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Arrow’s Paradox in the age of social media

The mechanics of all elections are flawed. Each country has different rules regarding its voting systems, and each set of rules is necessarily a compromise. Some countries use ‘first past the post’ systems, while others use electoral colleges. Yet others use referendums where two choices are pitted against one another, such as the Brexit vote.

The influence of the minority

The mathematician Kenneth Arrow laid bare the flaws in elections. Arrow’s doctoral thesis, completed in the 1950s, identified that in any electoral system where three or more preferences exist, a curious paradox comes into play: proponents of the minority voice can dictate the broader choice. His finding is now called Arrow’s Paradox.

This can be illustrated with an example. Let’s say a population participates in an election in which candidate ‘A’ says let’s go to war and candidate ‘B’ says let’s not go to war. While there are only two choices (war or peace), the voting populace may be distributed along three lines: the first category comprising the hawks who are in a minority but want war; while the other two categories, the majority of the voters, comprising those who don’t want war. The majority is more or less evenly split into the doves who prefer not to go to war ever and the realists who don’t want to go to war unless it’s absolutely necessary.

In an election where only two choices can be made, the hawk minority, which wants war, can dictate the outcome by convincing the realists (who believe in not going to war unless absolutely necessary) that war is actually needed at this moment. Note that this isn’t the minority swing vote which causes a ‘tipping point’ in an election; it is a systematic way for a minority to go about setting a voting agenda such that it carries the day.

The Internet, and especially social media, help this minority instigate a large part of the populace. This is a more recent development that boosts Arrow’s Paradox to levels hitherto unheard of. The recent U.S. presidential election and its aftermath is an example.

In today’s digital world, humans are constantly bombarded with messaging of all kinds, and our attention spans have dwindled. We make up our minds in ever smaller bits of time — often within the first few seconds of viewing an Internet-based message or video. Most readers would have experienced this phenomenon.

Research has been dedicated to this phenomenon and books have been written about it. Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible – The Rise of Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked, said in an interview to the U.S.’s National Public Radio: “Ten years ago, before the iPad and iPhone were mainstream, the average person had an attention span of about 12 seconds.” Now, he says, “research suggests that there has been a drop from 12 to 8 seconds — shorter than the attention span of the average goldfish, which is 9 seconds.”

As recent events around the U.S. election have proved, newly online populaces do not have the ability to discriminate or adequately process what they see online. Ancient scripture advocates “shravanam, mananam, nidhidhyaasanam” (listen, continuously reflect on what you heard, and then deeply contemplate what you heard before arriving at the truth). But today’s combination of shortened attention spans, the relentless bombardment of messaging, and the indisputable mathematics of Arrow’s proofs make for an incendiary mix. This is true even in the most technologically advanced regions such as the State of California in the U.S.

Vote on Proposition 22

For instance, during a U.S. presidential election, other referendum choices are also on the ballot in each State. Given last year’s circus, many of these issues, some of them pivotal, got relegated to the back seat. One such issue was California’s referendum on Proposition 22, which was critically important to companies such as Uber and Lyft. These gig economy businesses that use ‘casual’ workers had threatened to leave the State if the measure was not voted in. These businesses wanted their drivers to be classified as contractors and not as employees.

California is a left-leaning State and voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. It is also the undisputed tech capital of the U.S. Yet, Proposition 22 made it through. The gig economy ride-hailing apps spent over $200 million to win. Those opposed to it could only muster about a tenth of that sum. Bigger money paid off. Over 58% of California’s voters opted to continue classifying drivers at these services as contractors, seemingly acting after mere shravanam, without the additional steps needed after that to get to the truth.

Employee classification would have given rise to a slew of labour rights that today’s gig workers do not enjoy as ‘independent contractors’. Workers will not have the same rights as other employees to paid sick days, overtime pay, unemployment insurance or a workplace covered by occupational safety and health laws. California’s Assembly had tried to head this off earlier with a law of its own called Assembly Bill 5, which would have guaranteed these rights.

California’s voters seem to have been won over by misleading campaigns run before the election to sway voters’ opinions in this otherwise left-leaning State. They were bombarded with emails, glossies, text messages and video spots. Gig companies put out messages that in the first few seconds promised that they would pay their contractors more than the minimum wage. This appears to have caught voters’ attention and led them to act without stopping to reflect on what was the real truth. The truth, at least according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), was that someone driving an average of 35 km every hour in a 40-hour work week would make $287 less per week if Proposition 22 passed. The NELP says a “permanent underclass of workers” has now been created.

Gig businesses will take heart from the victory in California and hope to replicate this success across the U.S. (and beyond its shores). Emboldened by the result in California, Uber and the other companies will move similar legislation in other U.S. States and possibly other countries.

It is certain that there will be future attempts at influencing elections using both intense messaging which takes advantage of our shortened attention spans as well as the setting of agendas of electoral choice which Arrow first described.

We should learn from such issues in India. Enlightened legislation may be needed.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture capital firm focused on Indian Deep Tech and Science

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 2:37:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/arrows-paradox-in-the-age-of-social-media/article33552152.ece

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