Canada Democracy elections



Vote swapping is reinvigorating some citizens’ interest in elections by offering them a greater say, and perhaps a greater influence on election outcomes.

Although it would come as news to a sizeable chunk of Canadians, they do not elect their head of government—at least not directly. Like some other nations that used to be British colonies, Canada is governed by the Westminster system, meaning the prime minister is appointed by the Queen’s local representative, the governor general. Normally, this official appoints the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons, making the prime minister a democratically chosen leader in practice, if not on paper.

However, this democratic choice is arguably distorted by the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, in which the candidate who gets the most votes in an electoral district wins a seat. FPTP is usually (though not always) consistent with the popular vote when there are two dominant parties, as in the United States, but because most Canadian ridings (electoral districts) now have three or more non-“fringe” candidates, somebody can easily win a seat without earning the majority of the votes, just so long as he or she still has more votes than each of the competitors.

As a result, Canada’s government is often elected by a minority of the citizens. The current prime minister’s party, the Conservatives, had 39.62 percent of the popular vote in the 2011 election. The geographical distribution of these votes also happened to give the Conservatives a “false majority”: they hold over half of the seats in the House of Commons despite having earned under half the vote—and are therefore able to pass legislation without support from any of the other parties.

Given the potential for this kind of scenario, it isn’t unusual for Canadians to cast a ballot, not for the candidate they like the most, but instead for the person they believe has the best chance of defeating the candidate they like the least.

Leading up to the Canadian election scheduled for October 19, web-based vote-swapping hubs are offering another tactical option. Instead of simply voting for second- or third-choice candidates, vote swappers aim to pair up with somebody who lives in a riding where their preferred party has a real chance of winning a seat according to poll data and statistical modeling. Each partner in the swap agrees to vote for the other partner’s preferred party.

Dr. Mai Yasue, a conservation scientist in Vancouver, thinks her priorities are most in line with those of the Green Party, but her riding is a close three-way race between the Conservatives, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP). “Although I’d like to show my support for the Green Party and help them gain a reputation of being a real Canadian political party, the idea of helping to give a seat to the Conservatives is abhorrent to me,” she says. She is looking to swap her vote with a Liberal Party supporter in a riding with a strong Green candidate.

Preserving the overall vote count of small parties like the Greens is one of the advantages of vote swapping. “It’s a way to get their leaders into the house, and these parties bring important conversations to the table,” says Craig Hubley, one of the administrators behind Vote Swap Canada 2015, a Facebook group where would-be swappers can post want ads to find a partner.

Another purported advantage of swapping is that once you’ve committed to vote on behalf of somebody else, your conscience is more likely to send you to booth on election day—even if you’re busy or tired. “It creates a feeling of solidarity between myself and the person I’m swapping with,” says Marena Brinkhurst, an NDP supporter voting in Nova Scotia who found a Liberal partner in Quebec through Vote Swap Canada 2015. “We’re in different provinces and we support different parties, but we’re both in the same bind and we can help each other. It’s a refreshing moment of connection and trust to find during an election.”

In addition, swapping offers the option of voting for a candidate whose track record or ideas you admire but who isn’t running where you live. “Maybe you can’t stand any of the people in your riding,” says Hubley. “But there must be someone, somewhere in the country, whom you can respect.”


Informal vote swapping between family and friends has probably existed for decades if not longer. Even before Canadians took to the web in 2008 to swap votes with strangers, a similar endeavor had been tried during the American presidential election in 2000, when Ralph Nader supporters in swing states agreed to vote for Al Gore in exchange for Nader votes in predictable states. One of the websites facilitating these arrangements,, was threatened with criminal prosecution by California’s secretary of state, frightening it (and others) into shutting down. Seven years later, it was vindicated by a circuit court’s decision that these threats had violated the website creator’s freedom of speech. Online vote swapping has continued playing a minor role in the United States ever since.

