What Kind of Democracy?

Using machine learning to shut down Facebook hoaxes; abusing statistics to justify family separation; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Miranda Neubauer reports for Civicist on the launch of the New York City Council’s new public dashboard, where you can learn everything from where rodent reports are most prevalent to which districts have the most requests for U.S. citizenship assistance.

  • This morning, the good folks at PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement) are rereleasing Matt Leighninger’s 2014 report on Infogagement, along with a fresh preface from him and commentaries from Kelly Born of the Hewlett Foundation, Jennifer Brandel of Hearken, Darryl Holliday of City Bureau, Lillian Coral of the Knight Foundation, Paul Waters, Josh Stearns and Tom Glaisyer of the Democracy Fund, Jenny Choi of the News Integrity Initiative, and yours truly, among others. As Leighninger writes, “The discussion of what the public square should look like needs to happen in more places, and with more people….The fundamental question remains: What kind of democracy do we want?”

  • Personal Democracy Forum 2018 has posted its “Safety and Inclusion Transparency Report,” building on similar reports posted by PyCon and the Code for America Summit.

  • Access Now, the international digital rights organization, is looking to hire its global policy director.

  • San Francisco’s City Innovate is looking to hire a program director for its startup in residence program. 

  • Trump watch: Speaking of what kind of democracy we want, democracies die when they are no longer grounded in facts. Unauthorized border crossings into America have been dropping, and the number last year was the lowest since 1971, as Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell points out. And immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, aren’t criminals—they commit crimes at far lower rates than native-born Americans. And yet, she writes, “With virtually no facts on his side, [President Trump] has managed to fabricate a multipart border emergency, and convince a majority of his own party that this imagined emergency necessitates state-sanctioned child abuse.” 

  • And here’s Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen performing an extremely ugly abuse of statistics, as caught by Philip Bump of the Los Angeles Times. At her Monday White House news briefing, she repeatedly claimed that “In the last five months, we have a 314% increase in adults and children arriving at the border, fraudulently claiming to be a family unit,” arguing that “those are traffickers, those are smugglers. That is MS-13.” Bump points out that in fact, the number of individuals using minors to pose as fake family units has indeed risen 314%, but that’s from 46 to 191. The overall number of family units arrested at the border in the last five months is just over 31,000.

  • One legal aid organization, the Texas Civil Rights Project, represents more than 300 parents and so far has only been able to track down two of their missing children, Kevin Sieff reports for The Washington Post. Sieff notes on Twitter, “It’s clear to me that there is no plan to reunify these families.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: The social networking giant says it is deploying new machine learning that can automatically identify and reduce the reach of pages run by people using hoaxes to make money, Craig Silverman reports for BuzzFeed. At the same time, the company announced that it is partnering with Fox News (as well as CNN and ABC) to create more “trustworthy, informative and local” news, so one wonders how good its machine learning algorithms can be spotting hoaxers focused on making money.

  • First Post is going on vacation next week. See you in July!