Technology as a force for division — and unification — in politics

The functions of government outlined in the U.S. Constitution can be broadly broken down into the promotion of unity, justice, peace, defense and welfare. Nearly 230 years later, in an age when software rules the world, these principles remain constant — but the way in which the average citizen experiences and interacts with government and politics has changed immeasurably.

Around the world, government services have been increasingly going online. In the U.K., a digital transformation campaign began in 2013, pushing through services that let citizens do things like claim certain welfare benefits, pay taxes and register to vote online. Indeed, the U.K. was ranked at the top of the UN’s E-Government Development Index for 2016. The report found that “countries in all regions are increasingly embracing innovation and utilizing ICTs to deliver services, increase transparency and engage people in decision-making processes.”

Despite the U.S. not featuring in the top 10 of the E-Government Development Index, Barack Obama’s presidency has been underpinned by a real push toward the principles of e-government, where information and services are made available online as far as is possible. So the idea of government-as-a-service is nothing new — the idea that we can report issues as minor as potholes or as major as corporate corruption using online tools are familiar to us all.

But while the increase in digital government services has acted as a catalyst for people to become more socially responsible and empowered citizens, technology is changing how we act in a political sense — and not necessarily for the better.

In terms of the news we see and read, some key things have changed over the years. Whereas printed publications still have editors who dictate what the audience sees, with online news, things are very different. Yes they still have editors, but news websites are pumped full of content that we arrive at in all sorts of ways — through social media, search, via an app — and the increasing personalization of this news means that we tend to see more about the things and people in which we are interested. Whether this has to do with sports, entertainment or politics, algorithms that present us with content are — unwittingly — skewing our compass.

Technology is changing how we act in a political sense — and not necessarily for the better.

That “echo chambers” exist within many online communities is something that we have suspected for a long time — and now have quantitative evidence of this, too. A study of Facebook users found a high degree of polarization within the social network, with users tending to interact most frequently with the people and narratives they agreed with — creating an echo chamber.

Facebook also removed another human element from its platform recently. Staff tasked with curating news stories for the Trending Stories section were replaced by algorithms — and there were some well-publicized teething problems. The story chosen to illustrate why newscaster Megyn Kelly was trending — a fake story, as it turned out — shows that algorithms aren’t necessarily guaranteed to be free of political bias, even if that bias is completely unintentional.

Given that so many people now use Facebook as their primary source for news, such political bias can further increase the polarization within the site, with this effect carried through into the real world, too. As Plato said, “those who tell the stories rule society.” With the populist political movements such as the anti-EU “Leave” group in the U.K. and Donald Trump’s camp being increasingly flexible with the truth, outrageous claims are hitting the headlines all the time, and are being used as justification for more and more extreme political views.

Politicians from all sides use the web to push their own version of the story, and frequently it is not so important to be seen as honest as it is to be pushing a populist message that fits in with a group’s existing world view — however untrue it might be. And while some sections of the media aim to call out others they suspect of perpetuating lies, this process often descends into mudslinging that makes both sides look bad.

Even though we have reached the age of post-truth politics, algorithms can help us redress the balance. In October this year, Google announced that it was introducing a new feature to the Google News service that would highlight articles that had been rigorously fact-checked. Alexa, Amazon’s virtual assistant, was able to fact-check the recent presidential campaign. Sites such as PolitiFact kept tabs on statements made by the candidates, ranking their relative level of truthfulness. But while these features and services are useful, they are unlikely to change the minds of those who have already been exposed to the echo-chamber effect for many years.

With discourse becoming increasingly polarized, it becomes ever harder — and less excusable — for citizens to be apathetic toward politics. To go back to Plato, “the price of apathy towards public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” Fortunately for us, it is now becoming easier to become politically active thanks to digital services. Rock the Vote teamed up with theSkimm to create an online voter registration tool, and there are a number of websites that can help you decide which way to vote based on how much you agree with key policies. Tinder’s Swipe the Vote was a particularly interesting — if somewhat gimmicky — innovation. CrowdPac goes one step further, not just matching your values to political parties, but crowdfunded individual causes, as well.

But while governments and private enterprises need to continue to push to improve the lives of their citizens through the provision of digital services, we must be wary of the power that technology has over how we act politically. With much content designed to win clicks rather than promote genuine debate, and many platforms accentuating biased opinions, fact-checking algorithms could be our salvation. Whether they can completely counteract the echo-chamber effect, though, remains to be seen.