Tech and Democracy

Dated Jan 27, 2020; last modified on Fri, 03 Sep 2021

So You Want to Reform Democracy

If there was an idea that could ‘fix’ democracy, it would have been thought-up already. If you don’t see your idea out there, it’s because it didn’t work the hundreds of other times someone tried it.

Let’s tell representatives what their constituents think. Then they HAVE to vote with us!

  • They don’t necessarily want to know what their constituents are thinking.
  • When they do, they have no trouble finding out

Only a small fraction of citizens will ever participate in a poll, and that causes selection biases.

The world is complicated and for good reason we elect representatives to make decisions so we don’t have to read 2,000-page bills.

  • People are rationally ignorant. We want to live our lives. People don’t want a direct democracy.

We all have our pet issues. People aren’t looking to be civic, in a general way. They are looking to do something very particular that is important to them.

We simplify the world too much with principles, e.g.

  • Majority votes are fair (majority votes allow mob rule)
  • Self-determination makes people happier (self-determination doesn’t create equitable outcomes)
  • Transparency reveals corruption (corruption moves under the shadows)

By simplifying we end up getting things wrong sometimes - often without realizing we’ve gotten it wrong.

Individuals don’t hold power, groups do. Helping people connect with others and teaching them how to carry out effective advocacy together is hard. It’s not a technology problem. It is a social, societal, institutional challenge.

Be careful who you are empowering. Tech is only available to those who can afford it (and the time to use it). If your target audience is people like you, your idea could easily exacerbate problems for people less well off than you.

Don’t try to solve problems you don’t experience yourself without actually engaging with the people who have those problems. Every now and then some rich folks build apps about homelessness.

Become an expert first and find your unique contribution to the world. Your idea has no value. It’s all about execution.

Cambridge Analytica Uncovered

Cambridge Analytica (CA) paid people to take in-app survey; mined FB profile data including friends' data; crafted tailored sensitive ads to swayable voters. Elections are about emotions, not facts. Data science and social media can help us make sense of and manipulate the chaos.

An alternative argument. Political misinformation is:

  • Weak in high profile partisan races because pre-existing beliefs hardly change
  • Strong when people don’t have string pre-existing opinions, e.g. misinformation about voter ID laws causing people to stay home from the polls

CA also dug/created dirt using shell companies. Guises: investors offering shady deals, fake IDs and websites, students at local universities, tourists.


  1. So You Want to Reform Democracy. Joshua Tauberer. . Nov 22, 2015.
  2. Channel 4 News: Cambridge Analytica Uncovered: Secret filming reveals election tricks. . Mar 19, 2018.
  3. America’s misinformation problem, explained: It’s better - and worse - than you think. Sean Illing. . Nov 6, 2017.