The Internet Doesn’t Have to Be Bad for Democracy

Tom Simonite at MIT Technology Review: “Accusations that the Internet and social media sow political division have flown thick and fast since recent contentious elections in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has even pledged to start working on technology that will turn the energy of online interactions into a more positive force (see “We Need More Alternatives to Facebook”).

Tiny, largely self-funded U.S. startup has been working on a similar project longer than Zuckerberg and already has some promising results. The company’s interactive, crowdsourced survey tool can be used to generate maps of public opinion that help citizens, governments, and legislators discover the nuances of agreement and disagreement on contentious issues that exist. In 2016, that information helped the government of Taiwan break a six-year deadlock over how to regulate online alcohol sales, caused by entrenched, opposing views among citizens on what rules should apply.

“It allowed different sides to gradually see that they share the same underlying concern despite superficial disagreements,” says Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister. The island’s government now routinely sends out surveys using Facebook ads, and to special-interest groups. It has also used the system to help thrash out what rules should apply to Airbnb rentals and mobile ride-hailing services such as Uber.’s open-source software is designed to serve up interactive online surveys around a particular issue. People are shown a series of short statements about aspects of a broader issue—for example, “Uber drivers should need the same licenses cab drivers do”—and asked to click to signal that they agree or disagree. People can contribute new statements of their own for others to respond to. The tangle of crisscrossing responses is used to automatically generate charts that map out different clusters of opinion, making it easy to see the points on which people tend to overlap or disagree.

Alternativet, a progressive Danish political party with nine members of parliament, is piloting as a way to give its members a more direct role in formulating policy. Jon Skjerning-Rasmussen, a senior process coordinator with the party, says the way visualizations are shared with people as they participate in a survey—letting them see how their opinions compare with those of others—helps people engage with the tool….(More).