Tech Governance Research Offers Lessons for Offline Civic Engagement

Authored By 
Rick Harrison
January 10, 2024

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In the United States’ 2020 presidential election, 66% of eligible voters cast ballots, marking the highest turnout for any national election in 120 years. But despite the stakes, almost a third of voters did not participate.

The 2018 midterm election saw the highest turnout rate for a midterm since 1914, and yet more than half of voters failed to exercise their right.

Technology companies face a similar dilemma, increasingly seeking to involve their users in governing decisions to counter concerns that their platforms possess too much power over what people do and say online, which information people most digest, and more. The growth in generative artificial intelligence adds to this influence, affecting how much and what type of content can even be found online — a tremendous amount of power for a few tech companies to hold.

As with elections on the national, state, and local level, voting of any variety is not necessarily easy. People are busy. They may not possess a confident grasp of the issues. They might not feel that their individual votes count in a meaningful way.

To explore one method for incentivizing people to participate in governing decisions, Yale Ph.D. candidate Eliza Oak and Andrew Hall, Davies Family Professor of Political Economy at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, studied what happened when an internet startup company distributed $28 million in digital currency to 300,000 users to reward past governance participation.

Detailed in a working paper, Hall and Oak analyzed data from 1.2 million users of Optimism, a company whose products seek to improve the efficiency of transactions involving the Ethereum blockchain. In February, the company retroactively rewarded users who actively participated in governing decisions as part of a sequential rewards scheme to encourage long-term participation.

The researchers accessed data publicly available on the company’s blockchain, a system of recording transactions, allowing them to track the actions of users who either received or didn’t receive the reward. They found that the initiative successfully motivated new users to participate in the company’s governance, particularly users who own smaller amounts of tokens. In addition, users receiving the incentive reward were more likely to spread their votes in a way that involved more people in the process.

“Together, the results suggest that reward schemes that give people a durable stake in the community and promise a sequence of future rewards are able to broaden participation in online democracy noticeably, at least in the short run under the proper conditions,” the authors wrote.

And though the practices of technology companies operating in cryptocurrency markets might seem obscure to the average citizen, Oak sees lessons in her research for both the online and offline worlds.

“As society moves increasingly online, tech platforms have amassed significant influence over various aspects of human life,” she said, including financial transactions and interpersonal interactions. “There is a lot of government-like power that these platforms have, and they are not elected democratically or held accountable by any democratic institutions.”Eliza Oak

Oak cited studies that have produced evidence that places where people participate in the stock market at higher levels experience lower support for violent protest and studies indicating that places with higher home ownership see higher levels of voter turnout.

“This literature, combined with our study’s findings, suggests that when people have more stake in society, this encourages more stability and civic participation,” she said. “People are more aligned with their communities.”

Oak suggested that states or countries might not choose to pay people to vote, although some incentives could prove as effective as policies in countries such as Australia, where voting is mandatory and enforced through fines.

“This work speaks to overarching questions about how we can get people to show up for elections or engage in other forms of prosocial behavior,” she said, musing that a government could attach some sequential award structure to a universal basic income to incentivize voting. “Often people are motivated by some self-interest as well as civic duty.”

Institution for Social and Policy Studies Director Alan Gerber serves as Oak’s doctoral dissertation advisor and helps lead Democratic Innovations, ISPS’s program to identify and test new ideas for improving the quality of democratic representation and governance.

“This is an excellent example of how technology poses both new challenges and unique opportunities to study and incentivize participation in governance,” Gerber said. “As we are learning through our Democratic Innovations program, we need more studies like this one to maintain and nurture our democracy and ensure that people have their voices heard.”