Digital Technology, Politics, and Policy-Making


Open access book by Fabrizio Gilardi: “The rise of digital technology has been the best of times, and also the worst, a roller coaster of hopes and fears: “social media have gone—in the popular imagination at least—from being a way for pro-democratic forces to fight autocrats to being a tool of outside actors who want to attack democracies” (Tucker et al., 2017, 47). The 2016 US presidential election raised fundamental questions regarding the compatibility of the internet with democracy (Persily, 2017). The divergent assessments of the promises and risks of digital technology has to do, in part, with the fact that it has become such a pervasive phenomenon. Whether digital technology is, on balance, a net benefit or harm for democratic processes and institutions depends on which specific aspects we focus on. Moreover, the assessment is not value neutral, because digital technology has become inextricably linked with our politics. As Farrell (2012, 47) argued a few years ago, “[a]s the Internet becomes politically normalized, it will be ever less appropriate to study it in isolation but ever more important to think clearly, and carefully, about its relationship to politics.” Reflecting on this issue requires going beyond the headlines, which tend to focus on the most dramatic concerns and may have a negativity bias common in news reporting in general. The shortage of hard facts in this area, linked to the singular challenges of studying the connection between digital technology and politics, exacerbates the problem.
Since it affects virtually every aspect of politic and policy-making, the nature and effects of digital technology have been studied from many different angles in increasingly fragmented literatures. For example, studies of disinformation and social media usually do not acknowledge research on the usage of artificial intelligence in public administration—for good reasons, because such is the nature of specialized academic research. Similarly, media attention tends to concentrate on the most newsworthy aspects, such as the role of Facebook in elections, without connecting them to other related phenomena. The compartmentalization of academic and public attention in this area is understandable, but it obscures the relationships that exist among the different parts. Moreover, the fact that scholarly and media attention are sometimes out of sync might lead policy-makers to focus on solutions before there is a scientific consensus on the nature and scale of the problems. For example, policy-makers may emphasize curbing “fake news” while there is still no agreement in the research community about its effects on political outcomes…(More)”.

Mathematicians are deploying algorithms to stop gerrymandering


Article by Siobhan Roberts: “The maps for US congressional and state legislative races often resemble electoral bestiaries, with bizarrely shaped districts emerging from wonky hybrids of counties, precincts, and census blocks.

It’s the drawing of these maps, more than anything—more than voter suppression laws, more than voter fraud—that determines how votes translate into who gets elected. “You can take the same set of votes, with different district maps, and get very different outcomes,” says Jonathan Mattingly, a mathematician at Duke University in the purple state of North Carolina. “The question is, if the choice of maps is so important to how we interpret these votes, which map should we choose, and how should we decide if someone has done a good job in choosing that map?”

Over recent months, Mattingly and like-minded mathematicians have been busy in anticipation of a data release expected today, August 12, from the US Census Bureau. Every decade, new census data launches the decennial redistricting cycle—state legislators (or sometimes appointed commissions) draw new maps, moving district lines to account for demographic shifts.

In preparation, mathematicians are sharpening new algorithms—open-source tools, developed over recent years—that detect and counter gerrymandering, the egregious practice giving rise to those bestiaries, whereby politicians rig the maps and skew the results to favor one political party over another. Republicans have openly declared that with this redistricting cycle they intend to gerrymander a path to retaking the US House of Representatives in 2022….(More)”.

Many in U.S., Western Europe Say Their Political System Needs Major Reform


Pew Research Center: “A four-nation Pew Research Center survey conducted in November and December of 2020 finds that roughly two-thirds of adults in France and the U.S., as well as about half in the United Kingdom, believe their political system needs major changes or needs to be completely reformed. Calls for significant reform are less common in Germany, where about four-in-ten express this view….

In all four countries, there is considerable interest in political reforms that would potentially allow ordinary citizens to have more power over policymaking. Citizen assemblies, or forums where citizens chosen at random debate issues of national importance and make recommendations about what should be done, are overwhelmingly popular. Around three-quarters or more in each country say it is very or somewhat important for the national government to create citizen assemblies. About four-in-ten say it’s very important. Such processes are in use nationally in France and the UK to debate climate change policy, and they have become increasingly common in nations around the world in recent years.

