Category: Social Media

BitVote: Have a say in decisions that affect us all

DO YOU remember when the internet still spread hope? After its invention in the‘80s, we had access to a mass of information, sites such as Napster allowed us to share so-called “private property” easily and, most importantly, we could publish what we had to say ourselves – and people actually listened. It was participatory in nature, without much visible regulation from above. Nowadays, with net neutrality being at risk, mass surveillance and the threat of clamping down on copyright infringements as an excuse for censorship, the web often induces more fear than encouragement.

Narcolepsy sufferer Aaron Bale – mentored by “the internet’s own boy”, Aaron Swartz, and inspired by the success of the SOPA blackout in 2012, when 20 million people effectively stopped an anti-piracy bill – has come up with an idea to return some power to internet users: BitVote. He hopes his project will let us have some say again, without being completely overrun by the powers-that-be.

What is BitVote?

As a decentralised app operating on a BitCoin-like blockchain technology with a KeyValuePair store of data strings everyone can access, BitVote will add value to ideas without a human authority having to oversee the process. The coding will be completely transparent, so everyone can improve, build and analyse the tool as they wish. In the interest of, “I don’t agree with your opinion but I’ll fight for your right to speak it,” it’ll be completely neutral and compatible with all current systems as well as third-party add-ons.

How do I vote?

Votes will be measured in units we can all relate to: minutes, hours and days of our life. You’ll be able to choose a link (or create your own) to something you feel strongly about – say it’s the fight against Monsanto’s food monopoly. After pasting it into BitVote, you can dedicate an appropriate amount of token time to it. If you have 24 vote hours, you could use all 24 hours towards Stop Monsanto. But you could also, if you don’t care about the GMO giants as much, only use four hours (or one, two, five etc.) and save the rest for a different cause. Your vote will be recorded and your available hours will drop accordingly. The time-units are easy for everyone to grasp, yet they’ll provide multiple factors for analysis. What, for instance, is more important – many people spending small vote units on a cause or a few people spending large vote units on a cause?

Bale and BitVote coder Jasper den Ouden haven’t agreed whether all voters will accumulate vote hours from the day BitVote launches or from the day you were born, but the consensus is that the assigning of “vote currency” needs to be equal for all. Importantly, although vote hours will increase every 60 minutes of your life, they’ll gain value through scarcity. This means that those who don’t use the internet so often – the elderly, people living in rural areas or just generally less tech-savvy people – will actually have a stronger impact when things get heavy. Say something drastic happens and a president decides to go to war. The above-mentioned demographic might be motivated to vote and have more hours to spend than enthusiastic internet users who vote everyday.

Slacktivism

You might be thinking, how is this different to slacktivism? It’s just a bunch of symbolic hours after all; spent in a virtual system, via a click from your armchair. Bale realises that the vote hours won’t do anything as such. But what they will do, is show what people care about. If you’re fighting for a cause, you might feel more confident addressing it in the real world if you know 80% of BitVoters feel the same way as you. Ultimately – although BitVote can be used for a vast variety of reasons, from market research to activism – the system’s strength is perhaps that it could offer evidence of betrayal. If the Film and Publications Board South Africa says pre-publication censorship on the internet is what the majority wants, citizens could take to BitVote to prove the opposite. Whether a bunch of votes will actually stop officials from executing their plans is hard to imagine, yet – if the system really is widely used by technophiles and technophobes alike – it might be more powerful than a Twitter storm or liking causes on Facebook.

What about mob-votes?

A concern is that a mob of people, who might be very uneducated on the subject they’re voting on, could get together to cast a potentially dangerous vote. Imagine this was, “kill all homosexuals”. Bale tries to explain this problem with what he calls “The Zombie Example”. “If there’s a zombie apocalypse on the rise and 99.9% want to legalise cannibalism, authorities have the option not to act on this, and the population will thank them later. You can use common sense.” Moreover, it’s an alarm bell. If a large number of voters plan to kill homosexuals, he would try to physically intervene. He believes it probably won’t come to tyranny-of-the-majority votes though because of the way people interact online. “Not in close physical proximity, and anonymously. There’s trolling, but there’s not a lot of abuse of authority. The internet doesn’t kill people.”

Also, he explains, if a tyrant boss in an oppressive regime gets a 1000 of his employees to vote at gunpoint, these workers can cast a counter-vote anonymously to get “the asshole fired”. He adds that there are a lot of scams around and BitVote isn’t immune to them – but often people have ways to figure them out. An instant “vote bomb”, in this case a 1000 people voting for a dodgy cause at once, might spur some scepticism.

