Sep 06 2019

Information Gerrymandering

Democracy, in a very real sense, is math. The point is to aggregate decision-making in order to arrive at the fairest outcome for the greatest number of people. Andrea Jones-Rooy, who spoke at NECSS this year, gave a great lecture about this. Here is an article she wrote about Arrow’s Theorem that goes over the basic concept, but she went into more detail during the talk. Essentially there is no system of voting that has perfect fairness (ranked choice vs least objectionable option, for example), so we just have to pick one and live with the trade-offs.

Jones-Rooy, however, was talking about different systems that work as intended, no cheating. If, however, one group puts their thumb on the scale, the democratic process can be massively distorted. Beyond a certain point you no longer even have a true democracy. Voting becomes a sham used to give a patina of legitimacy to a dictator or minority rule.

Perhaps the best known form of voting distortion in the US is gerrymandering. The best description I have heard of this is that it is a way for politicians to choose their voters, rather than voters to choose their politicians. The idea is to carve up voting districts deliberately to favor one party, so that even if they have 40% of the voters in one state, they can secure 60% or more of the representatives. (This doesn’t work for senators or presidents where voting is state-wide.)

Researchers, however, have published an article in Nature in which they describe a more insidious form of distortion – information gerrymandering. This amounts to a rigorous mathematical description of a phenomenon we have been discussing, the effect of social media networks on public opinion. They found:

Players are assigned to competing groups (parties) and placed on an ‘influence network’ that determines whose voting intentions each player can observe. Players are incentivized to vote according to partisan interest, but also to coordinate their vote with the entire group. Our mathematical analysis uncovers a phenomenon that we call information gerrymandering: the structure of the influence network can sway the vote outcome towards one party, even when both parties have equal sizes and each player has the same influence.

Their results show that just the arrangement of the information networks could distort the outcome by up to 20%. So even if the teams were split 50-50, the vote could be rigged to come out 60-40. A tie could be turned into a landslide. They also found that strategically placing just a few zealot bots in the information network could have a similar influence.

This result has significant implications for any modern democracy in the age of social media and AI. The fact is, people are social creatures who can be psychologically manipulated. This is nothing new, and is essentially the foundation of politics – pushing emotional buttons to influence voters. The question is (as is often the case) one of magnitude.

With traditional politicking, the politician themselves has to get out there and make their case. If they are manipulative, it’s by definition in the public eye, and at least they can be called out for it and the public can make their choice. Manipulating social networks and deploying influencer bots, however, can be done under cover of darkness by hidden agents. It can even be done by a foreign power.

If these laboratory results apply to the real world, then the magnitude of this effect is sufficient so that the real contest for votes may be occurring behind the scenes among those trying to manipulate social media. We may be ultimately voting for influencer bots.

One solution is for the majority of voters to be more active and less passive in their information consumption. This gets back to media literacy, which I discussed previously. We have to curate our own information networks, evaluate their bias and reliability, and make sure we include a range of opinions and perspectives. There is a huge barrier to this, however – a previous study showed that people feel as if they are more informed, even as they retreat into an isolated media bubble. Social media gives people the illusion of being well informed, even when they are the victim of an echochamber and consume nothing but distorted information curated to cater to one point of view (one that may be on the fringe). This is how people convince themselves the world is flat. They honestly feel they have done their research and are thinking critically.

It’s simply too easy to subconsciously subjugate critical thinking to a world-view or narrative. It takes dedication to keep oneself out of such traps, to keep challenging your own views, and to seek out uncomfortable disconfirming information to test your own views. You have to seriously ask – can I be wrong. It’s also important not to anchor your identity or self-worth to one tribe or ideology. That has a massive distorting effect on your thinking (something called motivated reasoning).

All of this is old news, as old as humanity. What’s new is that the tools of influence and distortion are easier and more powerful. We have handed the strings to our democracy to anyone who wants to pull them. We need to find a way to take them back.

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