Engineering an Election

7 Pages Posted: 23 Jun 2014 Last revised: 26 Jul 2015

See all articles by Jonathan L. Zittrain

Jonathan L. Zittrain

Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government; Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Berkman Center for Internet & Society; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: June 20, 2014

Abstract

This essay considers a hypothetical example of digital gerrymandering: the selective presentation of information by an intermediary to meet its agenda rather than to serve its users. It is possible on any service that personalizes what it presents, particularly when there is an abundance of items to offer up and only a few that can be shown at a time. Whether for search results, top tweets, or Facebook updates, each curating service uses a proprietary recipe to draw from boundless ingredients to prepare our feeds, and each is in a position to gerrymander its users, distinguishing between those it thinks will be supportive of its goals and those who will not. None promises neutrality, whatever that might mean, although some — including Google and Bing — clearly distinguish between results driven by the companies’ own formulas versus those displayed as sponsored advertising.

What if part of the secret sauce behind feeds serves the aims of the cook rather than the customer? Perhaps companies could choose whether to become information fiduciaries, the way that businesspeople who make suggestions on buying and selling stocks and bonds can elect between careers as investment advisors or brokers. However agreed, a central responsibility of an information intermediary would be to serve up others’ data in ways not designed to further the political goals of the intermediary.

Keywords: digital gerrymandering, search engines, elections, facebook

Suggested Citation

Zittrain, Jonathan, Engineering an Election (June 20, 2014). Harvard Law Review Forum, Vol. 127, p. 335, 2014, Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 14-28, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2457502

Jonathan Zittrain (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government ( email )

Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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