Digital mobs can undermine social media efforts

The British North America Act, now known as the Constitution Act, was introduced in 1867 to create a representative system of government, and the act continues to ground Canada’s laws.

However, Canadians today have the opportunity to understand and contribute in the democratic process more easily than could Canadians living in the 1800s.

Proponents of digital democracy say new information and communication technologies should be used to increase participation in the democratic process, while advocates for direct democracy say digital platforms can be used to bypass the representative system altogether.

But are we ready to take the reins from our representatives?

There were two obvious examples last week of problems with handing over control to the whims of digital mobs.

The Natural Environment Research Council in England learned this the hard way when it opened up a contest to name its new $300 million polar research ship, and Boaty McBoatface emerged as the most popular name.

The next example was Microsoft’s artificial intelligence chat bot called Tay, which ended up sending racist and sexist tweets, including saying the Holocaust didn’t happen and likening feminism to cancer.

The bot was designed to learn as it interacted with people online, but some Twitter users gave it hateful ideas, which forced Microsoft to pull the plug and apologize for the bot’s offensive tweets.

Suddenly, a governing system with representatives who can be held accountable for their actions doesn’t seem so bad.

However, digital technology could be better used to involve more citizens in governance, and new solutions are being developed to help citizens engage in public debates.

For instance, the Coral Project recently unveiled its first product, called the Trust app, to foster constructive digital interactions and improve the quality of discussion in the comment sections following online stories.

The app helps moderate user-generated contributions by focusing on the user’s history of contributions. It allows for commentators to build a profile and makes it easier for serious users to contribute in a meaningful way.

Canadians already have a greater opportunity to be political actors because of social media, and the power of these platforms to affect public affairs is growing exponentially.

However, we are still learning how to engage with each other in a constructive way online, and it seems we have a ways to go before it will be wise to let slip the digital dogs of social media into the driver’s seat.

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