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Facebook filed a patent for a ‘civil’ political debate forum

What could go wrong?

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Facebook has applied to patent a system where people could comment on laws that might affect them, then have that feedback worked into a formal political proposal, creating a way for people to “meaningfully engage in civil discourse” online. The concept would build on Facebook’s earlier attempts at promoting civic engagement, and it sounds similar to other, existing crowdsourced democracy tools. But Facebook’s vast scale could put tremendous weight behind any kind of private political forum.

The patent, titled “Providing digital forums to enhance civic engagement,” covers a localized and politics-focused form of social networking. The system would identify a proposed new law or amendment, then use existing social networking data to find and invite people “having a predicted interest in the proposed law.”

These people would be directed toward an interface where they could comment on the new law, and Facebook would aggregate the feedback into a unified proposal, which the users could then approve. Like various other high-tech political proposals, this might involve blockchain technology.

Patent Illustration, Facebook

Facebook files hundreds of patents a year, and most are not developed into public products. But Facebook plays a major role in shaping opinion on modern social issues, and this application offers a glimpse at how the company thinks about political speech and democracy.

The filing describes a generic version of its political platform, which could plausibly be run by human moderators, as well as a version that’s almost completely automated. (Obviously, automating the system well would raise a lot of issues, which are beyond the scope of the patent.) It also outlines a few different methods for inviting users: Facebook could simply notify people within a certain geographic boundary, for instance, or it could use a “reputation score” related to the law’s topic.

Facebook’s formal claims don’t say much about the reputation scores, but its background descriptions (which include non-patented hypothetical ideas) offer examples of how they might work. In one example, people could be tagged as “experts” in the topic at hand, based on “field of education, profession, and a history of social networking posts including feedback by other users.”

In another, people earn a general reputation score based on their behavior. Factors could include “civility with other users” of a general social networking system, “a history of posting about civic issues”, a record of positive ratings on feedback for previous proposals, and whether any of the user’s proposals have been adopted.

Patent illustration, facebook

In the past, Facebook has described using a misinformation trust rating that keeps track of how often people flag real stories as “fake news.” It denied keeping a “centralized ‘reputation’ score” for users. This patent isn’t describing a centralized score for Facebook either, but it could raise the same questions as one — because in this case, it might determine whether Facebook invites people to participate in civic culture.

Facebook already offers tools that remind people to vote and help them contact their elected representatives. Between 2009 and 2012, it also let people comment and vote on Facebook’s terms of service — though the effect was minimal. This particular system has some features in common with Rousseau, a direct democracy platform used by Italy’s unique and controversial Five Star Movement. But the patent describes an intermediary system designed to help people come up with political solutions, not formally propose them as laws.

Despite these more modest ambitions, the patent still includes a scathing rebuke of modern politics. “Even as communication technology continues to improve... the ability of individuals to meaningfully engage in civil discourse has various limitations,” it says — blaming the impersonal scale of digital communications and “massive amounts of often uncivil messages” sent by anonymous trolls. (Facebook is a noted opponent of online anonymity.)

Meanwhile, “politics, party platforms, and biased media reports often monopolize public discourse,” and “the current political climate frequently results in high-profile and often underqualified individuals having control over which civic issues are discussed and how those civic issues are resolved.” Facebook’s system seems designed to promote smaller-scale engagement with local politics.

It’s worth noting that this application was filed in the summer of 2017, before Facebook became mired in a series of political scandals — including concerns about allowing misinformation from Russian “troll farms” and unethical data mining from the Cambridge Analytica consulting firm, as well as accusations of facilitating genocide in Myanmar. So the company had slightly more room to promise fixes for a broken democratic system, although the patent doesn’t really cover methods for raising the quality of online debate, beyond making sure the right people get invited to participate.

At this point, Facebook seems more concerned with managing its own policies, and this system might never get beyond the patent office. “Patent applications are no indication of future plans, so we have nothing to add,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Verge. But it’s also the kind of thing Facebook could end up using as a template for an internal, digital democracy — which is an idea it’s certainly discussed in the past.