The Circle

Valerie Livingston reflects on the implications of using social media to vote.

Okay, here’s the film review bit. The Circle is a thriller about the dark underbelly of a fictional Silicon Valley company of the same name – a social network on which you can do just about anything from pay bills to express opinions on foreign policy interventions. Amazon + Facebook x Instagram, if you will.

At the heart of The Circle is TruYou – a proven online identity which means that no-one can hide behind an on-screen persona. The company is working towards “Completion”. The day when everyone is in The Circle.

Based on Dave Eggers’ book of the same name, The Circle isn’t a good film. In fact, it’s pretty rubbish. The straight to Netflix UK release should tell you that much.  The pacing is patchy, the dialogue clunky and there is a particularly improbable sequence involving a kayak but it raises some fascinating questions about the digital world we live in.

Protagonist Mae, a bored twenty something, lands on her feet when she gets a job as a customer service agent at aforementioned internet giant. Initially reticent to engage with The Circle and share every moment of her life, Mae has a damascene conversion and decides to go totally “transparent” i.e. live streaming every waking moment of her life on the network via a camera strapped to her front. Then it all gets a bit sinister as the Circle founder, Eammon (think: Steve Jobs impersonating Jeff Bezos giving a TED talk) decides to establish a total surveillance state.

After becoming the poster child for transparency, Mae finds herself thrust up through the ranks and sitting in a “Concept Kingdom” meeting where the Circle’s senior management get together to work towards Completion. On the agenda is a plan to improve voter participation. Eamonn outlines a plan to offer governments TruYou as “an automatic path to voter registration” and the Circle as a voting platform.

Mae then takes this suggestion a stage further. “If 100% participation is what we want, why not require every voting age citizen to have a Circle account?”.

The following exchange ensues:

Mae: “We’d save our users hundreds of hours of inconvenience. We’d save the government millions.”

Eamon: “Billions”

Annie (Head of Public Affairs): “Why wouldn’t the government build a similar service?”

Mae: “It would cost too much. They don’t have the expertise. We have the infrastructure.”

Tom (Chief Finance Officer): “Governments need us more than we need them.”

Mae: “Imagine having the full will of the people. Instantly. You’d have true democracy for the first time in human history.

Annie: “This is bullshit”.

Cue a montage of everyone agreeing it’s a great idea except Annie who quits. Eamon notes 22 nations have agreed to making a Circle account mandatory for voting.

If this scenario ever came to pass, should Wales sign up?

Turn-out at the last Assembly election was 45% – admittedly an improvement on the low of 38% in 2003 but still under half the voting age population elected a body which has a huge impact on important aspects of our lives from health to education to the economy.

Online voting does occur, notably in Estonia, but voting via social media opens up some interesting new arguments.

At first glance, the voter registration via social media has appeal. According to figures from Ofcom, 76% of adults in the UK have some sort of social media profile and 95% of those have a Facebook profile. Common arguments around the digital divide are lessening with more older people accessing services online and smart phones making internet access more available.

Casting your ballot via a social media site would be hugely convenient. When the polling place is in your pocket, there’s no excuse for not taking a minute to register your preference. If we vote via our social media platforms, we’re already logged in.

And think of the time saved counting paper ballots. No more endless hours in community centres waiting on the outcome. We would have an instant digital tally as soon as polls close.

Mae is right to say that building a similar service would be massively challenging for governments. The history of government IT is littered with many costly failures and citizens are far more reticent to sign-up to a portal for civic duty than one which is engineered to reward their attention to cat videos.

So far, so compelling. But, on reflection, I think I’m with Annie.

The arguments against online voting have long centred around security but, Leighton Andrews argued in his excellent, if utterly terrifying Annual Lecture to the Royal Television Society earlier this month, Facebook is not a neutral actor.

