The Digital Public Square

 

March 2044

In 45 Sols, Martian colonists will convene to discuss the implementation of Digital Voting and other digital political instruments on Mars. Several forms of Digital Voting have existed in many countries on Earth for the last two decades.

The following is Passage One of a Three Passage series on digital political instruments and their cataclysmic effect on elections.

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On the eve of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, a shy Canadian student named Diana Zhelena gave her Political Philosophy dissertation at Stanford. Her thesis was titled, Manipulating the Digital Public Square: Analyzing the Relationship Between Consumption and Political Preferences. Little did her professors know that Zhelena and her research would have a remarkable impact on American politics. The day after her dissertation, Zhelena started Apella Analytics.

Put simply, Apella Analytics developed a digital platform that collated the consumption data and political preferences of millions of Americans. The company then used this information to categorize the American public and provide a more effective tool for politicians to understand their constituents’ preferences and improve digital advertisement targeting. 

Apella Analytics only became a household name after the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, when CEO and billionaire, Matthew Isenberg was elected as U.S. President. Apella fed 78% of all digital ads for President Isenburg’s political campaign. In addition, Apella Analytics was given credit for improving political advertisement targeting by up to 10X in certain demographics, through their proprietary consumption algorithm.

In order to provide a thorough glimpse into the ideologies behind Apella Analytics’ revolutionary political advertising software, the following is Zhelena’s magnum opus published on Apella Analytics’ website titled: Digital Public Square

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The Digital Public Square by Diana Zhelena:

“You are what you buy.”

At Apella Analytics, we think of the internet and social media as a Digital Public Square. The Public Square is an important component of any capitalist democracy, a place where citizens can deliberate, express opinions, consume products and media, participate in community matters, and enable collective action. 

With the invention of the internet, social media, and ecommerce, we have experienced the growth of a new system, the Digital Public Square, which generates revenue through two means, above all: participation and consumption. Social media, search engines, online advertising, e-commerce, all have a significant monetary incentive to increase participation. As a result, these systems have been carefully optimized to enable higher user input, communal interaction, and engagement. The Digital Public Square, which has been leveraged for increased participation, is also designed to increase online consumption of media, content, goods, and services. The internet has manifested into a Public Square in the truest sense of the word: a place in which people walk from stall to stall (search engines), engage with vendors (ecommerce), watch street-performers (media), or communicate with each other (social media).

The formation of the Digital Public Square should, in theory, enable a more participatory democracy. Nevertheless, the current manifestations of the political system, news media, and the internet do not render a population of digital citizens who participate in healthy deliberation and informed decision making. In fact, through social media and new means of mass communication, we find that these internet corporations focus their efforts on eliminating healthy, informed deliberation. These online platforms are designed to promote a system of likeminded confirmation. Such a system yields the highest human information throughput, or participation.

Furthermore, the Digital Public Square is often uni-dimensional, as most participants interact with the Square primarily through text, on their smartphones and web browsers. The Digital Public Square does not provide a means to effectively engage in any form of high bandwidth human communication, such as spoken-word or verbal communication. Admittedly, the Digital Public Square is fed dynamic video and audio media; however, the user counter-interaction is often constrained to two thumbs.

The 2016 and 2020 Presidential elections have shown us that a broken online participatory system can have a monumental impact on the results of a democratic election. By understanding the constraints of this flawed system, engineers at Apella Analytics can exploit the Digital Public Square and generate favorable political outcomes.

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The Digital Public Square is a collection of millions of communities, consisting of people with different backgrounds, knowledge, interests, preferences, and consumption habits.
— Diana Zhelena, CEO of Apella Analytics

The Digital Public Square is a collection of millions of communities, consisting of people with different backgrounds, knowledge, interests, preferences, and consumption habits. The competence of these internet corporations is to enable the formation of, and thereby have access to, each of these communities through an active catalog and examination. The people within these Squares are led to believe that they have virtual free speech; however, speech is only as powerful as the medium in which it is spoken, and internet companies are the owners, developers, and caretakers of this medium. These internet companies own the language, cultural practices, and systems of behavior that are promulgated within their digital mediums. The orator is only as powerful as the stump.

During the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election, the American public learned about one of our targeting efforts, called Nascar Fan—an exposition on how digital participation and consumption serve as two important and dependable details to understand a population or individual’s political preferences. Nascar Fan was a single effort by our engineers to scrape public photos, which were posted by individuals on social media accounts in the U.S., in order to identify people wearing Nascar memorabilia. This included racing jackets, hats, and shirts with Nascar branding—objects that are very easy to identify through advancements in computer vision and machine learning. For example, when someone was identified wearing a Nascar Champion Martin Truex Jr. shirt (often clearly identified by the Truex’s Furniture Row sponsorship label), that individual was tagged as a Nascar Fan.

Apella Analytics then used the Nascar Fan tag as a critical identifier, a consumption data point that serves as an indicator for a series of other correlated political views and consumption habits. Apella Analytics arrived at this critical identifier, through categorizing and cross-referencing the participation and consumption habits of millions of individuals online in small sub-groups defined by geography. After identifying a Nascar Fan, we could predict the likelihood of that individual purchasing Mountain Dew three times a week, or his or her opinions concerning gun ownership (including the types of weapons the individual currently owns, or would like to own in the future).

Contrary to popular thinking, Apella Analytics is not in the business of pinpointing thousands of critical identifiers. Rather, we wanted to distinguish the lowest number of critical identifiers to effectively target political messaging to the individuals we categorized. During the 2020 political election, there were less than 70 critical identifiers that accounted for around 83% of the online U.S. population.

Our success with correlating participation and consumption data was only possible due to the existing categorization of individuals that internet companies have enabled and engaged in for the last two decades. After the 2020 Presidential election, Apella Analytics has been activated in many political elections around the world; however, no other nation’s citizens have been so easily and accurately categorized through participation and consumption habits as the Americans.

End.

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Apella’s historic impact on the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election fissured the modern American political system. An online participatory system monetized by advertising and consumerism has now impacted the American democratic process. 

The Digital Public Square is a system that is neither diverse nor fair.

The Digital Public Square is a system that is neither diverse nor fair. The Square is not diverse due to the systematic categorization of individuals into small (sometimes self-selected) digital communities that incentivize individuals to only commune with others that share the same biases. The Square is unfair since it favors the loudest voices, with the largest followings. 

The Digital Public Square was not fully understood or exploited by the American political system until after 2020 presidential election. After witnessing Apella Analytics’ impact on the 2020 Presidential Election, American politicians and political parties began to embrace various digital instruments, which led to inevitable consequences on the American democratic process.

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A retrospective on the implementation of Digital Voting and other digital political instruments in United States elections will be covered in Passage Two of this Three Passage series.

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Athena has been a writer for The Martian Passage since 2028. She writes about politics and government.