Calling Facebook A ‘Democracy’ Is An Insult To Democracy

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If voting makes an organization democratic, then China is a democracy, since citizens are permitted to elect their (relatively powerless) local representatives. Calling an organization “democratic,” when a tiny fraction of individuals select from a list of limited, pre-chosen options on one aspect of their experience, is an insult to the very concept of self-governance. Facebook’s recent decision to revoke the process of “voting” on whether user information could be shared with its affiliates (i.e. Instagram) has given rise to an angry mob of civil rights groups decrying the end of democracy. Speaking as a professional writer, I can assure you this is media hype — at its finest — and think critics need a lesson in democratic theory.

The term “democracy” was born in the rolling hills of Ancient Greece, derived from the Greek word for local territories, “deme,” (Δῆμος) and “kratos” (κράτος), which, over time, morphed into “rule of the people.” Like the United States, the Greeks’ experiment in self-governance was forged after a triumphant coup over their oppressors and the leadership of philosophical visionaries (thanks to Cleisthenes, the closest thing that Greece had to a founding father).

Since its inception, actual democracies have had sophisticated systems of trial by jury, citizen-government deliberations, and representation. Facebook has none of these: no one elected Zuckerberg, nor are there user juries for banning spammers.

Voting Is Not Democracy And Democracy Is Not Voting

As the earliest experimenters in self-governance, even the Greeks knew that there was no democracy without mass participation. A quorum of 6,000 was sometimes required for the legislative body to do business (roughly 14 percent of the citizenship).

On Facebook, participation rates on the first vote on privacy policy weren’t even within arms length of the single digits. “You probably weren’t even aware of it, but until Wednesday, you had voting rights on Facebook,” wrote Mashable’s Chris Taylor, who notes that only 0.038 percent of users bothered to turn out. “It made the U.S. midterm elections (with their average 40% voter turnout) look like a triumph of participation.”

Silly as Facebook’s “democracy” may now seem in context, the conflation of voting and self-governance has caused serious international relations issues. “Electoralism is the faith, widely held by U.S. policy makers and some scholars, that merely holding elections will channel political action into peaceful contests among elite and accord public legitimacy to the winners in these contests,” said Terry Karl, a fiery Stanford political science professor who travels the world digging up bones of assassinated citizens to help indict former dictators in international courts. “As an ideology, it elevates elections over all other dimensions of democracy”

Suffice to say, even the mere mention of voting as synonymous with democracy is a practice that should just…it should just go away — quickly.

Facebook Is Probably Getting More Democratic

Throughout history, the absence of voting has often given groups more power. Indeed, it was the well-oiled political machine of female activists that amended the constitution to ban alcohol (prohibition was the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, suffrage was the 19th). “It is the misfortune for the woman’s movement that it has succeeded in securing political rights for women at the very period when political rights are worth less than they have been at any time since the eighteenth century,” lamented suffragist Suzanne La Folette, writing during the historic decline of local influence after the 19th century.

Or take Switzerland, a country where every major decision is voted on directly by the people. The Swiss vote up to seven times a year on dozens of issues, ranging from international treaties to immigration. Yet, Switzerland has one of the lowest rates of participation among its first-world peers, around 30 percent. Many Swiss ballot initiatives are honed collaboratively between opposing sides, so by the time it gets to Election Day, many of the disagreements have been ironed out and each side has been given far more influence than they would in a contentious vote.

Indeed, throughout history and the world, conversation has been far more democratic (influential) than voting. “We found that the voting mechanism, which is triggered by a specific number of comments, actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality,” wrote Facebook VP of Communications, Elliot Schrage.

Now, this is no guarantee that Facebook will listen to comments, but the absence of voting certainly doesn’t curtail the influence of user opinion. At the very least, going forward, let’s hope that the conflation of democracy and voting is like a fairy-tale villain: if we stop believing it exists, it’ll go away.