Defending independence in the age of deep spin

If you know anything about the latest State of the Union Address, you know that after Donald Trump had handed Nancy Pelosi his speech as if she were his secretary when she held out her hand to him to shake hands, Pelosi tore up his speech. Didn’t look particularly well-judged politically to do that to me but there you go. What would I know?

Trump operatives have now released the video (above) of Pelosi tearing up his speech spliced interleaved with Trump’s comments praising heroes like aged soldiers. Facebook have agreed to take down the video as obviously misleading.

(Only kidding. Facebook wasn’t interested in getting in the way of its profits). On the other hand, Twitter has said that the Tweet violates policy that will be enforced when they’re ready to do so on March 2.

I can imagine it’s a scary call for Twitter to say so to the Gangster in chief. Rage will ensue and Donald Trump has a lot of power including the power of his mob. In those circumstances if I were Twitter, I’d be wanting to distance myself from this process, whilst having a decent approach.

I’d do it with a standing citizens’ assembly. If I were Twitter I’d recruit a demonstrably objective selection of ordinary American citizens using the same kinds of methods we use to recruit juries (in which I’d include random selection and representative random selection of various kinds.)

I’d then pay them to meet and deliberate on the question of what policies Twitter should adopt to be consistent with Twitter enhancing democratic deliberation whilst minimising the extent to which it harmed it. Then Twitter would have something to say to the various sides of politics who would inevitably accuse it of bias. It isn’t being biased – it has a process of integrity for determining the considered opinion of the public on this matter.

That process consists of

  1. the consideration of specific cases
  2. the deduction of policies and rules from those cases
  3. the application of those policies and rules by Twitter
  4. constant rinsing and repeating.

I expect the citizens’ assembly should be turned over relatively frequently, say every six months. But I’d also like to see the development of a cadre of the best of past citizens’ assemblies chosen in a non-competitive way, to help develop the ‘culture’ of the body as ‘elders’. The greater autonomy the body acquired through this mechanism, the more successful it would be in achieving its objectives of protecting the public – and protecting Twitter from accusations of bias.

I think this kind of thing may offer the last best hope for independence to be nurtured and protected in many other circumstances – for instance in public agencies. Existing mechanisms for nurturing independence (say of the public service from their political masters) or for ensuring ethical behaviour (as with ethics committees) are demonstrably failing. But I’ll defend that proposition on another occasion.

8 Responses

  1. Nick:

    a cadre of the best of past citizens’ assemblies chosen in a non-competitive way, to help develop the ‘culture’ of the body as ‘elders’. The greater autonomy the body acquired through this mechanism, the more successful it would be in achieving its objectives of protecting the public

    Thanks for making it clear that the sortition movement should be a tool of the (partisan) campaign against “populism”. First of all it was to undo Brexit, now it’s as a defence against the basket of deplorables who had the temerity to vote for Donald Trump.


  2. Your welcome Keith

    I write so people can see shadows and JUMP at them.


  3. Sure, but remember this is friendly fire, and EbL is a public forum.


  4. Nicholas,

    A very interesting idea which is worth considering in detail.

    A general objection I have is to having the citizen body convened by Twitter (or any other media company). The policy in question should not be a private policy of private body, but a public policy which applies to the media as a whole.

    On a more specific level, I don’t think it is realistic to expect that a person can develop a good understanding of the issues involved in media policy within a period of 6 months. I think that the service period should be measured in years rather than in months.


  5. Thanks Yoram

    I’m afraid saying that you don’t like private companies using sortition isn’t going to cut it. Is it a magic technology or is it a technology?

    Would you be concerned if private companies used elections? They’ll use it if it helps them achieve their purposes and won’t if it won’t. Given that we think sortition does achieve important purposes, it follows that those purposes might be valuable for private companies. Of course it also follows that they’ll try to bend the technology to their own purposes. This comes with both benign and malign possibilities.

    So I agree with your concern. Subject to any improvements that people suggest, I’d propose taking your concern onboard as follows:

    1. Private firms will, of course, seek to adapt such mechanisms to their own interests.

    2. Would you rather they did this or used some other structure?

    (Genuine question: I can see arguments either way, but I have a strong temperamental disposition to get on with the future rather than handing it over to the upper middle-class nomenklatura to fluff around for a while before perverting things in precisely the same way. Nevertheless it’s an academic question in the sense that if they want to, private companies will use these mechanisms)

    3. Since there’s not much point in a private company doing this unless it’s an attempt to leverage the legitimacy of such mechanisms over and above their own bureaucratically controlled options,
    a) that’s a potential step forward on its own and
    b) it’s an invitation to us to identify the principles and what I call hacks that would generate some degree of success for the company in tapping into the power of sortition and building some interface between itself and the social world which is its environment.


  6. Hi Nicholas,

    If a company finds convening allotted bodies useful, there is nothing to prevent it from doing that. My objection was specifically to the issue of having media policy set by a private body (whether or not that body uses sortition internally).

    Yes, good point: when using sortition, company management (or the powerful elite of any organization – such as a state or city – that is able to set the parameters of an allotted body) would try to set things up so that (1) the outcomes serve its purposes (2) the manipulation is not blatant enough so that the body loses its purpose as a legitimization tool.

    In my opinion, unless the entire project is self-managed in the long term by the allotted themselves, the outcome is necessarily controlled by the convening elite and therefore lacks any legitimacy. Again, it hardly matters whether the convening elite is the management of a company or the electoral elite of a country or a city.


  7. Thanks Yoram, I think we’re in pretty close agreement, even if I don’t see things in quite such black and white terms.

    Given that there’s no existing institution that won’t have the temptation to manipulate such a body, I think it follows that setting up such bodies is a clear step forward at which point it becomes important to exert what pressure one can to get the body as right as possible.


  8. *** Nicholas Gruen writes : « If I were Twitter I’d recruit a demonstrably objective selection of ordinary American citizens using the same kinds of methods we use to recruit juries ».
    *** I like the idea that any supposedly necessary restriction to speech must be a jury task. But there is a problem here.
    *** If I am no wrong, the juror recruitment in the USA is mandatory (at least theoretically). How Twitter could enforce mandatory recruitment ? And, if the jurors are volunteers, we know very well that in contemporary Western societies, with the strong self-unempowerment of a big part of the civic body, the juries will be utterly unrepresentative.
    *** Unrepresentative juries trying to mute the « excesses and lies » of demagogues followed by many « deplorables », that seems to me a very bad step in a road to true democracy.


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