The Gore-Bush race was so close that Gore-Nader swaps held the potential to change the outcome, but since 2000, the margins of victory in presidential elections have been wider. In Canada, by contrast, it’s recently been the rule rather than the exception that a few thousand vote swaps could theoretically make the difference between a majority government (that can largely do as it pleases) and a minority one (that must cooperate to a certain extent with other parties)—and once you get into tens of thousands of swaps then you could even give the government to an entirely different party and prime minister.

The challenge is making these swaps in effective places. “Local riding polls are expensive,” says Hubley. “They’re mostly done by parties and kept secret.” In 2011, some of the publicly available riding projections were off, so that vote-swapping hubs’ recommendations were off, too. “That’s part of the reason why, in the end, there was no seat that we could point to and say, ‘That was us,’” Hubley says.

Former Green Party leader and author Jim Harris is trying to address this problem by crowd-funding polls in key swing ridings via “Statistical modeling is something to go by, but it’s not as reliable as an actual poll,” he explains, adding that the results of any polls he manages to fund will be made available to everyone, not only to the people formally registered to swap votes on his site.


There are several different ways a website can facilitate vote swapping. It can be a forum for posting want ads, it can host a partner-matching app, or it can be a place to register for swaps that will be orchestrated by humans behind the scenes. Each method has been tried out at least once, and each has its pros and cons. Want ads offer no privacy, but they let you zero in on exactly the type of swap you’d like to make for whatever reason. Different swappers might have different strategies in mind, and they can all simultaneously pursue them in a free-for-all.

The other two methods allow, if desired, for a more coordinated strategy—and administrators will ideally be transparent about what that strategy is., for example, is explicitly an anti-Stephen Harper site: its foremost goal is to prevent him from staying on as prime minister. Harris says this initiative is aiming to “concentrate swaps in fewer ridings and make a difference, rather than spread them out where their effect would be diluted.” To this end, only people who live in ridings that are known to swing between the Conservatives and another party can get a partner through Those who live in “safe” ridings are encouraged to participate by spreading the word.

In the Canadian context, vote swappers tend to be anti-Conservative because the other four seat-holding parties—despite their differences—are all left-leaning by comparison. So far, formal swappers also tend to be people who are more politically engaged than the average citizen, according to Hubley, although most of them would of course like to see swapping take off as a mainstream practice.

Neither Harris nor Hubley are game for predicting how many people will take part this year. In previous elections, the numbers have been modest but not so small that a real impact has been out of the question. In 2011, around 78,000 visitors perused, the largest vote-swapping hub at the time, and over 7,500 of them formally signed up. (As a point of comparison, the Conservatives won a majority government in that election by 6,201 votes.) There’s also evidence that discussing swapping—or hearing that it’s going on—motivates more people to vote tactically, with or without a swapping partner.

The leader of the Green Party of Canada, Elizabeth May, might partially owe the seat she won in 2011 to this effect, Hubley says. The Green supporters trying to find a swap in her riding outnumbered the potential partners who had signed up there, and canvassers mentioned this when they were going door to door. Although they garnered only around 120 formal swaps this way, May defeated the Conservative incumbent by a landslide, against expectations. “A lot of people there in Saanich-Gulf Islands might have said to themselves, ‘Why should I vote in a narrow, partisan way when all these Greens are willing to look at the big picture and make a compromise? And why should a party with nearly a million supporters not have a single seat?’” says Hubley. “Maybe it tapped into a primate fairness/reciprocity instinct.”


Elections Canada, the agency responsible for running federal elections, has weighed in on vote swapping only once, back in 2008. They said there is no law against it so long as no money is exchanged, but they also warned of the danger that your partner will not keep his or her promise to vote for your party of choice. Since it’s illegal to follow anyone into a voting booth and watch what they do, swapping must rely on an unverifiable handshake.

There would be less reason for vote swapping—and for assuming its risks—if elections were based at least in part on proportional representation (PR). Canadian citizens’ groups are advocating for this on Twitter under the hashtag #PR2015, and much of the chatter in vote-swapping web forums is about the kind of electoral reform that would make the practice obsolete.

