Technology's role in democracy and the paths ahead.
Welcome to issue #23 of next big thing.
Three interviews to check out in case you’re somehow interested in hearing more from me 😉:
I also enjoyed going on Jake’s podcast a couple weeks ago. We covered a lot of ground in 45 minutes: solo capitalists vs. partnerships, my recent investment in Roam Research, blog posts I wrote years ago including those on sleep technology and trends I was excited about in 2016, and even the thesis I wrote in college. Check out the episode here.
This past week, I’ve been reflecting on the U.S. presidential election.
Back in June, I wrote an essay on how the world is tuning in, with the pandemic causing everyone to pay attention to the news. One of the knock-on effects of this attention, I believe, was voter turnout in this election.
What we saw was historic; over 20 million more Americans voted than in the 2016 election, and turnout was the highest it’s been in over a century.
There are two big questions for me as we move forward. First, will we see a sustained elevated level of civic engagement in the population? And second, how do we use the learnings from this moment to ensure that technology improves elections, as well as the relationship between citizens and government, in the future?
The stakes are high because trust needs to be restored in democracy for a large percentage of our population, on both sides of the aisle. That would be for the benefit of us all, not least because it would increase the chances that citizens, government and technology work together to foster the next big thing.
The Highest Turnout Since 1900
The biggest story of the 2020 election, beyond the results of course, was the surge in voter turnout.
While all the votes have not yet been counted, the United States Elections Project estimates over 158 million ballots were cast, representing over 66% of the voting-eligible population. In 2016, as a comparison, 136.6 million people voted, just under 60% of the voting-eligible population. As the graphic below shows, 2020 turnout looks to be the highest perhaps since the election of 1900 (when the voting-eligible population denominator was much smaller — women were not able to vote!). And that it happened during a pandemic makes it in many ways more remarkable.
A graphic from Vox showing the projected voter turnout in the 2020 Election - above 65%, a high in over 100 years.
But maybe this level of turnout should actually not be surprising?
For one, there was more than double the money spent on this election than any other. Second, there were widespread voter mobilization and turnout efforts. Third, mail-in voting was encouraged by many as an alternative to in-person voting, given covid-19, and several states expanded access to it. Fourth, as I discussed in issue #6, the pandemic caused everyone to pay attention to the news like never before over the past eight months. I wrote that essay in the midst of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and surveys show that the protests were one of the most important issues for voters in this election. Because so many people were tuning in to the news, to social media, and were perhaps more cognizant of the candidates and their differences in this election than ever before, we saw record turnout. Fifth, and lastly, the candidates themselves, in particular the incumbent and his polarizing reputation, motivated voters on both sides of the aisle to turn out in droves. This was perhaps also the reason for record turnout in 2018, the highest in any midterm election since 1912.
The Paths Ahead and Technology’s Role
So, where do we go from here? Thinking about the record turnout, and watching the post-election reactions, has led me to believe we are at a crossroads as an electorate.
Path A is that civic engagement sustains, perhaps because the public realizes that voting and elections matter, and that the relationship between citizens and government is important to our daily lives.
Path B is that civic engagement declines from this peak, and that we return to prior levels of turnout, perhaps because we don’t care as much when we’re not in a pandemic, or because the candidates don’t rile us up as much as they did in this election.
There are lots of factors that will determine which path we head down, not least of which is technology.
What’s clear from this election is that there are lots of ways in which technology can improve the democratic process. One key takeaway is that polling needs to be improved, because the polls were a far way off from the actual results, in some ways even more so than in 2016. Another takeaway is that it takes a long time to count ballots, particularly when there are an elevated number of mail-in ballots. Can technology help improve both the polling and election systems in the future? I would hope so.
But what’s also increasingly clear from this election is that technology has hurt our democracy, too, and can hurt it further if unchecked. Facebook and Twitter are struggling to figure out how to deal with misinformation, what to censor and what not to censor, and are inconsistent in their decision-making. Joan Donovan wrote a great piece last week in the MIT Technology Review on this subject, including the following takeaway, which I agree with:
We need more transparency. Misinformation is not solely about the facts; it’s about who gets to say what the facts are. Fair content moderation decisions are key to public accountability.
In response to the moderation decisions of Facebook and Twitter, a subset of the population is turning to alternative social media and news platforms, that in turn disseminate alternative facts and news. As of this writing, Parler, MeWe, and Newsmax are the top three apps in the App Store. I tweeted about this on Monday:
You can read more about Parler here, but suffice to say that an Arkansas police chief had to resign after posts on the site that called for violence against Democrats after the election.
Technology and social media in particular has clearly led to increased polarization. George Packer wrote a powerful piece in The Atlantic about this last week — here’s the section that stuck with me the most:
This destruction of the mental commons is potentially fatal to a democracy. Unlike citizens of geriatric autocracies, we lack the cynical habit of learning to live with lies that we don’t compel ourselves to believe are true. As newcomers, we’re suckers for mass disinformation—passionate believers in the most ludicrous stories, instant experts in seizing every piece of data as proof of our chosen truth. One of the winners on Election Night was Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, a follower of the insane conspiracy ideology QAnon. She will sit in Congress alongside Democratic colleagues who, by her lights, engage in child sex trafficking.
There’s nothing remotely comparable to QAnon in the Democratic Party. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake for Democrats who proudly believe in climate science and counting every vote to imagine that they are immune to the distorting effects of information technology and hyperpolarization. Having a basically sane worldview can make it harder to detect the creeping influence of self-delusion. How many people do you know who refused to believe that Trump could win a fair election? Antisocial media has us all in its grip.
Perhaps no data illustrate the combination of misinformation and polarization more clearly than the following, which show that Republicans’ trust in the election has fallen in half since the week prior to the 2020 election, and since the unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud post-election:
Data from Morning Consult’s survey conducted Nov 6-9. More info here and in a tweetstorm by Nate Silver here.
More Questions Than Answers
How do we restore trust in democracy? How do we reduce polarization? How do we decrease misinformation? How can technology play a helpful role in this instead of the harmful role it is perhaps currently playing? How can we improve polling and the election process using technology? How do we get to a place where citizens, government, and technology companies are working together to foster the next big thing, instead of at odds with one another?
Unfortunately I have many more questions than I do answers.
But what I do believe is that these questions are incredibly important for all of us to ponder. To effectively build solutions to grand challenges such as the climate crisis or the mental health crisis is going to take the engagement of a combination of citizens, government, and technology companies. Many of the problems that we need to solve, out of which massive companies can get built, require collaboration and trust. They require facts and science to be believed to even acknowledge the problem.
I hope you’ll engage with me on this subject. I’d love to hear from you in the comments on ideas you have for how we can move forward. I do not believe that this is a time to be apolitical; in fact, it’s a time to be more engaged than ever before. Democracy and the next big thing share something in common in this respect: they require effort and turnout, not sitting idly on the sidelines.