Democracy in the age of algorithms

AGORA moderator's picture
On 7 November, a cross-party event took place at the European Parliament, in Brussels under the theme: “Democracy in the age of algorithms”. The event was inspired by the background research for the science fiction novel “Disco Sour” about Europe, democracy and algorithm, conducted by Giuseppe Porcaro. 
 
The background research was based on the growing public interest in artificial intelligence and its impact in policy and decision making. Artificial intelligence is already used to identify patterns in large, complex sets of data (big data) to recognize the interests of voters and their voting intentions. Machine intelligence is now being carefully used to deploy election campaigns while engaging voters, and providing them information about key political issues. 
 
The applications of artificial intelligence in politics can be immense, which also poses ethical issues.  Artificial could, for instance, be used to manipulate individual voters. For example, the usage of autonomous accounts – bots - which are programmed to aggressively spread one-sided political messages to manufacture the illusion of public support. These bots helped spread misinformation and fake news on social media, as it was seen in the BREXIT referendum in the UK, and in the 2016 presidential election in the United States. 
 
New technological trends can present opportunities and challenges to policy and decision makers, and revolutionize the traditional role of members of parliaments and their representation.  In an era where it is impossible to ignore the disenchantment of citizens with political institutions and electoral processes, especially among young people, it is imperative to reflect on the current democratic model. 
 
Tinder politics
During the US presidential elections in 2016, the dating app Tinder launched the temporary app “Swipe your vote” to match up voters with their dream presidential candidate via its customary way of swiping left or right. The matchmaking application would allow voters in the US to simply swipe yes or no to answer ten questions, which the application would then use to match them up with their ideal president.  The questions matched voters’ yes-or-no answers to a range of issues, including same-sex marriage, abortion, minimum wage, the death penalty, online privacy and Obamacare. This model could be mainstreamed and oversimplify policy issues and mislead voters on their real voting intentions. 
 
Algorithm citizenship
Algorithmic Citizenship is a form of citizenship which is not assigned at birth, by nationality, but through data. In practice, the plug-in Citizen-Ex by James Bridle uses your browser’s metadata to calculate a user’s algorithmic citizenship. National citizenship is normally seen as binary: You either are, or are not, a citizen of a country:  Bridle’s plug-in assigns the user a percentage-based citizenship. Algorithmic Citizenship is how you appear to the internet, as a collection of data extending across many nations, with a different citizenship and different rights in every place (e.g. User x could be 30 per cent Portuguese, 40 per cent Canadian, 20 per cent Finnish and 10 per cent Mozambican). 
 
As any other computerised processes, it can happen at the speed of light, constantly revising and recalculating data. A single citizenship could be split into an infinite number of sub-citizenships, and count and weight them over time to produce combinations of affiliations to different states. This concept challenges the traditional representation function of parliaments to act on behalf of voters and citizens.  
 
Blockchain and Liquid Democracy
Blockchain is a system which allows for one Internet user to transfer a unique piece of digital property to another Internet user, in a safe, secure manner. Everyone knows that the transfer has taken place, and nobody can challenge the legitimacy of the transfer.
 
By allowing digital information to be distributed but not copied, blockchain technology revolutionized the Internet. Originally developed for the digital currency, Bitcoin, the technology could also revolutionize elections and voting. Blockchain could ensure online voting would be a universal reality. 
 
The way it would work would be that each voter would be assigned a vote as a Smart contract (computer protocol) which would be valid only on the election day. The vote would then be perceived as a transaction on the publicly available ledger, the chances of any discrepancy will be zero. The voter can act on his Right to Vote using the private key he/she uses for their cryptocurrency wallet.
 
After the election, the blockchain technology would ensure the election records were more secure than ever. The usage of blockchain system could also mitigate current issues such as voter intimidation, and security instability during election day, as it was seen in the Kenyan elections. 
 
Liquid Democracy
Blockchain could also be the technological backbone of Liquid Democracy. Liquid Democracy (a subset of Delegative Democracy) is a powerful voting model for collective decision making in large communities. Liquid Democracy combines Direct Democracy and Representative Democracy and creates a democratic voting system that allows voters to either vote on issues directly, or to delegate ones voting power to a trusted party.
 
Through delegation, people with domain-specific knowledge are able to influence the outcome of decisions, which could evolve into a Meritocracy, where decisions are mainly made by those who have the kind of knowledge and experience required to make well-informed decisions on issues. Overall, Liquid Democracy holds a lot of potential to not only be the foundation of decision making in virtual communities, but also local communities and entire governments. However, Liquid Democracy concept recreates the representative democracy's problem of two classes of citizens by allowing voters to delegate their votes to other parties they consider better suited to vote for them. In addition,  it is not yet clear how this governance model would guarantee policy consistency across the whole set of decisions being made across different policy areas.
 
AGORA portal for parliamentary development has developed a course “ICT: Transforming parliaments” reflecting on how technological developments are benefiting and affecting parliaments. The course analyses the opportunities and challenges that ICT brings to the work of parliaments and members of the parliament; how ICT facilitates civic engagement, as well as which challenges ICT may bring.  The course will be available at the AGORA e-learning portal by the end of the year at https://learn.agora-parl.org/.