Harris believes that vote swapping will accelerate the drive for reform, because parties and candidates would rather win or lose straightforwardly than have their fates decided by voter dealing. Also, the practice’s very existence—regardless of participation numbers—attracts media attention and highlights certain absurdities in the first-past-the-post system.

There’s reason to believe that adding an element of proportional representation to the voting system is not just a pipedream. The Canadian constitution does not stand in the way, the New Democratic Party has committed to it and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has made it part of his election platform. Both the New Democrats and the Liberals currently have as good a chance of forming the next government as any party does.

Deciding exactly what types of reforms would best suit the country is another kettle of fish, and for his part, Hubley says he would rather stick with FPTP—with vote swapping as a “pressure release valve” for voter frustrations—than end up with any of his least favorite of the possible forms of proportional representation.

Whether from active campaigns by groups like Fair Vote Canada or merely from personal experience, plenty of Canadians are aware that many votes count for nothing under FPTP. Voter turnout in 2011 was 61.1 percent, 2008 saw a record-low 58.8 percent, and “the current system breeds apathy,” argues Yasue. If nothing else, vote swapping is reinvigorating some citizens’ interest in elections by offering them a greater say. “People who were feeling helpless have told me they’ve stopped feeling that way,” says Hubley. “The psychology of the swap is empowering.”

Samantha Rideout is a freelance writer and editor in Montreal.

Democracy Design organizing



Translating ballots is just the first of many steps to create an inclusive culture of civic participation.

When it comes to languages, our country is a patchwork. Our civic infrastructure hasn’t kept up with more than one or two. There might be hundreds of languages spoken in our country, but they aren’t spoken by our government. Like the polyglot individual, who is fluent in many languages, government bodies and agencies need to become fluent in many languages in order to serve the people. To become a polyglot democracy, we need to design infrastructure that ensures certain patches aren’t left behind.

A crucial first step is to work toward including all eligible voters in the electoral process.

Translation is often framed as a technical problem that can be solved through effective bureaucracy. The assumption is that if the board of elections in a certain county is able to provide translated materials for every language spoken by eligible voters in their county, then we have perfect language access. In principle, I don’t disagree. However, the mere existence of a ballot in Lao, Hindi, or Mongolian is not a sufficient standard for measuring language access.

Language access is a technical problem, but not one that is solved simply by hiring translators and interpreters. Language access is about designing systems that include people in every step of the process. Language is often one of many barriers that voters face. That’s precisely why expert insight and the wisdom of communities are both crucial foundations for the polyglot democracy.

Tanzila Ahmed, whose organizing acumen is a constant inspiration, has applied a decade and a half of experience in Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) electoral organizing to develop a theory of change model where low voter turnout isn’t caused by “voter apathy,” but rather that AAPI voters experience severe barriers when it comes to casting a ballot. She identifies five such barriers:

  1. a barrier to voting information;
  2. a barrier to the mechanics of voting;
  3. a barrier to engagement;
  4. a barrier to in-language resources; and
  5. a barrier to voting rights.

These five barriers also translate to five critical needs that can’t be ignored when we talk about designing for a sufficient standard of language access.

An expanded standard of access means doing more than providing a written translation of any given ballot available. We also need to:

  1. provide voter guides to help voters understand issues;
  2. streamline the process of voting, so they can navigate its often complex mechanics; and
  3. match them with an actual human from their community who can help make sense of a large volume of brand new information and help troubleshoot problems as they arise.

That’s precisely what we’re trying to do with VoterVOX, the newest tool from the Asian American & Pacific Islander new media organizers The app, currently in development, will connect Limited English Proficient (LEP) voters with multilingual volunteers to help them understand their ballots.

