The 2016 U.S. presidential election stoked concerns about the potential of digital technologies to disempower citizens and erode democracy. Such concerns followed years of promises from tech companies and investors about the democratizing power of the internet. Since their founding, Twitter and Facebook have touted themselves as tools for democracy and citizen empowerment. A closer look, however, reveals that tech company incentives are often poorly aligned with the social goals they espouse and the type of good they promise to do for the world.
A new crop of companies — self-titled “civic technology” companies — are now taking the democratic mission more seriously by designing their platforms and tools with the explicit intention of promoting civic engagement. Some of these companies are nonprofits or ventures with the dual mission of making a profit and providing social benefits. Others are traditional startups financed by venture capitalists. In both cases, these companies need better metrics to ensure that their products and business designs remain aligned with their social missions.
Unfortunately, Silicon Valley companies are often judged simply on their ability to attract exponentially rising numbers of users and maintain user engagement. This standard for “success” encourages companies to work with paying customers who advertise to users and exploit their attention and data — rather than serving users in empowering ways. In turn, such standard measures are what matter to business leaders and investors. Measures of success need to change in order to encourage more tech companies to pursue democratic goals. Industry leaders, governmental and citizen users, and investors — all must create new performance standards to redefine success and hold tech companies accountable. New measures for evaluating company performance should be tied to service to democracy and to citizen empowerment.
In a June 2017 post, Mark Zuckerberg introduced a change in Facebook’s mission from “make the world more open and connected” to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Facebook may not be able to give people power, but the goal of empowering people and building community is language familiar to civic engagement and participatory democracy, similar to the core idea of relational organizing—building interpersonal relationships that can be mobilized for collective action. In a February 2017 post, Zuckerberg first articulated this new thinking: “In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” Companies like Facebook often claim to serve the public good through their products; however, this particular language and the depth of explanation in Zuckerberg’s posts imply a recognition of ethical responsibility and at least an intention to design for true citizen empowerment.
I believe it is fair to insist that if the creators of a technology platform seek to make claims about empowering users, they must set explicit design goals for citizen empowerment and evaluate their platform against those goals. Facebook continues to face steep challenges to providing equal access to its platform. To aim for communities that can be effective and serving the public good is an even loftier goal. How Facebook will know whether it is actually making progress on its mission remains to be seen. However, technology companies have a reputation for religiously articulating goals and measuring them empirically. In fact, one of the architects of the data science team at Facebook claims that they invented the term “data scientist” to describe this important role (Hammerbacher 2009).
Democracy that values citizen-centered governance requires citizen empowerment (sometimes called “civic agency”), and empowered citizens need certain skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits that lead to effective civic engagement (Boyte 2009; Levinson 2012; Gibson and Levine 2003). Empowering experiences and learning opportunities can promote a virtuous cycle of reinforcing citizen empowerment and strengthening democracy. Spaces like town hall meetings, protest marches, the voting booth, and the civic education classroom traditionally represent where these experiences and opportunities take place. The emergence of networked digital media have created new, pervasive civic spaces—the networked public sphere. Whereas public spaces offline have seen a decline (Zick 2009), their online replacements, largely private spaces like Facebook, have grown to astounding size and influence with limited accountability to governments and the public.
Social media platforms like Facebook, government communication tools like We the People, and smaller civic technology platforms like SeeClickFix are increasingly the spaces through which citizens seek empowerment in the form of direct response from their government on key issues. As important actors in U.S. democracy (as well as other polities), the creators of these spaces have a responsibility to design for citizen empowerment and ensure they are advancing empowering processes and outcomes for citizens by evaluating whether their platforms are actually serving this mission. These creators of digital technology used for civic engagement should be understood as stewards of democracy with an ethical obligation to serve the public good.