Democratic Obligations and Technological Threats to Legitimacy: PredPol, Cambridge Analytica, and Internet Research Agency

In Algorithms & Autonomy: The Ethics of Automated Decision Systems. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge University Press. pp. 163-183 (2021)
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ABSTRACT: So far in this book, we have examined algorithmic decision systems from three autonomy-based perspectives: in terms of what we owe autonomous agents (chapters 3 and 4), in terms of the conditions required for people to act autonomously (chapters 5 and 6), and in terms of the responsibilities of agents (chapter 7). In this chapter we turn to the ways in which autonomy underwrites democratic governance. Political authority, which is to say the ability of a government to exercise power, may be justifiable or not. Whether it is justified and how it can come to be justified is a question of political legitimacy. Political legitimacy is another way in which autonomy and responsibility are linked. This relationship is the basis of the current chapter, and it is important in understanding the moral salience of algorithmic systems. We will draw the connection as follows. We begin, in section 8.1, by describing two uses of technology: crime predicting technology used to drive policing practices and social media technology used to influence elections (including by Cambridge Analytica and by the Internet Research Agency). In section 8.2 we consider several views of legitimacy and argue for a hybrid version of normative legitimacy based on one recently offered by Fabienne Peter. In section 8.3 we will explain that the connection between political legitimacy and autonomy is that legitimacy is grounded in legitimating processes, which are in turn based on autonomy. Algorithmic systems—among them PredPol and the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook-Internet Research Agency amalgam—can hinder that legitimation process and conflict with democratic legitimacy, as we argue in section 8.4. We will conclude by returning to several cases that serve as through-lines to the book: Loomis, Wagner, and Houston Schools. The link below is to an open-access copy of the chapter.

Author Profiles

Alan Rubel
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Clinton Castro
University of Wisconsin, Madison


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