Crowdsourcing Opportunities and Pitfalls: Foreign Policy and Boaty McBoatFace

A vast population of nearly four billion people, more than the entire population of China, India, and the United States combined, inhabits the internet, which spells potential for many industries. We are all potential consumers for the goods, services, advertising campaigns, financial institutions, et cetera that can be found with the push of a button. We are also all possible contributors: a global base available 24/7 to provide insight, feedback, ideas, and funding to any project that needs help. With everything from developing card-based party games to finding and patching security flaws to book publishing capable of relying on some form of crowdsourcing, it is only natural to think of ways in which we could tap into the global potential available online in order to crowdsource foreign policy. While some possible applications, like crowdsourcing policy positions or laws, seem more trendy than actually useful, there are areas that could benefit from the wisdom of the crowd: counter-terrorism, climate change, and humanitarian assistance, for example.

Image courtesy of Agencia Brasil, © 2015.

The term “crowdsourcing,” or outsourcing work to a crowd, was coined in 2006 by a Wired columnist who wrote an article detailing some of the many uses of internet crowds, but the basic philosophy behind the term has been around for centuries. With the rise of the internet, however, crowds are exponentially larger, offering more varied skills and insights, and is more readily available. Four billion people around the world account for more than half of all households, many orders of magnitude beyond crowds of the past. Some of those people, like the ones who contribute to Wikipedia, are willing to share their knowledge and expertise for free, while others, like those who participate in Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program, will complete tasks for a small fee. Some donate money to projects that pique their interest (crowdfunding), some offer ideas for new inventions (crowd creation), some try to solve problems (crowdsolving), and much more. With all of these different applications of crowdsourcing, the possibilities are boundless.

The field of foreign policy has not been immune to the crowdsourcing trend. Already, Brazil has tested the idea of soliciting citizen input to create a Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, tech companies have collaborated with the U.N. to come up with ways to enforce a cease-fire in Syria, and a variety of initiatives have popped up to support and fund international development, just as a start. In the future, crowdsourcing could be used to harness global expertise to come up with solutions for the challenges like climate resilience and sustainable development that cross international borders. Anyone familiar with internet comments sections and the psychological phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect will be a bit skeptical of the wisdom of relying on a crowd of anonymous strangers to draft a new law or participate in a productive policy discussion, though.  For all the potentially beneficial uses of crowdsourcing, there are also opportunities for trolls to distort results and come up with deliberately bad ideas. Brazil’s internet civil rights law seems to have been a success so far, but that does not mean that all future attempts will meet the same fate.

As with anything, the key to successfully leveraging the opportunities offered by crowdsourcing while avoiding the pitfalls of having internet trolls run a project into the ground will be to apply the practice intelligently, and with restraint. Many governments have already learned the hazards that can come from falling to the temptation to jump on the bandwagon and let global digital crowds name new projects, like the British polar research ship dubbed Boaty McBoatFace or Slovakia’s Chuck Norris Bridge. Hopefully, they will apply the lessons learned if they are tempted to open up online polls for questions like how foreign aid should be distributed or how a particular law should be worded.

Projects that use crowdsourcing for data collection and problem solving, rather than voting or policy creation, seem to be the most likely to be beneficial. The United Nations, for example, has been testing different ways in which elements of crowdsourcing and big data posted on social media sites can be used to track food insecurity, provide feedback (not solicit ideas) on government decision-making, monitor online discourse on climate change, and evaluate the success of international development programs. Crowdsourcing intelligence to aid counter-terrorism efforts also seems like a promising avenue, especially since ISIS has been known to use crowdsourcing as a tactic to build notoriety by asking supporters the best way to eliminate enemies and execute strategy. Governments and international organizations can provide avenues for citizens to share information related to national security and, ideally, use that data to identify “lone wolf” terrorists and disrupt terrorist plots before they can be enacted.

There are, of course, ways in which this could go horribly wrong as well—see the popularity of swatting, which has itself been called a form of terrorism—but the ability to prevent violent actions and disrupt terrorist cells may outweigh those potential pitfalls.  If we have learned anything from the Boaty McBoatFace fiasco, though, it is that the line between “democratic decision-making” and “international prank” can be easily crossed, so those looking to apply crowdsourcing techniques to issues more serious than naming a research ship will need to tread carefully.

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