Sugar Daddy Dem Tech

Klobuchar's Google buzz; How money mangled Iowa; App drivers organizing; and more.


This is civic tech: “Democracy tech” will be the next “hot” investment space, Wired UK headlines this oped by Robyn Scott of Apolitical. (Actually, Scott is writing about govtech, which is already attracting investors, but we’ll let ourselves dream that someone actually wants to invest in tech that enhances democracy, too.)

New Yorkers may remember that a 2018 Charter Revision Commission that Mayor Bill de Blasio created successfully proposed launching a citywide version of participatory budgeting, which is already used by more than half the city council members, but as Samar Khurshid writes for Gotham Gazette, so far hizzoner hasn’t put any funding into the program. Civic Hall, along with the Participatory Budgeting Project, BetaNYC, Girls for Gender Equity, IntegrateNYC, and the New York Civic Engagement Table, as well as Council Member Brad Lander, are all calling for him to rectify that, given the demonstrates successes of participatory budgeting at the district level.

Say hello to the International Alliance of App-Based Transport Workers, a new network of drivers from 27 countries who are organizing to obtain better working conditions, as Bama Athreya reports for Inequality.org.

Registration for the Civic Tech Innovation Forum, March 18-20, in Johannesburg, South Africa, is now open.

Tech and politics: If Google Search Trends are any guide, Senator Amy Klobuchar is peaking in New Hampshire at exactly the right time for her to pull off a surprise there. (Of course, people could be searching and finding out things they don’t like, too.)

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who is spending Jupiter-sized amounts of money on his campaign while the rest of the Democratic field battles things out here on Earth, is pitching Silicon Valley hard on his bid, seeking more tech talent to come on board, as Theodore Schleifer reports for ReCode. The billionaire has so much money to burn he’s paying micro-influencers—people with as few as 1,000 followers online—to create original content “that tells us why Mike Bloomberg is the electable candidate,” Scott Bixby reports for the Daily Beast.

Back to Iowa: Writing in Democracy, University of Pittsburgh professor Lara Putnam pithily blames “Sugar Daddy Dem Tech” or “the convergence of grift, hubris, and insider networks that misallocates funds within the Democratic ecosystem” for the Iowa caucus app mess. Instead of supporting local organizing, she adds, “Dems’ Sugar Daddy problem is not just about tech—it’s a pull that continually channels funds into the hands of high-profile actors who claim to hold the keys to ‘grassroots engagement.’ These high-profile leaders invariably live in coastal metropoles: that’s where they made the connections that made them visible and persuasive to these funders in the first place.”

Speaking of Sugar Daddy Dem tech, Emily Stewart of Vox digs deeper into ACRONYM, the Democratic dark money group at the center of the Iowa app mess. One Democratic strategist told her, “Their pitch is that everyone is doing it wrong, and they’re here to disrupt and innovate. And they don’t always follow through with that in a successful way.”

Mikey Dickerson, the former Googler who helped lead the rescue of Healthcare.gov, writes on Medium that the solutions to Iowa’s tech nightmare are “hiding in plain sight.” He says, “thanks to the overwrought hero stories of 2008 and 2012, progressive politics has an entrenched belief that all we will ever need, tech-wise, is a couple of plucky volunteers to work miracles from their garage for a few weeks.” He also says, “we put misplaced faith in ‘the market’ solving our infrastructure needs, in the form of myriad shoestring operations competing for tiny venture-capital-style “seed grants” and contracts from PACs and campaigns.” All true, but given that Dickerson is the CTO of a $35 million Reid Hoffman-backed effort to rebuild the Democratic voter file, it sure would be interesting to hear how that effort is going.

Will micro-targeted ads on Facebook and anonymous texts to voters’ phones prove to be the digital secret weapons of 2020? That’s the core thesis of McKay Coppinslong feature in The Atlantic. Of equal or perhaps greater concern, he describes how the Trump campaign has been building online swarms of die-hard supporters who intimidate reporters when they produce unflattering coverage of the White House, going so far as to build a dossier on at least 2,000 people, including journalists, academics, politicians and other high-profile Trump foes.

Related: Here’s NBC’s Chuck Todd referring to the rise of a “digital brownshirt brigade,” but referring mainly to Bernie Sanders’ online supporters, in addition to Trump’s. Maybe referring to the supporters of a Jewish candidate for president this way isn’t the best idea?

Life in Facebookistan: A four-year-old Colorado boy died from the flu last week after his mother, following the advice of anti-vaxxers on a very popular Facebook group called Stop Mandatory Vaccination who convinced her not to give him Tamiflu, Brandy Zadrozny reports for NBC News.

A proposed settlement between Facebook and Washington state regulators regarding political disclosure violations committed by the company is coming under fire from campaign finance legal experts including Ann Ravel, a former FEC chair, who called it a “cave in” by the regulators, Eli Sanders reports for The Stranger.

Facebook is leaving up an altered video showing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tearing up President Trump’s State of the Union speech after he mentions scholarships for women and childcare policies, Drew Harwell and Tony Romm report for the Washington Post. “We all know the difference between editing something to make it more clear and editing something to make it more deceptive,” Dave Karpf of GWU commented. But Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said it did not violate its rules.

Related: Twitter has announced new rules for dealing with synthetic or manipulated media, and it will start labeling such content if it is being shared in a deceptive manner or is likely to impact public safety or cause serious harm.

Amazon has been quietly removing more books by and about Nazis from its store, David Streitfeld reports for The New York Times. No word yet on whether it is deleting digital copies that people may have stored on their Kindles, the way the company did years ago.

Privacy, shmivacy: ClearviewAI, the privacy-destroying facial recognition start-up, has been claiming that its matches are 100% accurate based on an ACLU methodology, but the civil rights organization is loudly disagreeing, Caroline Haskins, Ryan Mac and Logan MacDonald report for BuzzFeed News.

“Autocracies that use digital repression face a lower risk of protests than do those autocratic regimes that do not employ these same tools,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright write in Foreign Affairs, explaining “how technology strengthens autocracy.” They add, “The advancement of AI-powered surveillance is the most significant evolution in digital authoritarianism. High-resolution cameras, facial recognition, spying malware, automated text analysis, and big-data processing have opened up a wide range of new methods of citizen control.”

End times: While we wait for the New Hampshire results, here’s a mental massage. Make sure your sound is on.

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.