Chart showing citizen assemblies and referendums are popular ideas in all four countries

Citizen assemblies are popular across the ideological spectrum but are especially so among people who place themselves on the political left.1 Those who think their political system needs significant reform are also particularly likely to say it is important to create citizen assemblies.

There are also high levels of support for allowing citizens to vote directly to decide what becomes law for some key issues. About seven-in-ten in the U.S., Germany and France say it is important, in line with previous findings about support for direct democracy. In the UK, where crucial issues such as Scottish independence and Brexit were decided by referendum, support is somewhat lower – 63% say it is important for the government to use referendums to decide some key issues, and just 27% rate this as very important.

These are among the findings of a new Pew Research Center survey conducted from Nov. 10 to Dec. 23, 2020, among 4,069 adults in the France, Germany, the UK and the U.S. This report also includes findings from 26 focus groups conducted in 2019 in the U.S. and UK….(More)”.

Social penumbras predict political attitudes


Paper by Andrew Gelman and Yotam Margalit: “To explain the political clout of different social groups, traditional accounts typically focus on the group’s size, resources, or commonality and intensity of its members’ interests. We contend that a group’s penumbra—the set of individuals who are personally familiar with people in that group—is another important explanatory factor that merits systematic analysis. To this end, we designed a panel study that allows us to learn about the characteristics of the penumbras of politically relevant groups such as gay people, the unemployed, or recent immigrants. Our study reveals major and systematic differences in the penumbras of various social groups, even ones of similar size. Moreover, we find evidence that entering a group’s penumbra is associated with a change in attitude on group-related policy questions. Taken together, our findings suggest that penumbras are pertinent for understanding variation in the political standing of different groups in society….(More)”.

Personal experiences bridge moral and political divides better than facts


Paper by Emily Kubin, Curtis Puryear, Chelsea Schein, and Kurt Gray: “All Americans are affected by rising political polarization, whether because of a gridlocked Congress or antagonistic holiday dinners. People believe that facts are essential for earning the respect of political adversaries, but our research shows that this belief is wrong. We find that sharing personal experiences about a political issue—especially experiences involving harm—help to foster respect via increased perceptions of rationality. This research provides a straightforward pathway for increasing moral understanding and decreasing political intolerance. These findings also raise questions about how science and society should understand the nature of truth in the era of “fake news.” In moral and political disagreements, everyday people treat subjective experiences as truer than objective facts….(More)”

Facebook will let researchers study how advertisers targeted users with political ads prior to Election Day


Nick Statt at The Verge: “Facebook is aiming to improve transparency around political advertising on its platform by opening up more data to independent researchers, including targeting information on more than 1.3 million ads that ran in the three months prior to the US election on November 3rd of last year. Researchers interested in studying the ads can apply for access to the Facebook Open Research and Transparency (FORT) platform here.

The move is significant because Facebook has long resisted willfully allowing access to data around political advertising, often citing user privacy. The company has gone so far as to even disable third-party web plugins, like ProPublica’s Facebook Political Ad Collector tool, that collect such data without Facebook’s express consent.

Numerous research groups around the globe have spent years now studying Facebook’s impact on everything from democratic elections to news dissemination, but sometimes without full access to all the desired data. Only last year, after partnering with Harvard University’s Social Science One (the group overseeing applications for the new political ad targeting initiative), did Facebook better formalize the process of granting anonymized user data for research studies.

In the past, Facebook has made some crucial political ad information in its Ad Library available to the public, including the amount spent on certain ads and demographic information about who saw those ads. But now the company says it wants to do more to improve transparency, specifically around how advertisers target certain subsets of users with political advertising….(More)”.

