Solving Online Activism's Astroturfing Problem With Bitcoin Tech

BitVote wants to help add legitimacy to online campaigns.

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Mar 4 2015, 6:45pm

​Image: Ditty_about_summer/Shutterstock

So-called clicktivism is hardly effective: You can tweet-bombard Obama as much as you like, or erode your fingertips away signing online petitions against whatever injustice, but, while the cause you're posting about may gain visibility, concrete results are rare.

Hacktivist Aaron Bale wants to harness a Bitcoin-like peer-to-peer blockchain technology to reshape the nature of online activism. He thinks that opinions expressed online are brushed off because they're discredited by the spectre of manipulation, "astroturfing," and the possibility that online votes are cast by robots or people voting multiple times. His brainchild, BitVo​te, aims to change this.

BitVote will be launched as a decentralized app on the ​blockchain-based platform Ethereum on March 20. Its concept is as simple as it is convoluted. BitVote runs on an "hour/credit" currency: every user will receive 24 "hour/credits" for each day after March 20. Those "hours" are the fuel of the voting system, with every user deciding how many "minutes" of their stock to allocate to a given cause.

For instance, if I like a certain law proposal, I can paste a link to the proposal on my BitVote account and then decide to invest two of my day's 24 "hours" in it: my vote will be recorded and my "hours" will be whittled down to 22.

Bale explained that the time-based approach harks back to the 2012 anti-SOPA internet blackout​, when millions of internet users, largely spearheaded by late hacktivist Aaron Swartz, protested to sink an anti-piracy bill. "I think there is an implied time unit in all voting systems: all representatives stay in power for a certain amount of time. Then in 2012 about 20 million people blacked out the Internet for 24 hours, which is equal to 480 million hours of human lives," Bale told me during a Skype call.

"Bitvote wants to codify Swartz's blackout. You can't organize a blackout or take-to-the-streets day. People don't have time to engage in full-time activism, so here's a platform to symbolically represent how much they care." 

It's still hard to grasp why a bunch of "symbolic" hours just one click away could be taken that much more seriously than other forms of online campaigning and not just a type of slacktivi​sm (a term Bale took particular offense to.) It's one thing to commit three or four "hour-credits" on BitVote, without spending any actual minutes on the issue you're campaigning on; it's another to spend that time waving a placard in the street during an old-style protest.

There are other features of BitVote, though, that sound appealing. First, every "vote" will be appended to a public, navigable ledger, which the blockchain peer-to-peer network will make virtually impossible to tamper with. That's coupled with the fact that BitVote will ensure every person can use only one Bitvote ID, in order to stave off rigging and double-voting. The "one-person-per-ID" goal is extremely arduous to achieve, especially as another of BitVote's trademarks is user-anonymity: It's hard to prevent voters from cheating if you can't ask them their name.

"We're still deciding which of vario​us strategies is the best to solve the problem. One is to simultaneously test voters, for example with a series of CAPTCHAs to be answered within a certain period of time, which would make it impossible to use two IDs," Bale said. "Or we may go for biometrics authentication, like verifying each user's unique typing style."

If it works, BitVote could succeed in lending online votes some modicum of credibility. Were it to catch on among a reasonable amount of people—beyond the boundaries of the tight-knit hacktivist/Bitcoiner circles—politicians might have a harder time dismissing votes expressed on the platform as the machinations of a few compulsive clickers or a platoon of bots. "Just think if somebody organized a street protest with the backing of millions of BitVoters," Bale said. "It would definitely have more legitimacy. It wouldn't be just 'some hippies.'"

However, it's safe to assume that good old ballots cast on election day will still be around for a bit—as will cash-fueled lobbying operations. Politics-as-usual is hard to change.