If you’re fixing to own the libs or roast DJT, Twitter is a great place to be.
The sickest burn wins every time.
But if you think you can do serious politics on the site — you know, have a nuanced debate and press for meaningful change — you’re deluding yourself, says Matthew Victor.
It’s like “trying to cut down a tree with a sock,” he said, during a recent panel discussion at Harvard University. “It’s just not going to happen.”
There’s room for disagreement, of course.
Social media played important roles in the Arab Spring and in the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. But it’s safe to say that Twitter and Facebook never turned into the civic forces that many hoped for.
And Victor, a lawyer and part-time good-government activist, has spent the last year and a half working with data scientist Nathan Sanders, Northeastern University’s NuLawLab, and dozens of volunteers with the nonprofit Code for Boston to build something very different for the Commonwealth’s little corner of the Internet.
It’s called the Massachusetts Platform for Legislative Engagement, or MAPLE. And it’s about as far from Twitter as you can get.
There’s no way to flay the opposition on the site. And there’s no doom scrolling. It’s all about the practical and meaningful work of policymaking.
MAPLE, launched just a couple of weeks ago, scrapes the state Legislature’s website for information on pending bills and makes it easy for the public to weigh in. Users can draft testimony and, with the click of a button, submit it to their state representatives, state senators, and the chairs of the relevant legislative committees.
MAPLE has some social media features. Users can read others’ testimony. And in a few weeks, they should be able to follow the groups they trust — environmental advocacy organizations, perhaps, or civil liberties outfits.
But there will be no follower counts. No filter bubbles or comment sections. Just an earnest effort to patch up a damaged democracy.
That’s the basic aim of an intriguing boomlet of “civic tech” in Massachusetts.
About a year ago, Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor and prominent democracy reform advocate, helped launch deliberations.us, which brings people from across the political spectrum together for video chats on issues like Electoral College reform.
And MIT’s Center for Constructive Communication has built a clever system for recording small-group conversations on topics like public health or policing and using artificial intelligence to identify themes and pull out audio clips for use in reports, advocacy campaigns, and local journalism.
But as well built as these tools may be, recent history suggests it will be tough for them to cut through all the Twitter tantrums and TikTok memes.
Google “civic tech graveyard” and you’ll find an actual civic tech graveyard — where, in the words of the cheeky researchers behind the project, “you can visit, celebrate, and pay your respects to the projects that are no longer with us.”
The deceased include myriad attempts to curb fake news, a site that aimed to connect neighbors to vacant lots in need of some love, and an MIT effort to get people involved in “governance around infrastructure issues and planning.” Somehow, that one didn’t catch fire.
But there have been some signal successes — if not in this country, then abroad.
The most celebrated took root in Taiwan after a group of protesters known as the Sunflower Movement occupied the island-state’s parliament in 2014 to decry a controversial trade deal with China that had been drafted behind closed doors.
The fight raised broader questions about transparency and public input. And when it died down, the government turned to a group of civic hackers known as g0v (pronounced “gov zero”) to come up with new vehicles for civic engagement.
One of the most consequential was vTaiwan, which brings together thousands of citizens for in-person meetings and online discussions guided by a machine-learning system known as Polis. The technology teases out differences and — just as important — highlights sometimes-hidden areas of agreement. And in recent years, it has shaped substantive legislation on everything from revenge porn to Uber regulation.
Crafting something similar in the United States would require government to take tech more seriously, says Jennifer Pahkla, founder of Code for America and author of the forthcoming “Recoding America: Why Government is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better.”
“In the US,” she says, “policymakers are the important and powerful people, and they see digital as a detail of implementation which is way, way down in the hierarchy.”
Another problem, says Lessig, the Harvard law professor, is that in a democracy as broken as ours, citizens are skeptical that they can have much impact — offline or on.
“You can say, ‘Join — click here — and we’ll change the Constitution,’” he says. “But it doesn’t take long for them to realize that there’s actually not much chance to change the Constitution.”
One of the first tasks for American civic tech, then, is to give people a reason to invest their time in politics, he says. And small-scale discussion of local issues — where people can feel like their voices are heard — is a good place to start.
That’s what deliberations.us is after. Lessig says the group is hoping to deploy its platform in Massachusetts high schools and colleges this fall.
And the model could find its way into local politics, too.
Harvard professor and former Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Danielle Allen’s nonprofit Partners in Democracy is planning to use deliberations.us or a similar online vehicle to help shape a democracy reform agenda for the state in the coming months.
If the deliberations.us model and the MIT system grow, it will be in no small part because they’re grounded in the appealing activity of person-to-person conversation.
The newest entrant to Massachusetts’ civic tech space — MAPLE — traffics in something a little drier: the details of health care and fiscal policy.
But it can still succeed. If the site becomes a go-to tool for advocacy groups hoping to galvanize members and flood the Legislature with public comment, Beacon Hill will have to pay attention.
Victor is hopeful.
He says MAPLE consulted with dozens of local organizations as it was building the tool, aiming for something they’d want to use. He’s banking on word-of-mouth, too. And the people behind the platform are even hoping that its Twitter handle, @MapleTestimony, will drive some traffic to the site.
Maybe, then, the 280-character attention machine can do something useful for democracy after all.