Tech Companies Need Democracy Ombudsmen

By Evan Chiacchiaro

As technology rapidly changes the way Americans live, it is essential for the future of American democracy that those driving this change wrestle with how new developments affect democratic norms and processes. The most effective way to do so is for technology companies to establish independent, non-partisan “democratic ombudsman” offices. The “democracy ombudsman” should be charged with understanding the effects of their company’s products on democratic governance and acting as an internal advocate for decisions that promote a healthy American democracy.

An unintended effect of technological progress has been an erosion of some basic norms and processes that allow American democracy to function. Two examples particularly illuminate how democratic tenets are undermined by changes in the way we consume information and interact with each other.

First, while revelations that Russian agents purchased $100,000 in political advertisements on Facebook during the 2016 campaign were eye popping, just as dangerous for a healthy democracy were the microtargeted Facebook “dark posts” deployed by the Donald J. Trump campaign. These posts were invisible to everyone but the recipient, calibrated through large-scale A/B testing, and sent to specific individuals identified by complex data analysis to both increase support for Trump and lower Hillary Clinton’s turnout.

The result was a network filled with secret, personalized messages of questionable veracity aimed at those most likely to act on them. Of course, some voters have never been particularly well-informed, misleading information and outright lies are hardly new to American politics, and different demographics always view events through different lenses. But technological innovations are what allowed for the potent weaponization of these conditions; microtargeting and advanced analytics vastly increase an advertisement’s effectiveness, while the hidden nature of “dark posts” allows them to fly under the radar and avoid rebuttal.

It is not too far a leap, then, to imagine future elections in which disparate populations share almost no common sets of facts. Instead, most voters largely form their political opinions from individualized communications designed to manipulate them—and which, crucially, are unable to be fact-checked or countered by media or opposition campaigns that are unaware of their existence. Democracy loses any semblance of a debate of ideas and becomes a nakedly obvious exercise in electoral gamesmanship.

Second, democracy rests on the premise that policy disputes are resolved through elections. Losing is thus not the end of the world, because in two or four or six years there is another opportunity to replace political leaders.

Americans may no longer feel this way. A 2016 Pew survey reported that fifty-five percent of Democrats and forty-nine percent of Republicans state that the other party makes them “afraid.” This is almost certainly exacerbated by low interaction between individuals with different political views; according to another Pew survey taken shortly before the 2016 election, seventy-five percent of Democrats and sixty-six percent of Republicans reported having no or “just a few” friends supporting a different presidential candidate.

Now think about Twitter’s “Who to Follow” feature, which suggests other accounts to follow when visiting another user’s page. These suggestions are invariably part of the same political milieu; visit a libertarian or progressive Twitter account, and Twitter suggests three more libertarian or progressive personalities to follow. The result is a feed filled with self-affirming posts; opposing views may appear, but just when being snarked at or ridiculed. The more people surround themselves only with like-minded people, the greater a threat the opposition seems to become. Suddenly, an election loss no longer seems okay, and anti-democratic options begin to grow more attractive.

In both cases, considering the impact on democratic norms and processes should lead these companies to make different policy decisions. And these are only two examples of the tension between democracy and evolving technologies—there are certainly more. Technology companies must acknowledge and respond to these uncomfortable facts and appoint “democracy ombudsmen” whose jobs are to prioritize political health over profit margins.

The rise of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will inevitably create new risks. Relying on others to solve these problems may seem appealing, but it is in everyone’s best interests for technology policy decisions to be fundamentally compatible with our system of governance. Appointing democratic ombudsmen at technology companies and integrating them into the decision-making process will ensure American democracy’s interests have a seat at the table.

Evan Chiacchiaro is an independent consultant on technology, democracy, and good governance issues and is completing his Master’s Degree in Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.