Digital democracy's future; Microtargeting's dangers; Bezos' climate pledge; and more.
This is civic tech: CitizenLab, the Brussels-based digital decision platform, has released a white paper on The Future of Digital Democracy featuring interviews with a dozen experts including Paula Forteza, Tiago Peixoto and Marci Harris. Here’s a taste, via Peixoto:
If I could bet on one democratic upgrade that we’re likely to see in the future, I’d say it will be the combination of citizens’ assemblies with traditional direct democracy institutions, such as initiatives and referendums. Governments will soon have to take hard decisions to address issues that range from climate change and income inequality to the regulation of artificial intelligence and biotech. But taking decisions will be all the more difficult given the ongoing crisis of representative democracy and the declining trust in politics. To avoid backlashes and social unrest, governments will have no other option that involving citizens in decisions.
The US Digital Service continues to chug along, recruiting top technologists to take Peace Corp-style tours of duty helping the federal government tackle its information management and security problems, the AP reports. “We’ve been enthusiastic about USDS since Day One,” said Mathew Lira, a special assistant in the White House Office of American Innovation.
Inkstone’s Qin Chen reports on how anticensorship activists in China are coming up with ingenious ways to outsmart, at least temporarily, the state’s heavy control of speech about the coronavirus.
Tech and politics: Caucus volunteers in Nevada, which has its election on February 22nd, are worrying that a late switch to a new electronic vote-tally system and rushed training is going to lead to another Iowa-like fiasco, Laura Barron-Lopez reports for Politico.
Today in plutocracy: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, known more for his obsession with space travel than fixing things on Earth other than same-day delivery, has announced that he is creating a $10 billion fund to tackle climate change by funding “scientists, activists, NGOs – any effort that offers a real possibility to help preserve and protect the natural world.” As David Callahan of InsidePhilanthropy notes, “The Bezos climate pledge is a dramatic example of billionaire donors showing up in various issue areas with amounts of money so large that they radically reorder the funding landscape. Bezos may soon be giving more for climate annually than the next top five funders combined.”
Daniel Firger, who was responsible for overseeing $100 million-plus in climate grants for Bloomberg Philanthropies, comments, “there just aren’t that many civil society groups, or climate science researchers, who can credibly deploy hundreds of millions of dollars at a clip.” He adds, “even in the most successful cases, grant dollars can distort strategies, destabilize coalitions, or worse… it’s hard to spend $100M effectively, let alone ONE HUNDRED TIMES more!”
My .0000002th of a million: So many of our problems—climate change, inequality, racism—have festered and gotten worse not because of a lack of solutions, but rather because of who has political power and how that power is used. So while much of the commentary on Bezos’ gigantic pledge is focusing on the sorts of scientific advances he could fund, it would be much more useful if his money helped shift political power away from the carbon-fuel economy in the first place.
Related: Don’t miss this interactive depiction from the New York Times of the march of millions from Mike Bloomberg’s philanthropy starting in 2008 up through 2018. As the Times’ Alexander Burns and Nicholas Kulish note, this is only a partial accounting, but his disclosed spending on philanthropy ($2.55 billion) is more than ten times his disclosed spending on politics.
Life in Facebookistan: Communications professors Dannagal Young and Shannon McGregor explain in The Washington Post why Facebook’s refusal to limit microtargeting of political ads or to fact-check them for accuracy creates the perfect recipe for mass propaganda.
Oh, and in case you missed it, on Friday Facebook decided to start allowing paid political messages that don’t use its “Branded Content Tool” to tag them, legitimizing a loophole that the Bloomberg campaign was already exploiting by paying influencers to post content promoting his “coolness,” as Barbara Ortutay and Amanda Seitz report for the AP. Bridget Barrett, a former political media ad buyer, explains further on Twitter how this has broken Facebook’s political ad system wide open.
Google’s world maps bend to “the shifting whims of diplomats, policymakers and its own executives,” Greg Bensinger reports for The Washington Post.
End times: Say hello to FaceIDMasks, a new service that will print an image of your nose and mouth on a surgical mask, so you can unlock your phone using faceID and avoid catching coronavirus at the same time.
You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please become a subscriber ($10/m) and support our work and support our work or sign up for our newsletter and stay connected with the #CivicTech community.