Annotating the Election

I’m struck by how the U.S. Presidential candidates are using such retro technology. The internet has infinite possibilities but Donald Trump and the other candidates only allow you to participate in the margins.

A focus of Trump’s site is to promote his positions and show his successes as a celebrity. The only interactive parts of the site help him raise money and sell merchandise. The web site lets you “get involved,” but that section is very 1968. The way you get involved is to sign up for a newsletter to receive updates from the candidate. In ’68, you could get newsletters from the Nixon campaign in the mail. That’s not that much different from the emails I’ll get from the Trump campaign.

In the new century, Web 2.0 technology can provide much more to citizens than broadcasts from a candidate’s campaign. Right now, the changes since the election of Nixon in 1968 have come down to little more than allowing instant self-promotion. We can get updates from the candidates whenever they choose to broadcast info, but only on their terms.

We *can* mention @realdonaldtrump on Twitter and *feel* like we’re connecting. It’s a complete illusion. There are hundreds of tweets every minute that reference @realdonaldtrump. Donald Trump has made about 30 posts in the last 24 hours. His interactions were with other television celebrities, not everyday Joes like me.

He definitely isn’t personally involved with any of the endless Twitter conversations. A special effects tour de force lets us imagine that Twitter gives us a connection to him.

However, we are not in 1968 and there are other ways to interact. One I’d like to mention is Open Annotation.

The concept of open annotation is to allow users to “discuss, collaborate, organize your research or take personal notes” of the information on the web.

In 1945, The Atlantic had an article As We May Think written by Vannevar Bush. Near the end of his article, Bush foreshadows some of the basic concepts behind the world wide web.

One part of the article explores the possibility of finding connections between distant information sources and then sharing those discoveries with others. These connections could include comments that would be separate from the actual documents. In other words, notes in the margin for others to find. has implemented the tools needed to write those notes–to annotate the web. Their web page allows you to access or create annotations by pasting a URL into their “Annotate!” tool. They also allow you to access a page’s annotations directly by clicking on a bookmark has created for browsers.

One core property of open annotation is that annotation doesn’t require cooperation of the host of a website. However, nothing is changed on the host either; the annotations are only visible through the annotation tool. For example, when Donald Trump talks about China as a currency manipulator, one can add this annotation to reference Wikipedia:

A screen image of an annotated web page

An annotation of Donald Trumps web site’s discussion of U.S. China Trade Reform

Private annotations allow one to keep crib notes of the evidence supporting or refuting a candidate’s claims. Public annotations let one share that evidence.

It is possible to do more than just name-drop Donald Trump on Twitter. One could annotate his discussion of Second Amendment rights with statistics about gun violence in this country and relevant court decisions. You might annotate Hillary Clinton’s web site with information from her Senate career related to education.

You can annotate the candidates’ content today. You can connect distant pieces of information on the web in the place where that information is most relevant–by the candidate’s own words.

This isn’t 1968. The Internet is interactive. Name-dropping a candidate is not participating in the civic life of your community. Open Annotation lets you expand the margins using the technology of today.

President Carson, Vice-President Trump

The beauty pageant circus that’s the current presidential race is really mindless in what it wants to focus on. The real problems that face our country are ignored while we talk about who “won” the last debate and which candidate is having a tiff with which other candidate this week.

There are lots of more useful things to talk about–perennial topics that none of the candidates want to touch.

* What is the ethical approach to the needs of the American’s who are working and have trouble paying grocery bills and rent at the same time?
* What are we willing to do to protect our environment? What does the environment need from us?
* Is it morally right that the wealthy can get the best medical care while those less fortunate don’t have the opportunities to recover from a serious illness?
* What is our responsibility towards the homeless and mentally ill? Do we have a moral imperative to respond to their suffering?
* Are we willing to sacrifice our privacy and freedoms because of fear?

The news media has appropriated the word “ethics” to mean “Did a public figure do something shady that will help me sell more advertising?” Ethics means the rules of conduct one applies to oneself. It isn’t about the other person or what the ethics committee wants to sanction. It’s about what I’m willing to do or not do in each area of my life.

Since Ben Carson is the front runner in the Republican presidential race right now, I want to imagine, based on his current behavior, how will he act as president.

Currently, there are several issues that are critical of him. I won’t list them because some will fade away, while new ones might come up. However, his reaction is consistent to anything negative: “The liberal media is out to get me!” “The media is lying about that topic!” Or any other paranoid response. (From Merriam Webster: “paranoid: having or showing an unreasonable feeling that people are trying to harm you, do not like you.”*)

This kind of defense is successful because many political conservatives have talked up the motif that the media is liberal and that it can’t be trusted at all. It has been said enough times that people believe it. This is really dangerous. If you don’t believe anything that the news media presents, then there are no resources to ask difficult questions to the people in power.

So, this gets me to President Carson. How would he behave in a controversy about some action of his administration. Since past behavior is the best predictor of future actions, I would expect him to still fall back on “The media is out to get me” & “The media is lying.”

It’s a good thing that that argument didn’t work for Nixon and Spiro Agnew. The media was asking difficult questions about their actions. The media was not saying what they wanted to hear. It seems that, if Nixon were in office now, he could just shout down the media, and he would have stayed in office.

I don’t think this is the way I want my government to work. The media’s job is to ask difficult questions, it’s not their job to “play nice” or “only talk about things the way I want them to.” Right now, it appears that if the media says something critical about a political candidate, it’s not evaluated on its merits. The current attitude is “if they say it, it must actually be false. The opposite is true.” Ben Carson says “I’m wonderful, why don’t they leave me alone so I can control what people think about me?”

There are a lot more difficult and important questions to ask than whether someone got a scholarship to a military academy. The answers to those questions are complex and cannot turn into a quick sound-bite for Fox News or CNN. No one knows beyond “trust me, I’ll only do good things, just wait, you’ll see.”