Harnessing Mistrust for Civic Action

Yes, it’s international press day here on my old, creaky blog. Friends at Süddeutsch Zeitung asked whether I could turn my Re:publica Keynote on mistrust and civics into a newspaper op-ed. Here’s what I came up with, which ran in yesterday’s newspaper.


On Monday, British comedian Simon Brodkin pelted outgoing FIFA leader Sep Blatter with a stack of dollar bills as Blatter spoke at a press conference. Brodkin’s dollar shower expressed the boundless anger football fans feel about the corruption within football’s world governing body.

When Swiss police arrested senior leaders of FIFA at a posh hotel in Zurich in late May, football fans around the world were shocked. Unfortunately, very few were shocked to learn of corruption in the world governing body of football. Instead, they were surprised that the leaders of an institution with a long reputation for malfeasance might be held responsible for their misdeeds.

This misplaced surprise is characteristic of the current popular mood in many nations. We are so accustomed to news of institutions acting incompetently or unethically that we are less surprised by their misbehavior then that such misbehavior has consequences. Whether we consider the disastrous failures of the US and UK in Iraq from 2003 to the present, the near collapse of the global banking system in 2008 or the discovery of widespread sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church over the past two decades, it’s easy to understand why there is pervasive mistrust in many institutions: governments, big business, churches and the press have failed us time and again.

In the US, mistrust in government has deepened over the past 50 years, with 24% of Americans now reporting that they trust their government all or most of the time, down from 77% in 1964. But it’s not only government that Americans mistrust: polls show a steady decline in trust in corporations, banks, newspapers, universities, nonprofit organizations and churches. The only institutions that Americans trust more than they did a generation ago are the military and the police. And while specifics of mistrust differ between the US and Europe, the general pattern is similar. Public relations firm Edelman surveys a thousand citizens in 33 nations each year to build a “trust barometer”, measuring public trust in government, business, nonprofit organizations and the media. According to their survey Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Sweden and Ireland all have lower levels of institutional trust than the United States.

One predictable consequence of mistrust in institutions is a decrease in participation. Fewer than 37% of eligible US voters participated in the 2014 Congressional election. Participation in European parliamentary and national elections across Europe is higher than the US’s dismal rates, but has steadily declined since 1979, with turnout for the 2014 European parliamentary elections dropping below 43%. It’s a mistake to blame low turnout on distracted or disinterested voters, when a better explanation exists: why vote if you don’t believe the US congress or European Parliament is capable of making meaningful change in the world?

In his 2012 book, “Twilight of the Elites”, Christopher Hayes suggests that the political tension of our time is not between left and right, but between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe we can fix the world’s problems by strengthening and revitalizing the institutions we have. Insurrectionists believe we need to abandon these broken institutions we have and replace them with new, less corrupted ones, or with nothing at all. The institutionalists show up to vote in elections, but they’re being crowded out by the insurrectionists, who take to the streets to protest, or more worryingly, disengage entirely from civic life.

Conventional wisdom suggests that insurrectionists will grow up, stop protesting and start voting. But we may have reached a tipping point where the cultural zeitgeist favors insurrection. My students at MIT don’t want to work for banks, for Google or for universities – they want to build startups that disrupt banks, Google and universities.

The future of democracy depends on finding effective ways for people who mistrust institutions to make change in their communities, their nations and the world as a whole. The real danger is not that our broken institutions are toppled by a wave of digital disruption, but that a generation disengages from politics and civics as a whole.

It’s time to stop criticizing youth for their failure to vote and time to start celebrating the ways insurrectionists are actually trying to change the world. Those who mistrust institutions aren’t just ignoring them. Some are building new systems designed to make existing institutions obsolete. Others are becoming the fiercest and most engaged critics of of our institutions, while the most radical are building new systems that resist centralization and concentration of power.

Those outraged by government and corporate complicity in surveillance of the internet have the option of lobbying their governments to forbid these violations of privacy, or building and spreading tools that make it vastly harder for US and European governments to read our mail and track our online behavior. We need both better laws and better tools. But we must recognize that the programmers who build systems like Tor, PGP and Textsecure are engaged in civics as surely as anyone crafting a party’s political platform. The same goes for entrepreneurs building better electric cars, rather than fighting to legislate carbon taxes. As people lose faith in institutions, they seek change less through passing and enforcing laws, and more through building new technologies and businesses whose adoption has the same benefits as wisely crafted and enforced laws.

“Monitorial citizens” are activists whose work focuses on watching and critiquing the work conducted by institutions. The young Italians behind Monithon.it, a project that invites citizens to visit, investigate and review projects paid for with European cohesion funds are monitorial citizens. So are the civilians who review complaints against the police, holding commanders accountable for mistreatment of the citizens. The rise of new tools and techniques, including video sharing and crowdsourced reporting, are helping mitigate the power imbalances between established institutions and the citizens who want to hold them accountable.

Some of the most radical thinking about a post-institutional future comes from proponents of systems like bitcoin, a virtual currency designed to free its users from trusting in central banks and the governments that back them. Internet advocates have a long track record of supporting decentralized systems, from mesh networks that provide internet connectivity without a central internet service provider, or Eben Moglen’s “Freedom Box“, a system for serving webpages that mirrors content around the internet, rather than centralizing it on a single server. But decentralization is a difficult technical problem. Technical systems like Google and Facebook have become powerful institutions not just due to the ambitions of their founders, but from the difficulty of building search engines and social networks in a decentralized way.

Could citizen monitors of FIFA have kept Qatar from hosting the 2022 World Cup? Would decentralized social networks have resisted NSA surveillance? Maybe so, maybe not. But the citizens finding ways to challenge institutions and engage in politics through other means are the ones to watch in this age of mistrust.

This entry was posted in ideas. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Harnessing Mistrust for Civic Action

  1. Seth Finkelstein says:

    Ethan, in the wake of the latest Internet outrage mobbing over a lion shooting, I’d like to ask only semi-rhetorically: Why do you think *you* can harness the mistrust, rather than professional liars and hate-mongers? What prevents people who deal in manipulating mistrust for a living, who are very expert at the task and have the appropriate lack of ethics and scruples, from simply co-opting your supposed civic-minded “insurrectionists”? I presume the answer can’t be technological determinism, we’ve seen how badly that works. You write “Internet advocates have a long track record of supporting decentralized systems, …” – but they get recentralized (meet the new boss, same as the old boss). Anything along the lines of saying they should should should be decentralized, doesn’t seem to do anything.

  2. Pingback: Lessig 2016: A radical institutionalist runs for President | … My heart’s in Accra

Comments are closed.