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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Twitter’s ‘Vox Populi’ Is a Lie

In the year 798, the noted scholar Alcuin of York penned a letter to Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Lombards, to (as was his wont) advise the mighty king on affairs of state. Writing in Latin, he said to his king and patron: Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit—“And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.”

I do wonder whether the old monk would be pleased at how many enthusiastic new admirers he’s gained on Twitter. So many have cited these words as proof that Elon Musk’s now infamous invocation of “vox populi, vox Dei” after his Twitter polls—which supposedly guide his policy implementation on the platform—is ignorant. “He foolishly fails to cite the whole phrase! It was a warning!” they cry. 

But like so many quasi-learned tweeters, they miss essential context. Though Alcuin is often credited with the phrase, it’s clear he was putting his spin on a common aphorism. And his purpose was resolutely anti-democratic. As the early 20th-century writer Rolph Barlow Page put it in his own book on the subject: “Thus Alcuin, while enjoining upon the lords the necessity of being just and merciful towards the people, felt that the latter ought to obey a just ruler with thankful hearts.”

One suspects Musk might like that interpretation. And why wouldn’t he? He’s not a democrat. A more contemporary vox populi reference might better suit Musk’s Potemkin plebiscites. In the 1976 movie Network, a nightly news anchor goes mad and finds a gold mine of ratings by becoming the “mad prophet of the airwaves.” His show becomes a veritable carnival, with one of the side acts being Vox Populi, a segment showing the latest polls of public opinion. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky anticipated the many peccadilloes of cable news that were just over the horizon, but also a bit of social media and its impulsive, libidinal urges thinly disguised by data. Musk’s invocation of vox populi after his polls is almost too perfect a callback to Network’s nightly news carnival: a poll of public opinion with no methodology to be seen, masquerading as a meaningful vote on the polity’s future.

I don’t think social media is condemned to this, however. If the internet is to have a future, then we’re going to have to figure out how to do democracy here in an orderly fashion. Whatever else may be said of Musk’s disastrous, fascist-enabling tenure at Twitter, it serves as a reminder that the other, slightly more benevolent dictatorships that govern social media also aren’t working—Twitter’s previous incarnation, as well as Facebook and others, have led us to one disaster after another—and the resentment this builds up leaves the public vulnerable to exploitation by a capitalistic hustler using the aesthetics of democracy to disguise their own imperial power.

But before we can get at the prospect of more durable solution, it’s worth understanding why the Twitter polls are such charlatanry.

First, Musk’s polls are more like push polls—surveys designed to produce a specific result by using manipulative or biased questions. In his first of two polls about unbanning several journalists whom he had suspended from the site for reporting critically on him, he framed the question by asking: “Unsuspend accounts who doxxed my exact location in real-time: now, tomorrow, 7 days from now, longer?” When none of the four options received above 50 percent, he scrapped the poll, though “now” won the plurality with 43 percent. The next poll offered only two options: now or seven days. But the brazen question remained, presenting it as axiomatic that the journalists doxxed his exact location when none of them did. It should be obvious why such framing is coercive and frowned on by reputable pollsters and statisticians.

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On that note, these polls are far from representative. They’re not a scientific sample of the platform’s user base, and the fact that one can vote from as many Twitter accounts as one pleases is damning enough. Then there’s the risk of bots swarming the polls, a prospect that Musk is only selectively worried about. When he lost the most popular of these polls—the one where he asked Twitter whether he should step down immediately—the world’s most online CEO went uncharacteristically quiet for several days before slowly reemerging, groundhog-like, in the threads of sycophantic admirers who suggested the poll was rigged by bots or other nefarious outside forces.

Surely that was the only way he could’ve lost. In a note-for-note farcical imitation of the populist-tyrannical tragedy embodied by people like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, the only thing that temporarily shut Musk’s mouth was undeniable proof that a lot of people really didn’t like him, and then he just pretended it didn’t happen. So much for vox populi, vox dei. Never mind that all the polls, including those that went Musk’s way, had the same vulnerability. He then announced that future polls would be open only to people who paid for Twitter Blue; with his poll tax proposal, he completed his speed run of tyrannical pantomime popular-sovereignty.

So, to sum up, Twitter’s pseudo-democracy is a series of poorly phrased push polls with constrained options that are unrepresentative, vulnerable to manipulation, and ignored when it suits the Glorious Leader. And now you’ll have to pay to vote. Is there a better way?

In theory, there’s no better environment for democracy than an online forum; the space is already built for deliberation, with discourse as its very constitution. There is no forum, no social media platform, no wiki, without people talking. In practice, these spaces often lead to populist grandstanding and other histrionics. Alcuin of York’s fear of the crowd’s madness is an animating anxiety in every intellectual discussion about democracy, and whatever his ancient intent, it is an admonition worth heeding. As should be abundantly clear now, no technology alone can condition humans out of such crowd dynamics.

Instead, what is needed is a way of channeling our better natures. There have been all sorts of experiments in online democracy, from Estonia’s i-Voting system, which allows for online voting in national elections, to Riot Games’ now-abandoned Tribunal for adjudicating on moderation decisions. There are plenty of flaws in each: The Estonian voting system is under continual scrutiny for security flaws, while Riot Games ditched the Tribunal because it couldn’t react quickly enough. But they gesture in the right direction toward both security architectures and models for online decisionmaking that show how things might be done. Estonia’s model shows how it might be possible to authenticate individual users while preserving privacy and anonymity, which could prevent repeat voting or brigading. And the Tribunal offers a glimpse of how a community can come together to adjudicate on how to deal with people who disrupt the community.

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Meanwhile, both the Wikimedia Foundation and Facebook have US Supreme Court–like structures that operate with a degree of independence, providing inspiration for both oversight and a forum for appeals—hopefully overseen by trained professionals who are more liberated from the whims of crowds.

While the internet offers unprecedented potential for direct democracy, a form of representative democracy may help channel things as well. Imagine if, instead of influencers, we had community representatives who rose up from particular subcultures, communities, and constituencies on certain platforms—themselves selected by popular vote—who could meet more directly with platform holders and had a role in moderation decisions taken on their communities.

But to the question of direct democracy, perhaps my favorite vision is an appropriately fantastical one from the universe of the Mass Effect video game series. While little discussed in the game itself, the matriarchal Asari species is essentially a titanic anarchist commune where every citizen participates as a member in a vast virtual parliament, with debates and votes curated by rudimentary AI to prevent a cacophony and guided by the wisdom of elder matriarchs. 

As with most such speculative fiction, it is merely an ideal—read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed to learn more about the ups-and-downs of anarchism in practice—but there are the seeds of a real structure in there, a role for every online citizen to have their say, and for guardrails and curation to prevent the kind of “anything and everything all of the time” shouting that instantly suffocates real deliberation in most online spaces. More than anything else, it would ensure these communities really are communities, with structures and dispositions of power that ensure no single ruler—or CEO—can overrule them by fiat. Such models have even greater salience in a protocol-driven internet rather than one governed by a tiny number of corporate platforms.

We owe it to ourselves to dream beyond the games of petty tyrants who flinch in the face of “the people” they claim to serve. Social media as we know it may be dying, and that’s almost certainly for the best. But as with the human spirit writ large, our yearning for freedom never dies. And it deserves as many chances as it can get to truly flourish.

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