Communities that include LEP voters already have the expertise needed to include those voters in the democratic process. Creating access isn’t a matter of delivering information from a central source to LEP voters, but a matter of helping communities organize themselves. VoterVOX is as much about community organizing as it is about voting, and one-to-one connections are a vital component. I don’t want to build software that languishes in app stores or online. I want to build a tool that uses the beating heart of our communities to circulate fresh blood to its furthest-flung limbs.

We’re designing VoterVOX to include input from stakeholders—from LEP elders to multilingual high school kids to organizers working at the grassroots level—in order to understand their needs and expectations when it comes to community technology. Regardless of what the outcomes of working with these folks might be, we have some core assumptions about design—and language access more broadly—that guide our efforts to engage them in the first place.

Committing ourselves to language access means committing to providing more than just translated ballots. Translated ballots are just the first of many steps toward trying to change a culture around civic participation. Through a well-designed workflow for ballot translation, we can simultaneously create conditions that foster engagement where discrimination, lack of information, and structural exclusion have previously made participation difficult, if not impossible. When we’re designing to expand access to the ballot box in a landscape of problems, we’re working to right structural wrongs.

Designing for inclusion isn’t easy. In fact, it’s very difficult—otherwise this effort wouldn’t be needed.

Good design won’t restore key provisions in the Voting Rights Act, the key law that has expanded access to the vote for millions of voters, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. We still need to fight to protect the voting rights of all citizens of this country, in the streets and in the courts. We still need to pressure county boards of elections to do the right thing and obey the law by providing translated voting materials when they’re required to.

That work starts at home, in our communities. By building opportunities for connection between people with expertise and people with need, we’re changing the language around democratic participation. In the one-to-one link between a volunteer translator and a voter, an opportunity for organizing grows. That organizing is the real meat of civic engagement—it’s fuel for the long game of language access in a polyglot democracy. True language access requires a commitment to organizing by design.

Follow the quest to design better tools for a polyglot democracy on Twitter @votervox.

Cayden Mak (@cayden) is Chief Technology Officer at, an organization founded in 2012 to organize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders online. For the past three years, they have designed, hacked, and deployed tech to better organize people and promote popular education in the AAPI community for civic engagement, racial justice, and transformative structural change.

Civic Engagement Democracy Participatory Democracy



The People’s Lobby is run entirely online using the digital tools NationBuilder and Loomio.

  • Last month, the City Council in Provo, Utah, voted unanimously to continue the Provo People’s Lobby, an experimental process in participatory democracy in which city residents collaborate online on a policy recommendation that is then submitted to the City Council for consideration and possible implementation. The process, which I first wrote about in March for techPresident, is run entirely online using NationBuilder and Loomio.

    Participants in Provo’s first People’s Lobby were selected at random from a pool of approximately 75 people who submitted or voted on the “pressing issues” they want addressed in their city. Invitations were sent to one person from each of the 25 neighborhoods represented in that pool; ultimately 14 residents participated in the deliberations on the decision-making platform Loomio. Their efforts were guided with minimal moderation from People’s Lobby creator Jeff Swift, Loomio consultant MJ Kaplan, and two political science students at Brigham Young University.

    Recruitment, Swift and his fellow moderators write in a report on the Provo People’s Lobby, required a lot of “handholding” via email and phone calls to get people on board:

    Future efforts will benefit from seeing the results of the first, and we have learned what information is important to transmit at this stage to ensure that participants will understand what they are signing up for and be ready to participate. We also anticipate that there will be a certain level of drop off no matter what we do, and this is acceptable. We are recruiting a small jury of residents and do not need a fully representative body in order for the Lobby to work as designed.


    Passing the deadline extension on Loomio. (Screenshot courtesy of the Provo People's Lobby)

    Passing the deadline extension on Loomio. (Screenshot courtesy of the Provo People’s Lobby)

    Originally slated to last two weeks, the process had to be extended to four because both stages took longer than Swift anticipated. First, participants were provided with the list of pressing issues collected in the month prior and instructed to choose an area to focus on; then, they deliberated over the specific recommendations they wanted to make to the Council.

