About the photo: Jon Ferraiolo reads news articles online using his eye-tracking software at his home workstation on May 9, 2018, with his dog, Pepe, beside him. Photo by Veronica Weber.
Jon Ferraiolo isn’t letting his fertile mind sit on the sidelines because he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. The terminal illness has robbed him of use of his arms, hands and legs, but the Palo Alto resident didn’t let that stop him from writing a 147-page, self-published book, “Holy War for True Democracy,” using only his eyes.
With the help of a Tobii eye-gaze device that uses an infrared reader to scan the movement of his pupils, Ferraiolo can track a digital keyboard on his computer monitor and click with an on-screen mouse.
Ferraiolo’s book focuses on the dangers of technology to power authoritarian rule. He argues that Americans need to undertake the equivalent of a “holy war” to save democracy from becoming a totalitarian, autocratic state that manipulates the public using the media to spread rhetoric and false claims.
He calls for the formation of a nonpartisan nonprofit service, Democracy Guardians, to analyze and rate statements in the media — in all of its forms, including social media — and create a trustworthiness scale so that politicians, government and news organizations will be forced to be more honest in their communications.
As a global, crowd-sourced internet service, Democracy Guardians would create reviews of people and organizations that provide information on government and politics. The organization would work with news organizations and aggregators to show a “trustworthiness” icon next to the byline of news stories. Readers could see at a glance the author’s trustworthiness.
Asked how Democracy Guardians would ensure “judges” don’t introduce their own political filters, Ferraiolo said that each judge would have to back their rating with factual information that can be verified and that provides an unbiased interpretation. Judges would receive specialized training.
The project is still theoretical. Ferraiolo is currently stuck on how to get people to let go of their extreme polarization. Currently, very few people seem open to something that embraces all points of view, he said.
But Democracy Guardians’ success would depend on judges putting aside their personal and party political beliefs in order to protect the democratic system above all else.
“Maybe things will change in a couple of years as we all tire of the tribalism,” he said.
Ferraiolo got his “holy war” analogy based on the risks that those who’ve believed in democratic government were willing to take through history. They were fueled by passion, dedication and sacrifice, he said — the characteristics of a holy war.
In the book, Ferraiolo asks the reader to consider not only the state of our democracy today, but to examine the reality of democracy historically. In mankind’s history, there has never been “true democracy,” he wrote. Such a state includes the right for every adult to vote; citizenship that is available on an equal basis to all adults regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, economic status or political inclination; and voting directly on elected government positions and legislation rather than indirectly through elected representatives. In a true democracy, all citizens are fully informed by science-based and objective facts that show all sides of the discussion fairly, he said.
This form of democracy is an ideal that will probably never be achieved completely, he acknowledged. But the more a nation achieves these goals, the greater its fulfillment to the democratic idea of government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Trustworthiness of the media is the most pressing concern for keeping a government democratic because of the media’s vital role in educating citizens about important issues, he noted. But powerful individuals have manipulated the messages people receive by buying up networks and newspapers.
New technologies are also being used to erode democracy. The 2016 election also saw for the first time the major impact of social media — particularly through Facebook — to influence public and political opinion, the book notes.
During an interview at his home, Ferraiolo reflected on the hard work that lies ahead if democracies are to thrive and survive.
“The underpinning of the battle is that everyone has to keep pushing for the right thing. We all have differences of opinion, and I think we need to respect everyone including people who we think are wrong or evil. If everyone perseveres and stands for what they believe, I think things will turn out OK in the long run. If we are apathetic or afraid or timid, we might fall into autocracy and a police state because of the technology an autocratic government can deploy,” he said.
Ferraiolo said he welcomes anyone who would like to help make Democracy Guardians a reality. More information about the project and his book are available through democracyguardians.org. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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