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.

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