion, do not encourage open discussions, do not talk of the common good of any vested community and do not provide a political leverage to the common man even when they have a huge social network of 2+ billion people. So, when you see any interaction on these social networks it is more like eves dropping on a private conversation between few people sitting poles apart.


We are in a losing battle with the global technology corporations because they are global entities and we are almost 200 countries, all squabbling like animals over everything on this globe from pollution to territory to hegemony to wars to economic and political subversion and what not. We cannot match the extremely efficient global giants who transcend geographies and jurisdictions and have resources which we as nations can only dream of.


Cambridge Analytica is there to serve its clients. There motive is only commercial. But corporations are the lesser evil. The State as big brother is the biggest threat to democracy. With data as its tool, state can virtually sleep with you every night. But when the State starts misusing your data you run the risk of losing your freedom, your privacy, your discretion and could be rounded up as a robot. Gary Shteyngart’s novel of 2010, “Super Sad True Love Story”, talks of a social credit system to score not only the social credit worthiness of the people but also their social and possibly political behavior. In China, the authorities are already working on it.


Several have already read the epitaph on democracy. “RIP Here lies democracy after politicians and technology killed it”.


Networked Community of enlightened voters


The death of Democracy can be a very plausible scenario unless we build a bulwark against the system which reduces every human being to a digit.


The leaders in a democracy have always used ignorance, illiteracy, insecurities of the people to stay in power. The Tiananmen square, Orange Revolution & Tahrir square have been just an act of reminder from the people to their government for a course correction and to bring back the democratic values as enshrined in the constitution or the law. They could not have done anything more.  


The community of enlightened voters is a breed of citizens, willing to provide synaptic transfer between the various divisions of the society at a time when political polarization, income inequalities, and urban rural separation has fractured the community.  A collective of such voters in a constituency can leverage votes for not only change, but also for accountability, good governance and transparency. By allowing the death of democracy, we will be killing the only legitimate single opportunity for the collective conscience of the people to window shop for the future they want. 


So how will a network of voters in constituencies save democracy? For, ease of reference let us call this collective of enlightened voters in a constituency as Votebook.


Votebook is a real time collective of voters witnessing first hand performance of all stakeholders of a virtual constituency. They would not rely on social media manipulations for making a political choice.


Votebook will provide the advantage of an aggregator to its users. Aggregating political leaders and information, Votebook will create a perpetual election mode among all leaders in virtual constituencies, making them put their best before the constituency voters.


Votebook is not elitist. Votebook celebrates voter – a gender, color, race, caste, wealth, language and religion agnostic entity. It will recognize and reorganize the society differently. Instead of politicians creating divisive electorate pliable by rhetoric & data manipulation, it would be a collective of Unemployed, Environmentalists, Women, LGBT, Poor, Natives, Veterans, Educated, Agriculturists, Rationalists, Educated Middle Class & Anti-war groups.


Votebook will be a digital roundtable between all stakeholders of a democracy. Evaluation, Feedback, Monitoring, Complaints for accountability, good governance and transparency would be a natural fall out of the perpetual digital platform. 


Votebook creates a bulwark against lobbyists, pressure groups, crony capitalists & corporates and small number of political activists and supporters of political parties who hijack all concerns of the people and collectively demand a more just governance and system.


Votebook will lay down a positive action course for the people to affect change by leveraging their collective vote in a democratic process. A non-conflict digital media like any other but in a constituency.  A call to the youth to change the world will no more be a hollow rhetoric.


Votebook provides all the vital inputs which Jason Brennan thinks are critically necessary for enlightened voters to take a call about their leader - informed decisions, sound evidence, best policies & common good. A real time collective of voters in the constituency evaluates, compares, chooses and monitors their leaders.  


Votebook will counteract dangerous half knowledge so prevalent in social and political rumor mills because of IOED. Votebook is written, whetted, discussed, published & viewed by real stakeholders of a virtual geography not as a part of social gossip or clandestine promotion but as a basis for choosing their common future.


Votebook will stem fake news & paid news and Post truths. Mainstream media is now a saleable commodity. The recent Cobra sting operations in India has shown that 17 media houses were willing to carry stories showing major political leaders in bad and negative light. Votebook creates a vested army of common voters who would bust such news. Votebook reach in terms of news gathering and news verification will be immense. With presence in every constituency nothing will be hidden any more from the people eyes.


Votebook will act as a counter vailing balance to all the other vote banks in the constituency. Votebook acts as a super votebank in a constituency, seeking good governance, accountability & proactive stakeholders in the constituency. Its generic & politically agnostic character would bring traction to it from all other vote banks.


Votebook could not have happened at any other stage of human evolution. Direct democracy in Greek history is the closest we can think off. Votebook will use technology to peg the constituency to its state, nation and global grid thus creating a collective of humanity which participates at all level of decision making from the smallest village to global forums.


Votebook is an open platform for people to express their political and social beliefs. Data harvesting by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica would yield nothing. In fact, Votebook reverses the role of data as an instrument to nudge the people. Votebook generates data which nudges all the other stake holders of the society including politicians, government, party & media.


Votebook corrects the anomaly arising after elections, of no voter, no constituency. Which means, no means to connect, no place to connect, no credit for good work, no feedback, no evaluation and no incentive for the leaders. In such situation even, the best leaders will turn bad. Votebook provides the necessary appraisal and feed -back template for a perpetual constituency and all its stakeholders.

The views expressed here are those of the authors and doesn’t reflect the official policy of Janpratinidhi. The views expressed here are those of the authors and doesn’t reflect the official policy of Janpratinidhi.
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