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Liberal coders are competing to take out the technology that helped elect Trump

by Alex Thompson
Jan 18 2017, 1:42pm

Tech played an unprecedented role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election: It enabled the rapid spread of fake news, the WikiLeaks deluge of private emails from senior Democratic officials, and the media bubbles that confirmed rather than challenged many voters’ worldview.

But whatever problems technology created might also be solved by the same tools. At least that was the premise last weekend as several hundred left-leaning coders, engineers, and entrepreneurs, powered on caffeine, worked through two days at the “Debug Politics” hackathon to develop programs to fix “one specific thing about the election cycle you were dissatisfied with.”

In the third such hackathon in the aftermath of the contentious presidential election, the final 20 groups proposed a variety of largely earnest, empirically-minded ways citizens can use technology to stay politically engaged post-election. The ballot box would be only one of many tools at a voter’s disposal.

“We can recede into our echo chambers and sulk and tweet, or we can get off our asses and create change with a sustained commitment,” the hackathon’s lead organizer, Elevate Labs CEO Jesse Pickard, told the assembled crowd as he kicked off the final presentations, whittled down from 40.

The implicit goal of such a sustained commitment was evident from all the presentations: Stop Donald Trump and “debug” the technology that contributed to his rise.

“The silver lining in the election of Trump was encouraging people to demand things instead of just being nice and expecting it,” said Matt Borg, an amateur software developer at the hackathon who works with the Progressive Coders Network (“progcode” in their shorthand). “The arc of history may bend toward justice, but it doesn’t just come to you; you have to fight for it.”

The winner of the competition, for example, hacked together a Facebook messaging app to take on fake news. “Second Opinion” would give people real-time machine-generated feedback on articles they message, along with alternative perspectives. In the project’s demo, the program evaluates a user’s Breitbart article as biased and untrustworthy and shoots back a piece from the more left-leaning The Atlantic.

The second-place team developed Stand Up, a platform designed to shift protest energy away from the largely inconsequential online petitions and Facebook essays toward phone calls and office visits to elected officials. Protesting in the virtual world is largely discounted by those in power, but the same technology can enable real-world advocacy. The group saw Stand Up, which will launch before Trump’s inauguration on Friday, as a means of organizing a progressive Tea Party.

But the crowd favorite — and the favorite of at least one of the seven judges — was also the most blatantly subversive. BotArmy’s Christine Jiang had the crowd whooping with her call to “kill fake alt-right news with fake alt-left news.” The pandemic of right-wing fake news, she argued, could not be stopped with things like reason and transparency (or even articles from The Atlantic, perhaps).

Jiang’s idea is to “fight fire with fire” and flood the internet with left-wing misinformation so that people might eventually become more discerning readers — don’t drain the swamp but flood it so people learn to swim. On Sunday alone ahead of BotArmy’s presentation, users enlisted their Twitter accounts into the virtual army with over two thousand tweets and there are plans to enlist many many more.

Politics may be “comprehensively fucked up and needs to be debugged,” as judge John Heilemann, co-managing editor at Bloomberg Politics, told the crowd, but the rest of the judges weren’t ready to fully embrace such cynicism.

The seven judges were Stephanie Hannon, Chief Technology Officer of Hillary Clinton’s campaign; Fred Wilson, co-founder of Union Square Ventures; Chris Wiggins, chief data scientist at The New York Times; Sree Sreenivasan, chief digital officer of NYC; Diana Rhoten, managing partner at IDEO; and Nancy Lublin, CEO of Crisis Text Line.

Lublin said she loved BotArmy but that not all of the judges were keen on a strategy that relied on spreading falsehoods. Still, she said that Jiang and all of the women at the hackathon — this time women were more than a quarter of the attendees — gave her hope that these projects might catch on beyond the usual suspects (young, white men). At most hackathons, “anything vagina-related will freak them out,” she joked.

Other projects from the former hackathons included HelloGov which makes it easy for social media influencers to direct their followers to call their politicians. After launching in November, it has recruited new teammates at the last two Debug events.

The next Debug hackathon is set for April 28-30 in Los Angeles.