Brigade is Exactly what American Democracy Doesn’t Need

Sean Parker, of Facebook and Napster fame, has launched a new “social media for politics” app called Brigade, with huge funding and a staff of over 50 on Beta launch day (which is rare in the social media world). A lot of people have bought into this.

His aim is to “repair democracy,” and a few of the Considerates alerted us to Brigade as a potential collaboration opportunity.

But after reading about them on their website, we had some concerns. If Brigade grows popular in its current form, it may have an effect antithetical to its purpose, exacerbating political polarization rather than alleviating it.

Here's why. We'll address some of the quoted features and selling points on the website, one by one.

 

"DEMOCRACY STARTS WHEN YOU TAKE A STAND."

This is putting the cart dangerously far before the horse. Modern democracies must make a mass of incredibly complex, nuanced decisions full of trade-offs between values. Making a decision in democracy often requires research and sometimes requires education in the field. When we take a stand first, we're relying on woefully uneducated emotional reactions, rather than thoughtful consideration, research, and dialectic.

If we really want effective democracy, taking a stand should be nearly the last thing we do -- certainly not the first. 


"Our first tool is now available! Express what you think about important issues, and see where your friends and others stand. Being heard is as easy as tapping 'agree' or 'disagree.'"

As we discussed in an earlier post, a major expression (or even driver) of polarization is using social media to sort ourselves into echo-chambers. Using the Brigade tool, you can state a position and force your friends to sort into camps that are "with you" and "against you." Users have little or no opportunity to introduce nuance to their answer, no matter how's the position is framed. If Brigade becomes popular, it could prove to be the most effective way yet for sorting ourselves into groups whose members cheer on the same bumper-sticker one-liners.

 

"Brigade is the first app that lets you discover which of your friends support you, and on what issues. Start having more conversations that matter."

Repairing Democracy doesn't require being better-able to organize into groups of people who agree. We already know that the groups that most consistently agree are highly engaged partisans who vote, donate, protest, and vilify the other side. Certainly these groups don't have the conversations that would help repair democracy: their members are more likely to have self-reinforcing conversations that validate biases and assumptions, entrenching them further in their current belief systems.

 

"Write your own opinions, then poll your friends to see what they think and why."


In order to drive these polls, users must necessarily write short, easily-digestible opinions and are unable to have conversations to understand the nuance of one another's opinions before the app requires them to take a binary stance of agreement or disagreement. Ultimately the structure of Brigade nearly forces users into over-simplifying their positions, and then forces them into being "for" or "against" one of these over-simplified positions, without promoting actual conversation.

 

We cannot replace real, curious, exploratory dialogue with an app, and the structure of Brigade seems poised to exacerbate the perception of division that has caused inter-party animosity and gridlock in DC.

Partisan advocacy groups and party machines are likely to enjoy partnering with Brigade in order to access a massive wealth of data and reach out to the most engaged self-identified partisans in order to turn them into donors, voters, or protesters; it is likely to be an excellent source of revenue for the team.

But if Parker wishes to truly repair Democracy, Brigade will require a total re-design. We hope that the Beta testing period teaches the team that their mission requires that Brigade's structure pull a one-eighty: When "taking a stand" comes first, we glorify our knee-jerk reactions and our least-educated positions. For Democracy to work, we must take a stand after walking down a long road that ends with action.

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Erik Fogg

US political and cultural dialogue is broken, and we intend to change that. We're starting by giving you Something to Consider.