    “They spent almost two weeks picking a topic; [the process was] extended another two weeks for a total of four, and they still barely had time to craft policy recommendations,” Swift tells Civicist. “It was at the very end of the second two weeks where they were able to agree on a final proposal.”

    “I think I didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to settle on a topic,” Swift adds.

    At the end of the four weeks, after five discussions consisting of 205 comments by the participants, three priorities for supporting agriculture and public green spaces in their community were submitted to the City Council. Jeff Swift says he was at first disappointed in these policy particular recommendations because it turns out that these initiatives were already on the City Council’s agenda in some form.

    Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 9.49.20 AM

    “I would have wanted something exciting,” Swift tells Civicist.


    Comment made during the first Provo People's Lobby. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Comment made during the first Provo People’s Lobby. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)

    But that’s the inherent danger in creating democratic processes: making space for people to push for initiatives one thinks are unnecessary (one of the original suggestions submitted by the public in the earliest stage of the Lobby asked for a big box store in Provo, a proposal Swift was relieved they didn’t pursue) or flat out disagree with. “I have political opinions and there’s a good chance that the People’s Lobby will go in the other direction [in future iterations], and that’s ok,” Swift says.

    What the results do show, Swift points out, is that either the City Council is acting on their agricultural agenda but not sharing their progress with the community, or that they have stalled on their work in that area. Hal Miller, a Councilman and the liaison with the Lobby, tells Civicist that the results were received as a sort of “endorsement” of the work of the Council, and that these items have been pushed higher on the Council’s agenda.

    Swift says he is working on changing the mechanisms of the Lobby to prevent this kind of redundancy in the future. It is one of many small changes Swift will make after the People’s Lobby inaugural run. To start, the process will be allotted more time from the beginning.


    Not every resident will have deep knowledge of all or even most issues the Lobby might tackle. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Not every resident will have deep knowledge of all or even most issues the Lobby might tackle. (Screenshot courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)

    Then, he will also increase the guidance by the moderators. Swift’s instinct was for them to be as hands off as possible, but that ultimately led to a handful of voices—many of which belonged to current or potential political actors in the community—essentially intimidating less politically experienced participants out of the process. One way Swift hopes they can change this is by beginning the Lobby by meeting—again, still entirely online—in small groups where people are hopefully more likely to feel comfortable voicing their opinions. The small groups will then take their ideas to the others.

    “We’re going to be more conscious about keeping the conversation moving forward,” Swift says.

    Although the numbers in the report on the Provo People’s Lobby are low, Hal Miller and Jeff Swift are both optimistic. Miller points out that Utah, and Provo in particular, suffers from low voter turnout. While a process like the People’s Lobby has the potential to increase civic engagement, it also means there is a steep learning curve as residents find out what it means to be civically engaged.


    Voting on proposals. (Screenshots courtesy Provo People's Lobby)

    Voting on proposals. (Screenshots courtesy Provo People’s Lobby)


    “It exceeded my expectations,” Miller tells Civicist. “I thought there would be more difficulty composing the lobby, more difficulty to bring them together in an ongoing way, and that it would prove difficult to harness the respective energies of the members of the lobby given that it included members who are well known for their activism.”

    Swift and the other moderators were pleased with the results considering how foreign an idea the Lobby is:

    Considering three facts, this level of engagement was heartening. First, this was the very first time anyone in the world had tried this process. It was frankly a bit confusing to understand and we have gotten better about explaining it. Second, we started with an email list of zero people and grew our list to 90 people. This foundation will magnify our efforts for future efforts. And finally, that marketing was limited to Karen Tapahe’s [Community Relations Coordinator for the City Council] tireless promotion on Facebook and to PR channels. In the future the People’s Lobby team will do more marketing and promotion to get the word out.

    A second experimental round of Provo People’s Lobby will begin in September. After that, the Council will have to decide whether to incorporate the process into their budget. The cost of the first two rounds were covered by an anonymous donation.