Location-aware votes

Although users will be completely anonymous by default, a positive aspect is perhaps that you’ll have the option to disclose your geographical location. Imagine the City of Cape Town decides to evict a group of people from their shacks, again claiming to have the interest of the people at heart. The majority, who are not being evicted from their homes, might vote for the eviction of the shack-dwellers because they don’t understand their conditions – thus providing the City with a plausible back-up to their statement. The affected community could, however, start a location-aware vote to show that everyone who lives in the area does not approve of the eviction.  In other words, the people at the river should have more authority to decide whether it’s polluted or not. Bale also points out that, because anyone can build an add-on tool, it’s easy to create filters. This might be useful if BitVote gets flooded with porn.

One-per-ID

As well-intentioned as BitVote may sound, if it wants be legitimate and effective, there can only be one user per real-world identity, which is difficult to prove without compromising anonymity. The geek word for this is Sybil security – a tricky problem many organisations are currently trying to solve. While none of them are perfect, the BitVote team members have some ideas. Options could involve “ID pools”, i.e. having users play a game simultaneously, or reputation systems. A lot of methods have loop holes and would be extremely costly though. According to Bale, so-called Sybil attacks, also called “sock puppeting”, are often of a “social nature”, meaning they don’t necessarily involve a lot of technical know-how. Therefore, Bale welcomes everyone to help solve this problem. If you’re a social orientated professional, such as a sociologist, political student, social-engineer hacker, activist, doctor, or just someone with a good idea, please contact him at arkbg1@gmail.com.

At this stage it’s unclear when BitVote will launch officially – funding still needs to be secured and Sybil security solved – but the team is working on getting a small scale system up and running soon. This will function as an invitation-only experiment for people whose identity has been verified in the real world.

Until then, we might not be sure of the project’s practical implications. But one thing Bale said might be valuable to keep in mind: “With BitVote the concept of authority is constantly changing. The ideas themselves will gain authority, not people.”

What do you think? Are you sceptical? How would you use BitVote?  

Please post your ideas, critiques and praise in the comment section – it’s a project everyone is encouraged to participate in. 

Text: Christine Hogg

 

Social media breaking iron grip of traditional media

Twitter Connections

THE news is no longer what it once was. Increasingly, news stories are being broken online and social media such as Twitter, Yahoo and Facebook, have become an important part in the new social discourse whose starting point is not the staid and dusty offices of Newspaper House or SABC, but rather, the web of interconnected relationships and electronic communication that we call the Internet.

Some glaringly obvious errors in how news is being conveyed are becoming apparent in the process. Take the Air France disaster. It took SA media two days to wake up, while online, the story about a South African man on the passenger list of the “missing plane” was already a day old, when the news broke in Paris. Or the Boyle entertainment story, written off as a purely British affair by local news editors until it turned into one of the top global stories of 2009 according to Mashable, then there’s the arrest of well-known activist Mzonke Poni, who became the subject of online email, Facebook updates and tweets, causing an international incident that was entirely skipped over by a racist media who cannot be bothered to get out of bed for anyone who happens to be black and homeless, least of all, an activist.

South Africa’s media has always suffered from  parochialism and self-censorship. The media down here has never managed to escape the propaganda, restrictions and prohibitions of the eighties and now labour under the belief that the only good international South African story, is a story about one of the Big Five. Why should whales make the front page and not police brutality in Macasser?

Thanks to social media, however,  the grey, old men at Newspaper House can no longer dictate which news story of the day is more important. In fact, the fabrications, concoctions and outright lies of brands like Independent News, SAPA and Associated Press, no longer influence a world which has grown up with social media and which has quickly learnt how to expose blatant distortion and outright mendacity in telling the truth. Social media is unhindered by self-appointed “gatekeepers” who are out of step with the times, who can’t be bothered to keep themselves informed.

This loss in prestige must surely way heavily on newsrooms, who fail to see the future is not simply online but social. Readers are not merely following whichever news source they happen to stumble upon, and relating this information to their peers who in turn share the information, but rather engaging in a collective storytelling and narration that involves newsgathering. Any restriction on such an activity which involves information sharing is bound to be unpopular. Take the way the P2P Pirate Bay story has played itself out in local newspapers (as a cautionary tale of what happens to those who disobey patents and copyright) verses the reality online and the truth which is Sweden’s Pirate Party has just gained a seat in the European Parliament, confounding the dumbest of critics at the Cape Times.

Editors of large and stuffy media organisations may therefore find themselves out of a job, especially if they continue to ignore the growing influence of social media.

The days when media proprietors could simply dictate news headlines to slavish hacks who in turn only showed us what they want to see on the front page are over.

Social media has even begun to exposes the shenanigans of the O’Reilly Clan and the Mulroney Clear Channel connection to Blackwater and like they say in Hollywood, the Emperor has no clothes.