When politics and technology intersect

It’s been awhile since I last wrote. I’ve been experiencing a sort of a writing block since at least six months ago. This post is my attempt to break it.

Ever since the election I’ve been deeply concerned about the state of the United States. What used to be collegial disagreements over policy issues between Republicans and Democrats became visceral hatred and mistrust. Typically I would write in the mornings over coffee, but instead, I stay fixated on the latest political gossip. It’s time to break the habit and get back to my writing.

I did not vote for Donald Trump. In fact, between the two awful major party candidates in 2016, Hillary Clinton was the lesser of the two evils. Trump is a career liar, fraudster and a phony. He has no apparent agenda of his own, and he is merely a conduit for the extreme voices in the Republican Party.

Let’s not be fooled by the rising stock market and a booming economy. All major world economies are growing at similar rates following a long and deep recession. What we are observing is only a return to a long-term trend that would’ve continued under a Democratic president. Deregulation and corporate tax cuts indeed accelerate the pattern but would have happened under any Republican president. In other words, it would be foolish to let our guard down and give Trump the benefit of the doubt he doesn’t deserve. Trump is the guy who lost money running casinos – three times.

Let’s, however, talk about coming out of this situation and how technology can help solve the deep divide.

Google, Twitter, and Facebook are a problem

It used to be that a foreign power or anyone else wishing to spread disinformation and discord would have a handful of options:

  • Drop paper leaflets from an airplane;
  • Place radio transmitters close to the border and broadcast propaganda while hoping the citizens of the adversary country would tune in;
  • Sponsor underground revolutionaries, provocateurs, and publishers who would spread the discord from the inside

The cost and the risks of these activities were pretty high.

In 2018 it is much more straightforward. Everybody is a publisher. Any idiot (including yours truly) can start a blog that gets picked up by the search engines. Google doesn’t differentiate between truth and lie, reality and fiction.

Blogging, however, requires some semblance of long-form content to appear legitimate. We are not far off from fully-automated long-form content that is indistinguishable from that written by a human.

Twitter and Facebook make it easy for everyone to opine. Suddenly anyone with a cheap smartphone can have their opinion heard by anyone around the world. What’s worse, it is impossible to tell humans from robots, domestic vs. foreign writers, provocateurs vs concerned citizens. It is effortless to set up an account on either of these services, quickly gain thousands of followers and spread lies and disinformation.

Moreover, Twitter and Facebook dramatically lowered the cost of highly targeted advertising that can reach just the right audiences. Yes, it is possible for a Russian government provocateur to outsmart a million dollar political campaign at the cost of under a hundred thousand dollars.

There is a solution

The cure for these ills is not complicated:

  1. Social networks need to get back to what they were initially intended to do— connect groups of friends and families. That means that everyone can post for free as long as their posts are private and only visible to their friends and family.
  2. All users need to be verified to be humans. At the very least there needs to be an SMS verification. I heard an idea of sending a postcard with a code.
  3. Platform API functionality needs to be limited to authorization and identity. There is little reason for most apps to pull private data— and to post data pretending to be users. Bots need to be identified— automated posts need to have a visible marking.
  4. The cost of publishing publicly needs to be elevated.

Let’s imagine a social networking application that operates on the following principles:

  1. The system starts off with a seed group of verified users. Let’s say these users are the original developers;
  2. All users must use their real names to post content;
  3. There are two ways to join— get invited and approved by a current verified user, or sign up and get verified;
  4. All new users must go through an identity verification process;
  5. Users can form communities along the lines of Facebook Groups, but communities are private— only members can see and post;
  6. All posts show geographic location or prominently indicate that location information is not available;
  7. Anyone can write private posts that are only visible to their immediate friends or within communities they belong to;
  8. To post publicly along the lines of Facebook Pages, the user must pay a fee.

I haven’t thought through many of the aspects of this hypothetical social network. The main point here is to prevent anonymous accounts and raise the cost of publishing without restricting the flow of information within close-knit communities.

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