It’s happened to all of us. Your congressperson tweets something stupid, and you jump into the comments with the devastating reply: “Sir, this is an Arby’s.” It might feel good, but wouldn’t it feel better if you had some assurance that your representative was actually seeing your display of wit? Well, there’s a Chrome extension that might be just up your alley.
The makers of ePluribus believe that they’ve devised a system that will enable every reply guy online to raise their voice. The new Chrome extension is part of an initiative that somewhat counter-intuitively intends to reduce the volume of spam that politicians receive in the information age by giving users the power to send their representatives a message through official channels when they tweet, post on Facebook, or reply in comments on websites.
The system is relatively simple: You download the ePluribus Chrome extension, and it will ask for your name, home address, email, and phone number. If you go to a website that’s integrated with ePluribus, you should see an ePluribus dropdown menu in the comment field that allows you to choose one of your political representatives to CC on your message. Your friends and followers will still see your tweet or post, but it will also be sent to the representative of your choosing through their official webpage. The real power of ePluribus is that it will also verify that you actually live in a politician’s district by mailing you a card with a verification code. This is intended to help weed out spammers and assure politicians that they are genuinely hearing from one of their constituents. Unfortunately, the verification side of the project won’t roll out until the second quarter of this year.
The company’s co-founder Liam McCarty told Fast Company that ePluribus wants to create a system in which the government can trust online feedback isn’t being gamed by bots or other bad actors. McCarty believes that we can avoid situations like the ongoing FCC scandal in which the 94 percent of public comments on its decision to repeal net neutrality were found to be fake or duplicates.
The company is also offering its service for the comments sections on news websites and it’s already integrated with “14 major U.S. news sites” including the New York Times and the Washington Post.
My first instinct was to think that this would only exacerbate the meaningless nature of online comments and mail sent to politicians. But ePluribus also wants to help sort through the noise. In 2017, the company outlined its larger plans for “the world’s first civic network” on its now complete crowdfunding campaign. It envisioned a system in which politicians and their staff will be given access to a data dashboard that breaks down the comments by topic of concern and other categories. With a quick glance, Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s staff can see that his constituents think his new beard looks like a dead animal. Or New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can monitor in real time the exact ratio of hate to horniness she’s receiving from conservatives that live in her district.
In a phone interview, co-founder Aidan McCarty told Gizmodo that the ePluribus long game has changed a bit since its Indiegogo beginning. The idea of offering third parties a dashboard has been sidelined but still may come back. McCarty said that over time they realized that they wanted to make sure they’re “actually not creating new data silos but trying to eliminate old data silos.” That means that the physical verification will occur by signing up through a forthcoming app that will be decentralized. All of a user’s personal details will be stored on their device and ePluribus will use blockchain technology to provide a protocol for securely sharing personal information that’s been verified in a decentralized way.
That probably sounds a bit confusing. It is. So let’s recap. The idea is that you can use the ePluribus extension to simultaneously post on a platform and send the same message to your congressperson. The extension does collect anonymized data attached to a unique identifier. You’ll soon be able to get verified using an app that only stores your personal information on your own device. The app is the real hub of the ePluribus business model, and the extension is just one spoke.
McCarty explained that the ePluribus extension is just one example of a service that will utilize the physical verification offered through the app. With the extension, personal details have to be transmitted to fill out the contact forms for a representative. But McCarty hopes that the forthcoming app can also be used in a similar fashion to the way people log in to other platforms through Facebook or Google accounts. The difference will be that you’ve physically verified that you’re a real person who lives at a real address.
McCarty told us that his team is only focused on civic-minded clients right now. He says that the SEC could pay them a fee for verifying comments or the app could be used for verifying government services online like unemployment benefits. In the private sector, he said that the real world verification could theoretically be used to give Change.org petitions more credibility. And down the road, maybe the Twitter bot problem will become so politically tenuous that they become an ePluribus client and require that extra level of verification to sign up.
What say you? Would you use a blockchain-fueled real world verification system? Do you want ePluribus integrated with Kinja? How long will it take before an ePluribus Twitter user gets themselves arrested?
Update 5:30 PM: This post has been revised to include clarification and further details provided to Gizmodo by ePluribus co-founder Aidan McCarty. A previous version of this post included information from an online FAQ that McCarty says is now outdated. Previously, ePluribus said that its business model would be based on ePluribus earning income “by selling aggregate, non-personally identifiable data and analytics to interested organizations, like media and academic institutions.” McCarty says this is no longer the case.