For entrepreneurs, the creativity and energy that drives innovation can lead to sleepless nights. That was the case for Liam McCarty ’18 and his younger brother Aidan McCarty ’19 during a family vacation almost three years ago, when a nagging problem was keeping them awake at night. It was the summer before the 2016 presidential election, and the McCarty brothers were frustrated by what they saw as a lack of engagement between representatives and their constituents.
The brothers began to brainstorm ways to amplify the voices of ordinary citizens in the legislative process. After bouncing around some ideas, they made a key observation: the existing process of contacting representatives — usually via letter or phone — was much too clumsy and complicated for the 21st century. As the best entrepreneurs do, they saw opportunity in this existing inefficiency, and as entrepreneurs in the 21st century often do, they turned to social media.
“When you’re writing a message to your representative, most of the time you’ll just get a formulaic response from them,” Aidan said. “The offices are very backlogged in terms of the number of messages and they also have no idea who’s sending them.”
The McCarty brothers had witnessed the existing communication inefficiency firsthand when they toured Washington D.C. on an OZY Genius Award Grant in 2017, speaking to investors, residents and 250 government representatives on Capitol Hill to gauge the extent of the problem.
“We went into one of the [representative’s] offices and they showed us the system they use to process their messages,” Aidan recalled. “They literally pulled out this laptop from the early 2000s, opened an outdated version of Internet Explorer, and [went] to a website where they have five entries from this single guy who’s writing about the same issue every day but entering his information slightly differently, so they go in as different people.”
The current “constituent management” systems, as they are called in Washington, rely on citizens making an effort to look up their representatives, track down their contact information and navigate their often outdated messaging system.
Aidan argued that the technology currently used to receive and file messages from constituents is not only outdated and time-consuming, but also falls prey to fake pressure groups. He described the phenomenon of “astroturfing,” where companies are hired to create the illusion of “grassroots” enthusiasm for a policy or individual. A common technique that astroturfers use is creating multiple online identities to flood government offices with fake messages.
“It shouldn’t be the case that someone with a lot of money can have opinions, barrage a representative and drown out real people,” Aidan said. “It should be the case that an aggregate of all of our opinions make policy. That’s fundamental to the democratic process.”
Liam and Aidan set out to modernize this communication, turning their gaze to the platform where so much political discourse already occurs: social media. They decided to build a bridge between social media sites and legislative offices so that people could use their existing Twitter and Facebook profiles to send official messages to government representatives. With this idea, ePluribus was born.
Aidan and Liam launched their startup ePluribus in July 2016, beginning the years-long process of building the app and pitching their idea to investors.
Since then, they have raised $930,000 from a pool of angel investors, crowdfunding and awards. Liam has also graduated Stanford with a bachelor’s in physics, while Aidan is on a leave of absence to support the venture.
Like the platform itself, the name combines 21st century technology with age-old democratic values, putting an electronic spin on the “e” in the national motto “e pluribus unum.” The brothers believe the motto, Latin for “out of many, one,” captures the spirit of their startup: a nonpartisan messaging system by the people, for the people.
The first version of ePluribus, which came out in January 2019 and can be downloaded from the Google Chrome web store, is a browser extension that allows users to turn their tweets and Facebook posts into official messages to their representatives.
By installing the free ePluribus browser extension, users create a unique “civic ID” — an account that includes their name, email, home address, and phone number — which links them to their local, state and federal representatives. Then, anytime they write about politics on social media, they can also send the text of the post as an official message to their elected officials.
The platform doesn’t require buy-in from representatives — as Aidan explained, legislative offices “literally don’t even need to know that ePluribus exists” to start receiving constituent feedback.
The McCartys hope that constituents will use ePluribus to give their representatives constructive feedback or share personal stories on how specific legislation affects them.
“People should be able to write anything to their representatives and have their voices heard,” Aidan said. “When a whole lot of people, for example, write ‘I hate this bill,’ it could change the representative’s opinion.”
Politics in 140 characters
Marrying politics and social media, ePluribus takes an approach to the challenge of civic engagement that reflects not only Stanford’s technology-driven startup culture, but also the mass migration of political discourse to online forums.
ePluribus’s strategy of codifying of social media posting as official legislative communication is nevertheless unprecedented, given the widespread criticism of social media’s growing role in politics in light of Russia’s weaponization of social media during the 2016 election. The rise of bots and fake online identities means that tweeting at politicians often carries little weight, as reported by The New Yorker; staffers in Congress tend to dismiss tweets and Facebook posts in their current form because of the difficulty of determining whether they came from real constituents.
“Initially we were very resistant to using Twitter and Facebook as political tools,” Aidan said. “But we’re trying to meet people where they are.”
“We realized that there’s already a political discourse that exists on social media but that rarely reaches the representatives … and it’s not reasonable to expect people to go to a completely new platform to voice their political opinion,” he continued.
Liam and Aidan have begun to build security features to verify that ePluribus users are real constituents instead of dangerous bots, but they said their app’s security features are far from perfect. They believe that it’s unlikely anyone will use the platform for nefarious purposes while the startup is growing, but they say security will continue to be a top priority as they build out the technology.
Director of Stanford’s Public Policy program Greg Rosston, who has been a key advisor of ePluribus, said identity verification is of high importance.
“Representatives care about what their citizens have to say, and trying to identify who they are is probably very useful,” he said, adding that identity verification is difficult even for traditional modes of communicating with representatives, who often cannot verify over phone or email that a comment is from a real constituent of their district.
Rosston believes that ePluribus could help to improve democracy by speeding up the process of contacting representatives, diversifying the number of voices that are heard and, in turn, increasing the accountability of government.
“Right now, our democratic system is more tilted towards campaign donors than the constituents,” Rosston said. “I think ePluribus will engage more civic discourse in a way that’s more reflective of democracy.”