For the company – and it is a company driven by profits, let’s not forget – elections are big business. Its sophisticated algorithms divide up audiences and sell them to advertisers. It is now emerging how fake news and campaign ads which played on our deepest fears were pushed throughout the 2016 European Referendum and Presidential Campaigns.

As Leighton Andrews argues, social media platforms must be regulated but the challenge is as what. They are not just publishers but a new kind of social utility.

Until the many questions over the conduct of the social media behemoths in relation to elections can be answers, voting via them must remain the stuff of Netflix films. Perhaps in the future, we will get a chance to give our politicians the ultimate like but that seems a long way off.

The Circle is available to stream on Netflix now.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Valerie Livingston is the Founder and Managing Director of newsdirect wales, a Cardiff-based political monitoring company.

4 thoughts on “The Circle

  1. Valerie poses a very interesting question, and then gives the correct answer – any such system would be too open to abuse.

    Even if a perfectly neutral and secure system could be devised – which seems unlikely – the focus on turnout distracts attention from the real problem. Low turnout is a symptom, not the cause, of an unhealthy civic culture.

    The greatest danger to democracy today is a general sense of alienation. People no longer feel that their votes matter.

    They are often right. The reason turnout is so low in Assembly elections is that they make no difference to who is in charge in Cardiff Bay. Even if the vote of the different parties goes up and down a few points, the system is designed so that there is no likely alternative to a Labour-led administration. Whether that is a minority administration or a coalition is a matter of supreme indifference to almost everyone outside “the bubble.”

    Contrast that with the intense national discussions and high turnouts in the Scottish and EU Referenda, where people were given meaningful choices.

    The lesson is clear: the way to renew democracy is to give people, both collectively and individually, the power to choose between real alternatives.

  2. “If this scenario ever came to pass, should Wales sign up?”

    Wales should never “sign up”.

    Firstly: The populus of Wales should have a traditional polling booth referendum on the issue of on-line voting, to see if it is what the people of Wales want.

    Secondly: People are waking up about the information we readily give to Google, the globalists data gatherer for their “big brother” scenario.

    Thirdly: Why give up our wonderful voting tradition and become an anonymous, faceless, global citizen.

    Election night on tv would be reduced to a five minute slot half way through Strictly Come Dancing. Some London luvvy would say: “….and the award to the winner of the election goes to………….

    95% of the tv viewers would probably use this five minutes to go and put the kettle on to make a cup tea for the second half of “strictly.”

    Lastly: Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse. for the right to vote………let it be an inspiration for us to get off the sofa and go down to our local polling station meet some locals and keep “our” information out of the grubby hands of Google!

  3. Interesting article. Yes, I watched the film and I too didn’t understand what the kayaking bit was all about however the main premise (voting via social media) seemed all too possible, not so very far off and actually quite technically feasible. A way to disenfranchise the old and not digitally connected as well as manipulate the data and bubblewash the voters. So now that I have been identified as a health insurance risk from my DNA profile, the driverless vehicle is refusing to come to my door, can’t get a mortgage (DNA again), a robot is doing my job, my phone doesn’t recognise my face?
    Should I take the blue pill or the red one?

  4. JWR gets it the wrong way round. Wales has the same voting system as Scotland. Ours is no less proportional. If the Welsh electorate has not changed government, that cannot be blamed on the system. Labour was as hegemonic in Scotland before the electorate decided to switch to the SNP. The Welsh electorate would switch if given an acceptable alternative. Some of them were desperate enough to switch to UKIP, a bunch of carpet-baggers whose policy is about to worsen Welsh impoverishment. How’s that for desperation?

    Should Wales sign up to social-media voting? Certainly not. Why does anyone think that voting should be made easier? Most people aren’t interest in politics so don’t bother to inform themselves about real choices. Those who can be bothered to vote are probably a bit better informed than those who don’t.. Make voting easier and you probably get worse decisions – we’ve just had a referendum to prove it. If you can’t be bothered to read the (digital) newspapers and go out to vote, why should anyone care what you think?

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