Designing an American Social Credit Score

Around the world, nations are going through significant social and cultural upheavals. In an attempt to proactively combat dissent and establish more control over citizenry, China recently rolled out its social credit score. Importing the existing design into American society would likely fail, but that doesn’t negate the beneficial premise of parts of the program.   

Viewing China’s system as a technological prototype to be built upon opens us to new opportunities. We know that being the first to develop technology isn’t always a guarantee of success. Before Facebook, there was MySpace. There were MP3 players, and then there was the iPod. China’s social credit score is Orwellian, but an American system doesn’t have to be.

If we’re open to incentivizing good behavior in the United States and believe in the personal, professional, and communal benefit to civic engagement, then an American social credit score might be what we need. Exploring frameworks for how we might structure a new version begins with understanding why we would benefit and what it might look like.  

Separating Reputation from Capital

Reputation has played a role in trust and access within human society since its inception. History is bursting with heroes of great deeds that we remember, and even more that we don’t. Reputation used to spread much slower in the past, raising the requirement of renown.

Today celebrity occurs rapidly and frequently, moving in different directions and degrees. More people getting more recognition for their hard work is great for society, but there is a price to progress.  

Profit pathways incentivize behavior that is actively detrimental to the person and society [1]. Some Instagram celebrities will make more off of a single post than most Americans do in their lifetime of labor [2]. All to support manipulations to consume through algorithmic advertising.    

Studies have shown that frequent social media use can erode self-control, leading to increased spending, and bouts of binge-eating [3]. Social platform use correlates to increased anxiety, lower moods, and depression [4]. Could it be the endless comparing against the other, constant advertising, or political agitation?   

The want for something better is not a denial of good deeds past. There are aspects of social media that have been extremely positive for individuals and society as a whole. The question facing us is—how do we amplify the positive elements while diminishing the detrimental drawbacks?  

Failures of Existing Reputation Platforms

Today, social media platforms are the dominant form of public-facing reputation management. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Twitch, and Instagram hold the dominant share of influencers, operating under models seeking to extract wealth from users.  

Here, evidence emerges for the first failure of present-day social platforms. There is an inherent contradiction between seeking to maximize profits and encouraging community mindful behavior. Profit-seeking requires the constant financialization of services and, in the context of social media, leads to people being confined to echo chambers of opinions they already share. 

Facebook is the number one social media platform globally in terms of total users [5]. The outreach model that Facebook implements is one where the most direct path to growing a following is to pay to advertise your page. Once you’ve acquired an adequate following, organic or paid, the only way to reach your entire audience is to pay again to promote your posts. Organic posts only reach about 6.4% of your total followers [6].

This walled garden approach to reputation expansion reinforces the elevation of monied participants over local contributors. Average people have little voice on social media compared to corporations. The new generation of political candidates refusing corporate money share the struggle of unequal reach due to well-financed political machines.  

The ultimate failure of the current social media platforms is that they have given immense unelected power to Mark Zuckerberg. He is actively participating in a political election and is forming alliances [7] that will likely be very beneficial if Trump wins reelection. Mark is a tragic case, the millennial who could have led transformation succumbing to the existing order. We cannot count on Mark Zuckerberg to do the right thing for society. He only works to further his agenda. 

Social networks on consumer generation platforms will never serve the public good. They will always further condition us to the consumerist mindset. Any social platform that allows advertising becomes a tool of the wealthy to spread their messages to the masses. We need more in-depth communication with each other, not new forms of economic oppression.  

Lessons from China 

We hear the words “social credit score” and immediately imagine a dystopian nightmare. On paper, China’s social credit system reads [8] as an ambitious plan to push the nation forward. The theory is that improving social cohesion and economic strength requires that citizens embrace their ranking method.

It rewards people for doing things such as praising the government, donating to charities, donating blood, and contributing to their communities [9]. Increasing your score provides access to cheaper transportation, priority for school admissions for the individual and their children, tax breaks, and other opportunities to encourage active participation. 

Scores reduce for people playing too many video games, spreading “fake news,” refusing military service, or providing “dishonest” apologies for crimes committed. The consequences for low scores are the removal of access from public transportation (air and rail), denying access to the best jobs and best schools, and throttling internet speeds, among others [10].

The worst consequence of China’s social credit score is blacklisting. Chinese journalist Liu Hu was fined and blacklisted for writing about censorship and government corruption. He received no notification, no appeal process, and is now unable to buy plane tickets, travel some train lines, purchase property, or take out a loan. 

China argues that the policy is for the health of the nation. Samantha Hoffman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute disagrees, “There are no genuine protections for the people and entities subject to the system.” That’s because China’s vague laws like “endangering national security” can be imposed at will for any cause. The social credit score ultimately seems to serve a single purpose, strengthening of the Chinese Communist Party by weakening its dissenters.

Ultimately I predict that China’s credit score will lay the foundation for the demise of the regime. It is a clear path to create separate levels of citizenship within society. How many generations will pass before the second class citizens revolt against a system that limits their potential from birth based on their parents’ actions? History shows us that humanity will not suffer oppression indefinitely.  

Foundations of an American social credit score

Designing an American social credit score uses China’s framework as a starting point. We recognize the positive aspects of rewarding good social behavior. We reject many of the program traits from the start, especially their system of punishment. China provides the United States a launchpad to move forward from, but we need to develop a direction before we can progress.

