Can Next-Gen Web Advocacy Bring Washington To Heel?
With the spread of fake news and alternate facts, will a collective appreciation for objective truth and civic action ever return to fashion? Will the pace of human consumption and technology outstrip attempts to control or regulate it? After the 2016-election-driven crisis of confidence in the self-policing capabilities of social media giants like Facebook, can the Internet ever return to its early days and promises of a ‘leveling’ and empowering effect?
Founded in 2014, one company is trying to address these questions. Countable, a play on the word ‘accountability’ and ‘the act of being counted’, has created a public-access platform through which people can follow what their elected officials are doing on Capitol Hill, and provide instant feedback in the form of ‘votes,’ that it tallies and sends directly to the accounts of subscribers’ representatives in Washington. Countable’s stated mission is to “break open the lawmaking process” to the average citizen, while giving individual citizens, advocacy groups, candidates for political office and companies the means to galvanize their members and employees in support of issues of importance to them. Starbucks has used Countable to manage a portion of its internal corporate responsibility efforts.
These are significant innovations, given that until recently (and possibly since the first U.S. Congress met on March 4, 1789 in New York’s Federal Hall) only the most persistent or cranky of voters would bother to contact their elected officials with an opinion — for this required writing a letter and putting a stamp on it. Lawmakers typically have an Intern on staff, whose job it is to respond to ‘constituent mail’ with palliative form letters. Rarely was such information useful to the representatives in determining what mattered to their constituents.
Called by GQ magazine the ‘Tinder of Pending Legislation’ (as truly odd as that juxtaposition may be) Countable’s interface is built around short, visually-enhanced descriptions of bills introduced by the House or Senate — and charts their progress towards becoming law. These are listed in Hollywood Squares fashion, surrounding captions that summarize the proposition, like “Do you support banning anyone under 21 from buying an assault rifle?” “Do you support term limits on members of Congress?” If one clicks on any of the ‘squares’, one gets information on related bills proposed or voted on, and background on the bigger issue. The content is moderated by Countable itself for accuracy, bias and relevance. “Take action” buttons pepper the content, allowing one to register one’s views, or provide direct comment.
I met Countable’s CEO and founder Bart Myers in an unassuming cafe in downtown Oakland in late December, 2018 just as President Trump initiated a government shutdown to try to force funding of his anti-immigrant Wall with Mexico — and the pages of Countable documented the legislative counter-punch.
At first glance, Myers seems like he’d be more comfortable in the Pacific Northwest than the Bay Area tech scene (turns out, he’s from Seattle). He takes his coffee black, and describes himself as a ‘centrist’. In the early 2000s, Myers founded a company that was bought by TiVo – the early direct recording technology that allowed viewers to tape shows when they were away, and zap advertisements from their cable or public TV feed. In keeping with Myers’ background as a senior executive with TiVo, there are no visible advertisements on Countable.
“Advertisements – particularly targeted ads,” he says, “are a big part of the problem. They are deployed to create an echo chamber, feeding people ideas and products that conform to what they already believe.” Countable makes its money – for now – by selling advocacy tools (enterprise software) though the back end with tools that enable individuals, pundits and companies to create advocacy campaign around issues relevant to them and their employees or followers.
Myers emphasizes what he calls the omni-partisan nature of the platform: “Countable doesn’t care what party you belong to. We believe the majority of people want to be leveled with, and to feel as though they are part of society, not at the fringes; to believe their opinions count – whatever they are.” This begs the question of how one determines what views are ‘acceptable’ — a challenge that has caught many of the Internet establishment off-guard, as hate speech spilled through filters, private information went who-knows-where, and probes into the 2016 U.S. election revealed that foreign agents used social media to change motivate or influence votes, via ‘fake news’ targeted to those deemed most susceptible to it.
Myers frequently speaks of Countable with reference to two obvious for-profit social media giants (hint: they have ticker symbols like FB and TWTR) . “These companies,” he says, “claim to give members the ability to create vast communities — But they then take that power away on the back end, by charging for access to sections of that community, and allowing third parties to pay to insert new members and messages into your community.”
“There are no hidden players on Countable,” Myers insists. “All the information on Countable is reviewed by editorial committees, which make judgement calls based on principles of fair play. In practice that means, for example, no hate speech or discrimination, respect for human rights, and respectful dialogue. Facts.” Myers sees Countable’s success relying on its ability to build followings around specific issues, and inform users of the basic facts driving them – not alternate facts.
In a way, Countable’s approach is a frontal assault on a problem that a number of non-profits have tried to tackle through electronic petitions. MoveOn.org, has so far the most successful, internet-based, non-profit public advocacy group, followed by Change.org. Both lobby influential politicians and corporate leaders to change their positions on a given issue, or to take a specific action in support of it. MoveOn.org has become a fixture in the advocacy community, claiming to have had a hand in ending the Iraq war and passing healthcare reform. Its website says the organization is ‘the pillar of resistance to Trump’. MoveOn has taken flack for what many see as its decidedly left-wing bias and relentless member pitches for donations.
Skeptics say Countable (presumably no more than MoveOn or Change.org) offers a band-aid on a gushing wound – that America’s institutions are broken, and monied interests so deep that any web-based site or app can only hope to scratch the surface. Can Countable’s model can be sustained – and indeed, is it not as subvertible as other social media are and were? How, for example, does one assure that the companies buying Countable’s advocacy tools aren’t using them to do the equivalent of lobbying, if in a more subtle form? How does one assure Countable’s editors themselves are fair and impartial? “The American system of government been described as the best of imperfect options,” Myers says. “One has to start somewhere, and evolve.”
Regardless, one would have to be an optimist to start a venture which trades not in consumables but in civic responsibility, and doesn’t have the obvious revenue proposition of an Uber. Myers speaks about bringing rationality and facts back to the American politics — but not in a flag waving way. “This is exciting stuff”, he says in a voice that sounds pumped up, than prepared for the next bump. “We’re out to play our part to bring Democracy and factual debates back to America.”
In a sign of Countable’s early success or Washington’s dysfunction, or both, scores of US Representatives (and Senators) are apparently using Countable as a crib sheet prior to their votes. “There are hundreds of Congressional email accounts registered with us, and we get direct feedback from lawmakers themselves,” Myers says. “The current system, in which the need to fundraise for the next election dominates lawmakers’ schedules, provides little time to keep on top of everything.’ If countable can inform America’s lawmakers, it should be able to inform the general public as well.