Category Archives: Commentary

The Google made me do it: Is the tech giant manipulating democracy?

Who or what rigs elections? Sneaky algorithms, or unskeptical voters?

A Facebook comment has decided to become its own blog post. Maybe it’s trying to boost its own search ranking. (Yeah, I question that logic too.)

Happy Friday. A vocal critic of the ubiquitous search engine Google has published an article and a study that claims the technology firm may be influencing the outcome of elections by changing the order in which search results appear when users search for candidates.

The study imagines a phenomenon called Search Engine Manipulation Effect (SEME) and says, in summary: “In laboratory and online experiments conducted in the United States, we were able to boost the proportion of people who favored any candidate by between 37 and 63 percent after just one search session.”

I have neither the time nor the tools to refute the study’s merits, but let’s just take one step back. Even if it were true that a search tool could (and would) sway public opinion about candidates via search result ranking, the woolly mammoth in the room is that people’s favorability meters are moved at all, about anything, by search result ranking!

The right to vote in free and fair elections is a hard-won, precious thing. It is not to be taken lightly. Citizens who exercise the franchise have the responsibility to examine their choices with the utmost care. We should summon every ounce of critical thinking we have, and use it.

Google’s refutation of the study’s allegations mentions civic tools that they have helped create and provide to the public. I’ve examined and used* these tools, and they are very helpful towards the ideal that an informed public uses unbiased information to choose its government.

But if the public chooses to rely simply on the top three or so results from lazy web searches, then whether or not those search results are (unwittingly or otherwise) manipulated matters not when it comes time to lay blame.

The aforementioned Facebook comment:

Since Google makes available an API with a trove of accurate election data that developers can use to present to users in whatever ways they choose, they’d have to be really cocky to still rely on the approach posited in Epstein’s article, supplanting their own “altruistic” endeavors in the meantime. It’s not impossible, just unlikely. The bigger issue is that internet users are uncritical when choosing from search results, no matter how or why those results are ranked. Sure, that behavior may influence how they view the candidates returned, but what’s the real root of that problem? It’s not the search engine.

*The app I attempted to build in 2014 did not get completed in time for the August elections. I plan to use the API and other tools more in the coming months to build a resource for Tennessee voters in 2016 and beyond.

TNDP: Reorg or reboot?

The Tennessee Democratic Party has some rather existential and fundamental questions to answer, and quickly.

What is a political party’s actual purpose? Is it solely to (raise money to) win elections for its nominees, regardless how (or why) they perform once in office?

Is it a bit broader than that, having a goal of advancing legislation that more or less aligns with a commonly held platform, thus relegating elections to “means” status, as opposed to “end”?

Or is it a fully engaged and powerful member of a larger social ecosystem that works at all levels to solve real problems that face all people (not limited to its membership)?

As an outsider, I sometimes get the sense that those in the major political parties’ core operating units (local, state, and national) develop pretty severe tunnel vision. That they, you know the saying, can’t see the forest, or even the trees. I could be wrong. And we’ll deal with the GOP in a different post. For now, let’s talk about Democrats in Tennessee.

Their electoral fortunes have been staggeringly miserable over the past several years. But is that the disease, or just a symptom? Can they blame it all on U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, or President Barack Obama, or the Republicans? Should they look internally to see what dysfunctions might be standing in their way?

A nominating panel just came up with three names to recommend to the State Executive Committee as potential party chairs. Terry Adams, Rep. Gloria Johnson, and Mary Mancini made the cut; Lenda Sherrell did not.

Again, I’m on the outside looking in, but allow yourself to imagine that that very perspective lends someone an ability to troubleshoot root causes and recommend solutions.

Imagine further that a political organization that adopted an “outside-in” view—from the “customer’s” (i.e., citizen’s) perspective, instead of from central office looking outward—could collaborate with ordinary people to refurbish its purpose and vision, use that to craft a strategy for fulfilling that vision, and recruit hordes of eager volunteers (and, yes, donors) to execute that strategy, all the while keeping in close contact with the very public on whom it depends. It could happen.

I don’t have a proverbial dog in the hunt for TNDP chair. What compounds my apathetic stance further is my belief that it may not matter which one of the nominees gets it. The issues facing the SEC and the party at large are systemic; they run to the bone marrow. It would seem shortsighted to lodge all one’s hopes in the belief that a single executive (or even the SEC itself) could engineer a turnaround. To do that, the party actually needs a direction first.

A Page from the book of campaign trail insights

Former long-shot independent U.S. Senate candidate Danny Page sent a thank-you to his supporters that included this tidbit of revelation:

The campaign on the outside looked like a meager attempt to unseat a career politician that needed to be unseated. On the outside it was ludicrous and unfruitful. As humans we look on the outward appearance and I’ll agree that on the outside it was sad. What I happened to be privy to is the inside; the inside fruit that was produced both in my spirit and in hundreds if not thousands of others. Personally I moved from being a hard line “my way or the highway” conservative to an American hell bent but heaven sent to fight for your liberty no matter where you fall on the political scale. I learned full well that America is a land of the free, a bastion of liberty and we must maintain that for future generations. If we choose not to embrace liberty, if we don’t want liberty, we must keep this Republic so that the next generation can make the choice to enjoy liberty for themselves.

(emphasis added)

Page, an electrician by trade, is an example of someone answering the call for ordinary citizens to enter the electoral process. He didn’t come close to winning, but it seems he learned a bit along the way. If he can do it, so can you.

The knock-on effect is that those in Page’s circle of influence might be more apt to examine future election contestants beyond just what’s presented on the surface. If more people sign up as serious participants on the ballot, then that groundswell of informed, critically-thinking voters only grows.

Turnout for what, indeed

Tennessee can claim to be better than Texas at several things, but this one is a dubious honor: the Volunteer State’s 2014 voter turnout was estimated 49th in the nation by FiveThirtyEight, right behind Mississippi’s and ahead of only Texas’.

The state with the highest anticipated turnout percentage? Maine, followed by Wisconsin and Alaska.

Pith in the Wind has the chart.

The next available chance to redeem ourselves will be sometime in the first quarter of 2016—tentatively March 1st, which is when “Super Tuesday” is likely to occur. (That’s along with, bizarrely enough, the Hamilton County Assessor of Property election. You know that will draw out the voters.)

Let’s do better, shall we?