Democracy GovTech Open Government

In Brazil, Championing the US Digital Services Playbook

In Brazil, Championing the US Digital Services Playbook

A civic tech start-up in Brazil has translated the U.S. Digital Services Playbook into Portuguese and wants to distribute it to elected representatives and government agencies.

  • Last year, a civic tech start-up in Brazil called Núcleo Digital (Digital Core) translated the U.S. Digital Services Playbook into Portuguese and began trying to distribute it to elected representatives and government agencies. Recently, through a colleague in a civic hacking community called HackersBR, they have succeeded in getting the playbook in front of a government administrator in Ceará, Brazil’s eighth most populous state.

    Digital Core first began working together as a digital lab in Sao Paulo’s City Hall. In 2013, the Urban Development Secretariat Chief Officer, Weber Sutti, invited Vini Russo, Digital Core’s CEO, to build a digital platform to support citizen participation in the review and revision of the Department of Urban Development’s Master Plan. To build his team, Russo reached out to activists he had known and worked with since 2008, all of whom had an interest in civic tech and updating democracy through technology.

    The website they went on to build made available “all the information related to the participatory process, such as schedules, results, news, and files…[as well as] innovative participatory tools, such as an online proposal form, a shared map and a collaborative draft bill, where any citizen could post specific comments and suggestions for each article.” The city of Sao Paulo’s website states that the platform made possible “unprecedented” levels of citizen participation.

    “We made it very fast,” says Maria Shirts, who helps with public relations and project management at Digital Core. “With free software and open codes. We like to say that we hacked City Hall. In a legal way.”

    After the successful implementation of the urban policy platform, the team stayed on at City Hall to build digital tools for other government agencies, facing considerable opposition in their quest to made government more open and transparent. “The City Hall, and our government in general, is very closed to new digital initiatives,” Shirts tells Civicist. “Two years ago it was very taboo [to share code on Github, for example]. We kind of changed this thinking.”

    Shirts says that her team was at City Hall for more than a year, and that they were starting to change the culture around technology. But in late 2014, Shirts says, “the data agency [PRODAM] began kind of a conflict with us because they have another kind of thinking.” According to Shirts, the agency refused to give her team the data they needed to build their platforms, so they began to think about leaving City Hall.

    It was at that time, September 2014, that the team translated the U.S. Digital Services Digital Playbook:

    It was our last month in city hall. We were already thinking that we were leaving, thinking ‘how can we leave city hall but also keep doing this job of opening government.’ We had a horizon but we were not sure where this horizon was going to take us…At the time we could think [only] about spreading this digital word in other sectors, for other parties, other candidates.

    The presidential election took place that month. “We were trying to show politicians that they should follow some kind of digital guidelines,” Shirts says.

    The U.S. Digital Services Playbook is a list of 13 “plays” that government can make for better technology policy and practices, beginning with “Understand what people need” and ending with “Default to open.” The reasoning behind each play is explained and the playbook includes a checklist of things to do successfully carry out the play, and questions to ask to ensure you’re making the right choice.

    For example, the checklist for “Default to open” includes the command to “Ensure that we maintain the rights to all data developed by third parties in a manner that is releasable and reusable at no cost to the public.” The key questions include “If there is an API, what capabilities does it provide? Who uses it? How is it documented?”

    The Maria Shirts and her colleagues left City Hall and started Digital Core in October. They have not had much luck getting the playbook in government hands. Their biggest coup, getting it in front of a staffer in Ceará, only occurred in the past few months, through one of their connections in HackersBR, a national network of civic hackers in Brazil. (HackersBR, while only four months old, has spread to more than ten cities already.)

    Shirts says that they also have a close relationship with the opposition, the Sustainability Network party, and they shared the playbook with some of their candidates in 2014, but none of them were elected.

    “Baby steps, but we are getting there,” says Shirts.

    Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America and former U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer, tells Civicist that there was no attempt made to track international adoption of the USDS playbook but that she has heard it is being used in Puerto Rico.

    Although she says “I hope that everyone uses it,” Pahlka acknowledges that the playbook “was intended to validate an approach.”

    “It’s not possible to suddenly start following these practices without a lot of work,” she adds.

Civic Tech Democracy GovTech

Setting More Realistic Expectations for Civic Tech

Setting More Realistic Expectations for Civic Tech

  • There is much discussion about the precise opportunities for integrating digital tools or information communication technologies (ICTs) into the political sphere. After an initial wave of tech utopianism, some are searching for more tempered and realistic implementations of technology to strengthen democratic governance. This includes leveraging these tools to hold government accountable to its citizens.

    With support from the Open Society Foundation, I was part of a small research team in 2010 led by Archon Fung to conduct original field research in Brazil, Chile, India, Kenya, and the Slovak Republic. In India, for example, I witnessed the power of digital tools to reduce barriers to entry, empowering students to crowdsource information on elected officials running for office.  In an environment of “paid news,” where advertisements can be concealed as news, crowdsourced information was able to serve as a credible source.

    Based on this research, we found three particularly salient models for how technology might improve democratic transparency and legitimacy. These included: 1) truth-based advocacy, 2) political mobilization, and 3) social monitoring. In all these examples, the underlying premise is that there are lessons from the realm of commerce and social life that can be integrated into the political realm. However, it is not as simple as a one-to-one analogy. Rather, in the realm of civic and social life, politics and local context are much more critical than in the commercial or social spheres.

    We conclude:

    A third political party in the United States, or more likely Brazil, could embrace an ICT that made party leadership much more transparently responsive to constituent interests, became massively popular, and as a result displace one of the existing parties—a political analogy to Netflix or Amazon displacing brick-and-mortar video rental shops. / Such technology has not yet emerged. We hope that it will. But today’s governance ICTs operate in a more incremental, less revolutionary, way.

    Our complete findings were collected in a recent World Bank publication, Deliberation and Development: Rethinking the Role of Voice and Collective Action in Unequal Societies, which you can find here.

Civic Hacking Civic Tech Democracy

Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?

Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?

  • It feels as if we can’t escape the culture of fear and extremism that is pervading politics. Political discourse is more vitriolic than ever after San Bernardino and Paris, and during the months of partisan name-calling and ugly mud-slinging among candidates for the U.S. Presidential Race. And clearly, there are no easy solutions to unraveling this vicious cycle.

    During the Christmas holiday, I had an experience that perfectly illustrated this to me. My family and I were at a friend’s house for a holiday event, and I overheard her guests talking as I walked through the kitchen. I heard, “The more he says, the more I like him.” Then, “He says the things we all think but are afraid to say.” I started to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, hoping they weren’t talking about Donald Trump. Then I heard, “The only problem with building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is that it will have to be so big that it’s impractical and expensive.” I tried to talk myself off the ledge, saying to myself, “Don’t open your mouth, just keep walking, don’t say anything, it won’t help or change anyone’s mind…..” But then as I was about to turn the corner, safely avoiding a conversation that would surely have turned ugly, I heard, “Of course we should ban Muslims from entering the country. Look what they did in Paris.” So, I turned sharply on my heel and unwisely marched over to the little group sitting around the kitchen table.

    “Excuse me,” I said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and I wish that you would consider the fact that excluding or persecuting people solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is how (voice rising) the Holocaust started.” And then, when the response to that grenade lob was dropped jaws and the explanation, “It would only be temporary,” I looked at them incredulously, probably with disgust on my face, and said, “That’s what Hitler said and” just in case they didn’t get it the first time, “that’s how the Holocaust started.” Then I abruptly left, muttering, “This was a mistake, I can’t talk about this…..”