Applying behavioural science to the annual electoral canvass in England: Evidence from a large-scale randomised controlled trial


Paper by Martin Sweeney, Peter John, Michael Sanders, Hazel Wright and Lucy Makinson: “Local authorities in Great Britain are required to ensure that their electoral registers are as accurate and complete as possible. To this end, Household Enquiry Forms (HEFs) are mailed to all properties annually to collect updated details from residents, and any eligible unregistered residents will subsequently be invited to register to vote. Unfortunately, HEF nonresponse is pervasive and costly. Using insights from behavioural science, we modified letters and envelopes posted to households as part of the annual canvass, and evaluated their effects using a randomised controlled trial across two local authorities in England (N=226,528 properties). We find that modified materials – particularly redesigned envelopes – significantly increase initial response rates and savings. However, we find no effects on voter registration. While certain behavioural interventions can improve the efficiency of the annual canvass, other approaches or interventions may be needed to increase voter registration rates and update voter information….(More)”.

Civic Technologies: Research, Practice and Open Challenges


Paper by Pablo Aragon, Adriana Alvarado Garcia, Christopher A. Le Dantec, Claudia Flores-Saviaga, and Jorge Saldivar: “Over the last years, civic technology projects have emerged around the world to advance open government and community action. Although Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) communities have shown a growing interest in researching issues around civic technologies, yet most research still focuses on projects from the Global North. The goal of this workshop is, therefore, to advance CSCW research by raising awareness for the ongoing challenges and open questions around civic technology by bridging the gap between researchers and practitioners from different regions.

The workshop will be organized around three central topics: (1) discuss how the local context and infrastructure affect the design, implementation, adoption, and maintenance of civic technology; (2) identify key elements of the configuration of trust among government, citizenry, and local organizations and how these elements change depending on the sociopolitical context where community engagement takes place; (3) discover what methods and strategies are best suited for conducting research on civic technologies in different contexts. These core topics will be covered across sessions that will initiate in-depth discussions and, thereby, stimulate collaboration between the CSCW research community and practitioners of civic technologies from both Global North and South….(More)”.

The Case for Digital Activism: Refuting the Fallacies of Slacktivism


Paper by Nora Madison and Mathias Klang: “This paper argues for the importance and value of digital activism. We first outline the arguments against digitally mediated activism and then address the counter-arguments against its derogatory criticisms. The low threshold for participating in technologically mediated activism seems to irk its detractors. Indeed, the term used to downplay digital activism is slacktivism, a portmanteau of slacker and activism. The use of slacker is intended to stress the inaction, low effort, and laziness of the person and thereby question their dedication to the cause. In this work we argue that digital activism plays a vital role in the arsenal of the activist and needs to be studied on its own terms in order to be more fully understood….(More)”

Your phone already tracks your location. Now that data could fight voter suppression


Article by Seth Rosenblatt: “Smartphone location data is a dream for marketers who want to know where you go and how long you spend there—and a privacy nightmare. But this kind of geolocation data could also be used to protect people’s voting rights on Election Day.

The newly founded nonprofit Center for New Data is now tracking voters at the polls using smartphone location data to help researchers understand how easy—or difficult—it is for people to vote in different places. Called the Observing Democracy project, the nonpartisan effort is making data on how far people have to travel to vote and how long they have to wait in line available in a privacy-friendly way so it can be used to craft election policies that ensure voting is accessible for everyone.

Election data has already fueled changes in various municipalities and states. A 66-page lawsuit filed by Fair Fight Action against the state of Georgia in the wake of Stacey Abrams’s narrow loss to Brian Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial race relies heavily on data to back its assertions of unconstitutionally delayed and deferred voter registration, unfair challenges to absentee and provisional ballots, and unjustified purges of voter rolls—all hallmarks of voter suppression.

The promise of Observing Democracy is to make this type of impactful data available much more rapidly than ever before. Barely a month old, Observing Democracy isn’t wasting any time: Its all-volunteer staffers will be receiving data potentially as soon as Nov. 4 on voter wait times at polling locations, travel times to polling stations, and how frequently ballot drop-off boxes are visited, courtesy of location-data mining companies X-Mode Social and Veraset, which was spun off from SafeGraph….(More)”.