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Web politics: The honeymoon is over

Spam and astroturf are souring the dream

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Fear the swarm?

The Digital Economy emails were organised by a relatively new campaigning website, 38 Degrees, which helped send the Digital Economy emails for the ORG.

When we asked 38 Degrees what steps it took to check the data, we got a surprising answer. The responsibility for checking rests with the MPs who receive the emails, campaigner Hannah Lownsbrough told us.

"The culpability lies with the MPs to check the veracity of contact letters," she said, implying that 38 Degrees is merely a conduit. The organisation merely checks whether or not the postcode submitted is a valid one. It doesn't ask for an address. It doesn't care if you're in Alabama, and have never visited the UK.

David Stubbs, director of 38 Degrees, gave a more thoughtful overview of the group's activities. Stubbs said that the decision not to authenticate the users was deliberate, and he explained why:

"Fundamentally we have a choice of priorities between making it easy to participate and facilitating large numbers of people to get engaged, or you can raise barriers in ways that would eliminate that participation.

"We don't want to put unnecessary hurdles in people's way. Asking for people's identity is a pretty massive process."

Stubbs told us that, "if we were getting overwhelming feedback that people weren't bona fide, that would be a concern to us; we'd be negating the impact of our members that were genuine; I can see theoretically it would be an issue."

It isn't, he says, because MPs haven't complained.

It's worth digressing for a moment to explain what a "38 Degrees member" means in this context, because it highlights one of the most interesting things about the group. 'Members', in 38 Degrees parlance, are people actively engaged in a number of issues - drawn largely from Left and environmental causes - there's a list here. The idea is that like-minded activists can "swarm" from one campaign to another. It's a factor that potentially gives the site a political influence outside established party structure. The model is MoveOn, originally a Soros-funded group, one now credited as a force in its own right.

"I am confident that the vast majority of people who use 38 Degrees is totally genuine," says Stubbs. But with the mailing list so crucial to the site, why not check the data integrity?

In a different era, we mused, people were shot or cudgelled for insisting on their right to democratic engagement. We wondered why requiring the user to enter an address into the web form was such a big deal. Surely no blood would be spilled?

From washing Google to spamming your MP

The issue of web representation goes back a few years. In 2003 a handful of technology utopians hijacked the phrase "Second Superpower" and gutted it of its meaning. Writing on the Googlewashing episode in the New York Times, Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg warned that:

The rankings give disproportionate weight to opinions of the activists and enthusiasts that may be at odds with the views of the larger public. It's as if the United Nations General Assembly made all its decisions by referring the question to whichever nation cares most about the issue: the Swiss get to rule on watchmaking, the Japanese on whaling.

[Our emphasis]

Your prejduces between angle brackets: Voting Links

Embedded prejudices: "Voting Links"

That seems quite prophetic now. And there are links between gaming the system for political gain then and now. One of the staunchest defenders of the Googlewash that so dismayed the anti-war campaigners in 2003 was Kevin Marks, back then a support techie at Apple. Marks had proposed that web protocols should be able to reflect people's prejudices: he proposed an idea called "voting URLs", with a link giving a binary thumbs up or down to the destination. This, he and others hoped, would be one of the first tools of a utopian future, powered by "emergent democracy". Today, Kevin Marks sits on the advisory board of the Open Rights Group.

I suspect some will react to the end of the honeymoon in the same way they reacted to the second superpower story: with ad hominem attacks. But others will appreciate that data integrity is essential for "web democracy" to be taken seriously by those in power, and I found Stubbs to be thoughtful on this point.

Perhaps some pre-emptive action is needed. Tightening up the legitimacy of the input queue, and demonstrating it with greater transparency, will ensure that web-based engagement retains the confidence of politicians and policy makers. If not, it's worth remembering that an MP's computer can delete thousands of emails in a fraction of a second. ®

[Hat-tip to Chris Castle for joining the dots.]

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