Arrow’s paradox in the age of social media
Short attention span, relentless messaging, and election mechanics create an inflammatory mix
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 âfirst past the postâ systems, while others use constituencies. Still others use referendums where two choices are opposed, such as the vote for Brexit.
The influence of the minority
Mathematician Kenneth Arrow has exposed the loopholes in elections. Arrow’s doctoral thesis, completed in the 1950s, identified that in any electoral system where there are three or more preferences, a curious paradox comes into play: supporters of the minority voice can dictate the wider choice. His discovery is now called the Arrow Paradox.
This can be illustrated by 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 population can be divided along three lines: the first category comprising the hawks who are in the minority but want war; while the other two categories, the majority of voters, including those who do not want war. The majority are more or less evenly divided between the doves who prefer never to go to war and the realists who do not want to go to war unless it is absolutely necessary.
In an election where only two choices can be made, the falcon minority, who want war, can dictate the outcome by convincing the realists (who believe that war should not be waged unless it is absolutely necessary) that war is really needed right now. Note that it is not the minority vote that causes a “tipping point” in an election; it is a systematic way for a minority to establish a voting agenda as it wins.
The Internet, and especially social networks, help this minority to energize a large part of the population. This is a more recent development that takes the Arrow paradox to unprecedented levels. The recent US presidential election and its aftermath is one example.
In today’s digital world, humans are constantly bombarded with messages of all kinds and our attention span has diminished. We are making our decision increasingly quickly, often within the first few seconds of viewing a message or video on the Internet. Most readers would have known this phenomenon.
Research has been devoted 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 with US National Public Radio: âTen years ago, before the iPad and iPhone became mainstream, the average person had an attention span of around 12 seconds. . Now, he says, “research suggests there has been a drop of 12 to 8 seconds – shorter than the average goldfish’s attention span, which is 9 seconds.”
As recent events around the US election have proven, new populations online lack the capacity to discriminate or adequately deal with what they see online. The ancient defenders of the scriptures “shravanam, mananam, nidhidhyaasanam(Listen, continually reflect on what you heard, then contemplate deeply what you heard before you get to the truth). But today’s combination of shortened attention spans, relentless bombardment of messages, and the unmistakable mathematics of Arrow’s proofs form an incendiary mix. This is true even in the most technologically advanced regions such as the state of California in the United States.
Vote on proposal 22
For example, in a US presidential election, other referendum choices also appear on the ballot in each state. In light of last year’s circus, many of these issues, some of them crucial, have taken a back seat. One of those issues was the California referendum on Proposition 22, which was of critical importance to companies like Uber and Lyft. These labor economy companies that use âcasualâ workers had threatened to leave the state if the measure was not passed. These companies wanted their drivers to be classified as subcontractors and not as employees.
California is a leftist state and voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. It is also the undisputed technological capital of the United States. Yet Proposition 22 succeeded. The gig economy ridesharing apps spent over $ 200 million to win. Those who oppose it can only raise about a tenth of that amount. More money paid off. More than 58% of California voters have chosen to continue to classify drivers of these services as contractors, apparently acting after simple shravanam, without the extra steps needed to find out the truth.
The classification of employees would have given rise to a multitude of labor rights that today’s concert workers do not enjoy as “independent contractors”. Workers will not have the same rights as other employees to paid sick leave, overtime, unemployment insurance or a workplace covered by occupational safety and health laws. The California Assembly had tried to avoid this earlier with a law of its own, called Assembly Bill 5, which would have guaranteed these rights.
California voters appear to have been seduced by the deceptive pre-election campaigns to influence the views of voters in this otherwise left-wing state. They have been bombarded with emails, tsetse flies, text messages and video spots. Concert companies spread messages that, in the first few seconds, promised to pay their contractors more than minimum wage. It seems to have caught the attention of voters and made them act without stopping to think about the real truth. The truth, at least according to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), was that a person driving an average of 35 km per hour in a 40-hour work week would earn $ 287 less per week if Proposition 22 were passed. The NELP says that a “permanent subclass of workers” has now been created.
Concert companies will be thrilled with the victory in California and hope to replicate that success across the United States (and beyond its shores). Emboldened by the result in California, Uber and the rest of the companies will pass similar legislation in other US states and possibly other countries.
It is certain that there will be attempts in the future to influence elections using both intense messages that take advantage of our reduced attention spans as well as establishing electoral choice agendas that Arrow first described.
We should learn from these problems in India. Enlightened legislation may be needed.
Siddharth Pai is the founder of Siana Capital, a venture capital firm focused on Indian Deep Tech and Science