Broader Concepts

Civic tech to the rescue in France? in the UK? Banning white nationalism on Facebook; and more.


  • This is civic tech: France’s “Grand National Debate,” an interactive public consultation launched in January by the Macron government in response to the ongoing “Yellow Jackets” protest movement, has concluded and now lots of people are trying to make sense of the nearly two million comments submitted by nearly a half million online participants. At Le Parisen, Victor Alexandre and Vincent Gautier dig into the 569,000 detailed proposals submitted from about 255,000 people who took the time to offer specific ideas, and report that the top issues mentioned were taxes, the environment, democracy, and the state bureaucracy. (Note, the original article is in French.)

  • Related: French politicians are thinking about expanding the use of participatory budgeting as a way of giving people are greater voice in local politics, Hazel Sheffield reports for The Independent.

  • In the UK, people are watching one of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracies eat itself alive, but there’s a glimmer of hope coming from the casting of “indicative” non-binding votes in Parliament this week on a range of options for managing Brexit. As Ian Dunt explains, while none of the eight propositions gained a majority, two of them—staying in the customs union and holding a confirmatory public vote (the so-called “People’s Vote”) to verify whatever deal Parliament passes—came close. Monday the Parliament is scheduled to take up these questions again and Dunt writes, “There is also a question about the voting system. The introduction of a Single Transferable Vote or Alternative Vote system could help bring out the majorities, by taking account of MPs’ least-bad outcomes, rather than the ones they actively support.”

  • Here’s one way to read the eight votes that shows how polarized the Brexit debate has become. And this data visualization of the eight votes by Alexandre Afonso shows that there is a latent majority that could be sussed out by such a method.

  • Speaking of data visualization, here’s a fun post by Sarah Leo, a visual data journalist for The Economist, reviewing some charts and graphs that failed to do their job and explaining how she would fix them.

  • With Brexit, climate change, and rising inequality all top of mind, Mark Cridge, the CEO of ur-civic-tech organization mySociety tells Derek du Preez of Diginomica that he’s doing a lot of reflection on where mySociety has been and where it’s going, and that the organization is likely to get more activist in coming years.

  • Writing for the Economist, Civicist contributing editor Darshana Narayanan argues that new experiments in participatory democracy like the Decide Madrid platform in Spain and the vTaiwan process in Taiwan offer promising paths toward effective public engagement.

  • Attend: The annual Theorizing the Web conference is coming up here in NYC April 12-13.

  • Media matters: With Google’s Digital News Initiative expanding into the US, partnering with McClatchy to fund three new local news entities in smaller cities, Emily Bell of Columbia’s Tow Center argues in Columbia Journalism Review that it’s getting harder to separate the future of journalism from Big Tech’s preferences, and that journalists should be extremely wary of the kind of help companies like Google are offering. She writes,

    “Because so little advertising money remains available to publications, and reader revenue has not met that shortfall, the expensive job of innovation in newsrooms increasingly means asking ‘What would Google want?’—influencing what newsrooms choose to develop, from virtual reality, to voice skills, to photo libraries. But to question Google is now frowned upon in many quarters in journalism. The company has received markedly better press than some of its competitors, notably Facebook. This is in part because it is more mature, and handles relations with the press far better (it has not tried to hide its own influence campaigns, for instance). It also spends more money. The extra money Google provides to journalism is not directly buying favor or dampening dissent, but it is certainly making news CEOs and editors I speak to put Google in a subtly different category from other platforms. Their attitude is that ‘Google gets it.’”

  • Life in Facebookistan: After years of tolerating expressions of support for white nationalism and separatism, while banning support for white supremacy, Facebook has now announced a ban on the former. This is good, long-overdue news, which appears to have been finally prompted by the New Zealand shooting. However, the post explaining the change left me wondering, how could this have ever been the rationale for this company policy? “Our policies have long prohibited hateful treatment of people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity or religion — and that has always included white supremacy,” the company declared in an unsigned post. “We didn’t originally apply the same rationale to expressions of white nationalism and separatism because we were thinking about broader concepts of nationalism and separatism — things like American pride and Basque separatism, which are an important part of people’s identity.” Huh?

  • The US Department of Housing and Urban Development is charging Facebook with violating fair housing laws by enabling discrimination on its ad platform, Cristiano Lima and Katy O’Donnell report for Politico. HUD is alleging that Facebook gave advertisers “a map tool to exclude people who live in a specified area from seeing an ad by drawing a red line around that area.” 

  • The US Census Bureau has asked Google, Facebook and Twitter to help it defend against “fake news” that it is worried could disrupt the 2020 count, Reuters reports.

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