I had mixed emotions as I read yesterday’s Recode story by Tony Romm about how LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Zynga founder Marc Pincus are creating a new political platform called “Win the Future” (shortened amusingly to “WTF”).
On one hand, I agree with so much of what they want to achieve: the two WTF founders “want to force Democrats to rewire their philosophical core, from their agenda to the way they choose candidates in elections — the stuff of politics, they said, that had been out of reach for most voters long before Donald Trump became president.”
That sounds great! Maybe, just maybe, the DNC will start to include White Working Class voters in its platform in a way that makes sense to those voters– and if you haven’t Joan C. Williams’ brilliant book on this topic then stop everything and go buy it right now.
But on the other hand, the Win the Future methodology has me crying “WTF?”
Think of WTF as equal parts platform and movement. Its new website will put political topics up for a vote — and the most resonant ideas will form the basis of the organization’s orthodoxy. To start, the group will query supporters on two campaigns: Whether or not they believe engineering degrees should be free to all Americans, and if they oppose lawmakers who don’t call for Trump’s immediate impeachment.
Participants can submit their own proposals for platform planks — and if they win enough support, primarily through likes and retweets on Twitter, they’ll become part of WTF’s political DNA, too. Meanwhile, WTF plans to raise money in a bid to turn its most popular policy positions into billboard ads that will appear near airports serving Washington, D.C., ensuring that “members of Congress see it,” Pincus said.
I immediately thought of what happened in the brief life of Tay, Microsoft’s AI which existed on Twitter, when a massive of mischievous Twitter users overwhelmed Tay with racist, sexist and political tweets and corrupted the AI in less than a day.
And it’s not just AIs that can flamed, trolled and subverted by participants with either mischief or genuine hate on their minds. Just look at the vituperative comments below any online newspaper article, especially if it’s about politics, or what happens when you post something political on your Facebook timeline and that old friend of yours — who one day moved to the other side of the political spectrum when you weren’t paying attention — regurgitates talking points from her or his favorite extreme political website while not engaging directly with whatever you were saying. (If you found yourself offended by that last sentence, dear reader, please look back and notice that I didn’t identify any particular party: this is a projection test; did you fail?)
Reasoned discourse is at a premium these days.
One way to pre-emptively fight the trolls who are a-comin’ would be to make WTF a verified online platform where users not only use their real names (a la Facebook and LinkedIn) but also get reviewed by the user base with five stars or thumbs-up/thumbs-down (a la eBay and Yelp). However, that sort of crowd-based policing also has its limits, as anybody who has ever tried to get a factual error on Wikipedia corrected will attest. An army of enthusiastic volunteers has a scale that dwarfs a small cluster of paid professionals, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to accuracy or fairness.
I’m also worried about how frictionless the WTF platform seems to be from the sparse details in the Recode piece. Voting about some issue on a website with the click of a mouse or on a smart phone with the swipe of a finger doesn’t require much commitment, whereas real political change does.
Democracy, in other words, is messy, expensive and people driven. Algorithms can help but not replace lots of humans working together.
Hoffman and Marcus are a couple of brilliant guys, so I have hope that they’re way ahead of me on this.
Eventually, if we’re lucky, crying WTF will mean something quite different.