Fake news and the influence of social media have shaken up recent elections.
Reports of foreign influence in the US elections and the Brexit referendum are now well known. Meanwhile, in India, platforms such as WhatsApp are being used to spread extremist and false information in the run up to elections. Social media can have even more dangerous influences in young democracies like Myanmar, where Facebook is the homepage to the internet.
These patterns have also created a “disinterest in politics” among the youth, says Nimo Naamani, co-founder and tech chief of Horizon State, a startup building citizen engagement platforms. Seeing that social media has failed to engage voters, the company wants to change the way elections are run.
Rebuilding voters’ trust
It is working with governments across the world to enable e-voting on the blockchain, making it more secure and trustworthy than traditional polling booths.
Blockchain distributes individual voting information across thousands of computers around the world, making it impossible to alter or delete votes once they’ve been cast, Naamani explains. “If you want to attack the ledger and change the information, it is very mathematically difficult to do that.”
“If you want to attack the ledger and change the information, it is very mathematically difficult to do that.”
This approach promotes greater trust between voters and governments by protecting their data and privacy. Voters get the right to choose how much information they wish to disclose. While national elections require voters to disclose who they are to verify their eligibility, other engagement forums, such as local town halls, do not require the same level of disclosure.
“We create trust by having the user in control over their data and privacy”, says Horizon State’s CEO, Oren Alazraki. The company also does not store voters’ information or manage their identities, unlike Facebook, he adds.
The platform allows citizens to cast their votes on smartphone apps, rather than having to queue up at polling stations. As a result, voters will be “far more responsive to the idea that they can make their voice heard and their vote will count”, adds Naamani.
While Horizon State’s approach is a huge leap from traditional paper voting slips, it doesn’t require governments to completely rebuild their systems. Its platform can be modelled to fit into existing electronic voting machines. “Eventually, you’ll see the shift towards decentralised and remote participation, rather than these centralised gatherings at public polling stations,” says Naamani.
The company’s e-voting platform is receiving global interest, Alazraki reveals. It has gotten requests from three countries to run their elections, while four others are keen to run population censuses on their blockchain platform. The company was also recently selected as a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum.
Elections only happen once every few years, but governments need to be far more responsive. Beyond voting, Horizon State wants to help governments engage citizens more frequently, and in a more meaningful way. “We want to let governments discuss with the citizens as many times as they want, and as often as they want.”
Existing engagement platforms like Facebook no longer appeal to governments, the company believes. “Organisations are shy going on Facebook,” says Alazraki, and “fear the consequence of receiving feedback [on social media]”. With no easy way to independently verify Facebook users’ identities, it is easy for people to spread negative comments from behind fake profiles.
This is an issue that the blockchain platform takes care of. Horizon State is building a suite of tools that will let governments engage citizens in two-way dialogue and understand sentiments in nearly real-time. Its community engagement platform allows governments to ask residents for help and ideas on local issues. “Political candidates can put issues up for vote, or for deliberation on the platform,” Naamani says. Citizens can then vote on and discuss these issues, with artificial intelligence gathering insights from voters’ sentiments.
The blockchain platform also improves transparency in community processes, allowing participants to track how funding and donations are being used. “As a citizen, you can see what is happening – both with your own submission, but also with the things that affect you and your community”, Naamani says. This visibility is crucial for governments to improve their credibility.
The company is partnering with others, with plans to deliver even more services, such as employment, healthcare records and emergency services, on its blockchain platform.
Horizon State’s founders believe that its blockchain-based platform has the potential to spark great change and citizen engagement across Asia, where access to smartphones is cheap and ubiquitous.
Governments are rapidly developing internet connectivity across the region. Villages may lack proper roads or hospitals, but most residents have mobile phones and internet nearby. A mobile and secure engagement platform like Horizon State’s can allow governments to engage with remote communities which would otherwise have little say in national decisions.
The company is developing new ways for people to use their services in areas with poor connectivity. “We’re going to collaborate with some telecommunications companies to provide means for these rural places to communicate [with local governments],” the CEO says.
The company’s ultimate goal is to allow communities to “help and organise themselves better to seek structured assistance for governments and various agencies”, he concludes.