    I found this conversation terrifying—not only because the thought of Trump as Presidentimages is terrifying, nor because I was disappointed in myself because I lost my cool, and created an extreme, unbridgeable divide between our viewpoints by invoking the Holocaust. No, this conversation was most terrifying because these people were not bad people. They were the type of people I appreciate: good, kind, hard-working people who love their kids and their family.

    So where does that leave us?

    I don’t have a solution, and indeed, my own extreme reaction during the kitchen table conversation shows that I lack objectivity and am certainly part of the problem. I do, however, as a scientist believe that we can harness what we know about our minds and brains to neutralize this vicious cycle of social and political extremism. Could digital disruption help move us along a path to such change? There might not be an app for that, but below I list three steps I believe could put us on the road towards digital disruption of the political culture of fear.

    1. Frame political extremism as an emotion regulation problem. Before any digital disruption can happen, we have to make sense of the problem and have a concept of what’s going wrong. We have all had one of those kitchen table conversations I described above. In these conversations, our emotions get the better of us: fear, disgust, anger. This is a problem in how we control our emotions and how our emotions control our thoughts, decisions, and actions, something psychologists call emotion regulation. The problem is that our strong emotions rarely convince our debating partners. Instead, they solidify the views everyone already holds, causing us to cling to them even more strongly and rigidly. Common ground is lost, and the divide between perspectives seems increasingly unbridgeable.

    Imagine how a version of that kitchen table conversation happens on the political world stage, sabotaging attempts at diplomacy and mutual understanding. The result is not just upset and angry people. Now the result is that our emotions directly shape political discourse, legal decisions, and policies that can affect generations to come.

    Thus, a first crucial step towards disruption of the political culture of fear is to frame political discourse in terms of emotion regulation, applying what we know about what goes wrong and how to fix it on the individual and group level.

    2. Use technology to promote empathy. Recent research in political psychology suggests that empathy can help heal rancorous political divides. A recently-published study showed that when political advocates fail to understand the values of those they wish to persuade, this “moral empathy gap” causes their arguments to fail. However, when political arguments are reframed in the moral terms of the other side, they are more effective. For example, when asked about their views on universal healthcare, conservatives who heard “purity arguments” (e.g., sick people are disgusting and therefore we need to reduce sickness) were friendlier towards universal healthcare, compared to when they heard “fairness arguments,” which are more consistent with liberal values.

    If we can use technology to bridge the moral empathy gap, we might be able to reduce political polarization and promote better emotion regulation, more compromise, and deepened understanding. Virtual Reality (VR) might be one such technology. I previously wrote about Chris Milk’s thought-provoking TED talk on VR as the “ultimate empathy machine.” By creating a sense of presence and of real interactions with people and worlds, VR forges empathic bridges leading to greater understanding and compassion. In his work with the UN, Chris Milk uses VR to vividly portray the plight of refugees to politicians and policy makers. How does seeing and experiencing the suffering of 5-year-old children in the refugee camps influence policy making? Almost certainly for the better.

    3. Use technology to calm the fearful brain. As political ideologies become increasingly polarized, neuroscience research suggests that the differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints may extend beyond policy preferences to fundamental differences in the “fearful brain.”

    In a paper I wrote in 2014 with Dave Amodio, a professor at NYU, we found that children of liberal compared to conservative parents showed a stronger “N2” brain response to mildly threatening and conflicting information. A greater N2, derived from EEG, suggests more openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, and threat. A culture of fear, in politics or otherwise, is marked by the opposite of this: inflexibility and discomfort in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, along with resistance to change. These aspects of fear are part of the foundation upon which intolerance is built.

    What if we could create computerized interventions that promote our ability to cope with uncertainty and change, perhaps by strengthening the N2 response? My research on the stress reduction app Personal Zen, as well as other research, shows that this may be possible. More research is needed, but if science-driven digital mental health continues to evolve, reducing the political culture of fear could soon be in the palm of our hand.

    Tracy Dennis-Tiwary is a professor of psychology and neuroscience and writes about mental health and technology. This article was originally posted on her blog, Psyche’s Circuitry.