Can Silicon Valley’s autocrats save democracy?

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg argues his social network can support more civic engagement. Ben Margot/AP Photo

Jerry Davis, University of Michigan

In late February, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg published an essay that laid out the social network’s vision for the coming years. The Conversation

The 5,700-word document, immediately dubbed a “manifesto,” was his most extensive discussion of Facebook’s place in the social world since it went public in 2012. Although it reads to me in places like a senior honors thesis in sociology, with broad-brush claims about the evolution of society and heavy reliance on terms like “social infrastructure,” it makes some crucial points.

In particular, Zuckerberg outlined five domains where Facebook intended to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” This included making communities “supportive,” “safe,” “informed,” “civically engaged” and “inclusive.”

Silicon Valley has long been mocked for this kind of “our products make the world a better place” rhetoric, so much so that some companies are asking their employees to rein it in. Still, while apps for sending disappearing selfies or summoning on-street valet parking may not exactly advance civilization, Facebook and a handful of other social media platforms are undoubtedly influential in shaping political engagement.

A case in point is the Egyptian revolution in 2011. One of the leaders of the uprising created a Facebook page that became a focal point for organizing opposition to ousted leader Hosni Mubarak’s regime. He later told CNN:

“I want to meet Mark Zuckerberg one day and thank him… This revolution started on Facebook.”

As I have written elsewhere, Facebook and Twitter have become essential tools in mobilizing contemporary social movements, from changing the corporate world to challenging national governments. Zuckerberg’s manifesto suggests he aims to harness Facebook in this way and empower the kind of openness and widespread participation necessary to strengthen democracy.

But while he’s right that social media platforms could reinvigorate the democratic process, I believe Facebook and its Silicon Valley brethren are the wrong ones to spearhead such an effort.

The HBO show ‘Silicon Valley’ focuses on skewering the industry’s inflated sense of itself.

Technology and democracy

The initial reaction to Zuckerberg’s manifesto was largely negative.

The Atlantic described it as “a blueprint for destroying journalism” by turning Facebook into “a news organization without journalists.” Bloomberg View referred to it as a “scary, dystopian document” to transform Facebook into “an extraterritorial state run by a small, unelected government that relies extensively on privately held algorithms for social engineering.”

Whatever the merits of these critiques, Zuckerberg is correct about one central issue: Internet and mobile technology could and should be used to enable far more extensive participation in democracy than most of us encounter.

In the United States, democracy can feel remote and intermittent, and sees only limited participation. The 2016 election, which pitted radically different visions for the future of democracy against each other, attracted only 60 percent of eligible voters. In the midterm elections between presidential campaigns, turnout drops sharply, even though the consequences can be equally profound.

Moreover, whereas voting is compulsory and nearly universal in countries such as Brazil and Australia, legislators in the U.S. are actively trying to discourage voting by raising barriers to participation through voter ID laws, sometimes targeted very precisely at depressing black turnout.

Democratic participation in the U.S. could use some help, and online technologies could be part of the solution.

Toward a truer democracy

The “social infrastructure” for our democracy was designed at a time when the basic logistics of debating issues and voting were costly.

Compare the massive effort it took to gather and tabulate paper ballots for national elections during the time of Abraham Lincoln with the instantaneous global participation that takes place every day on social media. The transaction costs for political mobilization have never been lower. If appropriately designed, social media could make democracy more vibrant by facilitating debate and action.

Consider how one Facebook post germinated one of the largest political protests in American history, the Jan. 21 Women’s March in Washington and many other cities around the world. But getting people to show up at a demonstration is different from enabling people to deliberate and make collective decisions – that is, to participate in democracy.

Today’s information and communication technologies (ICTs) could make it possible for democracy to happen on a daily basis, not just in matters of public policy but at work or at school. Democracy is strengthened through participation, and ICTs dramatically lower the cost of participation at all levels. Research on “shared capitalism” demonstrates the value of democracy at work, for workers and organizations.

Participation in collective decision making need not be limited to desultory visits to the voting booth every two to four years. The pervasiveness of ICTs means that citizens could participate in the decisions that affect them in a much more democratic way than we typically do.

Loomio provides a platform for group decision-making that allows people to share information, debate and come to conclusions, encouraging broad and democratic participation. OpaVote allows people to vote online and includes a variety of alternative voting methods for different situations. (You could use it to decide where your team is going to lunch today.) BudgetAllocator enables participatory budgeting for local governments.

As Harvard Law School Professor Yochai Benkler points out, the past few years have greatly expanded the range of ways we can work together collaboratively. Democracy can be part of our daily experience.

Silicon Valley isn’t the answer

This ICT-enabled democratic future is unlikely to come from the corporate world of Silicon Valley, however.

Zuckerberg’s own kingdom is one of the most autocratic public companies in the world when it comes to corporate governance. When Facebook went public in 2012, Zuckerberg held a class of stock that allotted him 10 votes per share, giving him an absolute majority of roughly 60 percent of the voting rights. The company’s IPO prospectus was clear about what this means:

“Mr. Zuckerberg has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted to our stockholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets.”

In other words, Zuckerberg could buy WhatsApp for US$19 billion and Oculus a few weeks later for $2 billion (after just a weekend of due diligence). Or, a more troubling scenario, he could legally sell his entire company (and all the data on its 1.86 billion users) to, let’s say, a Russian oligarch with ties to President Vladimir Putin, who might use the info for nefarious purposes. While these actions technically require board approval, directors are beholden to the shareholder(s) who elect them – that is, in this case, Zuckerberg.

It is not just Facebook that has this autocratic voting structure. Google’s founders also have dominant voting control, as do leaders in countless tech firms that have gone public since 2010, including Zillow, Groupon, Zynga, GoPro, Tableau, Box and LinkedIn (before its acquisition by Microsoft).

Most recently, Snap’s public offering on March 2 took this trend to its logical conclusion, giving new shareholders no voting rights at all.

We place a lot of trust in our online platforms, sharing intimate personal information that we imagine will be kept private. Yet after Facebook acquired WhatsApp, which was beloved for its rigorous protection of user privacy, many were dismayed to discover that some of their personal data would be shared across the “Facebook family of companies” unless they actively chose to opt out.

For its part, Facebook has made over 60 acquisitions and, along with Google, controls eight of the 10 most popular smartphone apps.

Zuckerberg the benevolent dictator?

The idea that founders know best and need to be protected from too many checks and balances (e.g., by their shareholders) fits a particular cultural narrative that is popular in Silicon Valley. We might call it the “strongman theory of corporate governance.”

Perhaps Zuckerberg is the Lee Kuan Yew of the web, a benevolent autocrat with our best interests at heart. Yew became the “founding father” of modern-day Singapore after turning it from a poor British outpost into one of the wealthiest countries in the world in a few decades.

But that may not be the best qualification for ensuring democracy for “users.”

ICTs offer the promise of greater democracy on a day-to-day level. But private for-profit companies are unlikely to be the ones to help build it. Silicon Valley’s elites run some of the least democratic institutions in contemporary capitalism. It is hard to imagine that they would provide us with neutral tools for self-governance.

The scholar and activist Audre Lorde famously said that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” By the same token, I doubt nondemocratic corporations will provide the tools to build a more vibrant democracy. For that, we might look to organizations that are themselves democratic.

Jerry Davis, Professor of Management and Sociology, University of Michigan

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.