Exploring a framework for how we might structure such a system begins with our objectives. We want to direct an American social credit score to incentivize participation in civil society and democracy. We aim to make being a better citizen a rewarding habit, not to punish people. A social credit score in the United States should focus on incentivizing action through positive reinforcement while avoiding the authoritarian and opaque disciplinary measures included in China’s.

Coupling good behavior with tangible value creates an opt-in social training system. We incentivize better humanity. Over time the routine will become frequent, easy, and enjoyed. Citizens will achieve mastery.  

Mastering anything is a direct result of continued focus and effort. It is the continued reinforcement of habits in a long but focused direction. Most people can master most things. Learning to be a good citizen is no different than learning anything else. The objective of an American social credit score is to provide an accessible pathway for more people to become more involved with social life.

There are several approaches to determining what we may incentivize. The path of least resistance is reviewing China’s rewards and seeing what we may want to import to the United States. Donating blood, helping out in your local community, and engaging in charity work are all easy additions to our new social credit score as we recognize them as positive contributions. 

Having a good credit score and taking care of elderly family members can likely be excluded from the new system. Credit scores already act as a pseudo-social score in the United States and are disproportionately advantageous to those with existing wealth. Our social credit score intends to allow people to express their humanity outside of the constraints of capital.

Americans typically have strong aversions to having the government regulate family matters, and elderly care would be better served as a collective investment through Medicare for All and expanding social security. A counter-argument might be that our aging population is growing and living longer while millennials struggle financially. It may be a worthy addition as an incentive option [11].

We can democratically select the behaviors we want to promote through a public vote. This philosophy allows us to codify challenge and change into the structure of our social credit score. The project is not a government imposition; it’s a democratically developed and publicly owned process. Citizens should always have the option to realign the reward and form of incentives. 

Voting is one example of a habit we could promote. The deepening of democracy is a project central to the transformation of society. We need more people engaging with the possible directions of our shared future. American democratic participation is comparatively weak [12], and voting incentives could get people to the polls. Tying voting to the social credit score also lays the foundation for expanding democracy through more public votes in the future. 

Focusing more on expanding democracy, we could imagine the production of non-partisan content relating to important issues and elections. Democracies would benefit from a publically owned information source where every policy had a plethora of factually verified informational videos, formal debates of opposing viewpoints, and other resources that would earn readers and watchers credits. This microtransaction approach to becoming better citizens allows for the process to be easy, convenient, and habit forming. 

Fighting the climate crisis can be integrated into a rewards system to turn personal efforts into a mass movement. We can incentivize more public transit use where available. Public transit is better for the environment, reduces commutes, and can generate surpluses for municipalities. 

Continuing our focus on fighting the climate crisis, we may want to incentivize dietary changes. Meat is the second-largest source of pollution in the world and is the primary contributor to the burning rainforest [13]. Transitioning our diets to be wholly plant-based would be better for the planet, better for our wildlife, and better for our health [14]. This framework requires accurate measurement methods, but Americans are innovative. 

The system doesn’t need to tie actions to specific rewards. Our objective from the start is to avoid confining Americans to menial labor. Instead, we can imagine a broader approach based on point systems that encourage behavior in a variety of directions. Capping total rewards or putting time limitations on points spent may be necessary to avoid abuse of the platform but ultimately can be decided democratically.

Where the Chinese system operates as a method to reinforce rigid conformity to the Communist party’s demands, an American social credit score should function as a tool for the expansion of our humanity. It should be used as a pathway to shared bigness supporting a culture of support and empathy.

Continuing education and training would be an ideal activity to reward. As many states begin the shift to free public college tuition, we encourage people to expand their skill sets in their free time. Learning, however, doesn’t need to be tied to purely academic pursuits, community classes in woodworking, meditation, and other pursuits could all fall under this category. We focus on getting people out of their homes and into community spaces to interact and learn with each other. 

Mentoring programs could be another form of social credit accumulation. Both the mentor and the mentee could earn points through structured programs. Mentorship programs impacting disenfranchised communities would receive priority during the early stages and serve as a testing ground for program expansion. 

There’s a nearly endless supply of positive social projects we could develop over time. We are ensuring that we are crafting policies for all stakeholders, especially traditionally marginalized groups. We want to give people the ability to create incentives customized to their communities. Over time, what begins as a top-down opt-in system evolves into a self-perpetuating model that allows us to direct our social potential democratically.   

Program Rewards

American social credit rewards may take many forms and vary between communities to better meet their needs. Following our process, we use China as the first step in a series. Many of China’s incentivizes are financial. High scores receive discounts on energy bills, better loan interest rates, and renting appliances without deposits. Non-financial incentives include skipping airport and train station queues as well as more eclectic rewards like getting better matches on dating sites.

An American social credit score should ideally avoid tying incentives to finance. Yet we can’t deny that this project is a long term plan to shift our ethos, and we have to implement our motivations in a way that will work. People have to want the rewards. A mix of low tag varied capital incentives and tangible non-capital incentives would be an excellent starting mix. The best method to determine the first round of rewards would be a public vote, but we can imagine some ideas.

China’s incentive for reducing energy bills is a good starter policy. It’s something that we could structure in a way where the max benefit people could receive would be equal while being disproportionately beneficial to the American poor. Skipping transportation queues is another good idea and could be expanded to include first-class seating. By removing the privilege’s association with wealth and tying it to social action, we make a small movement forward in realigning cultural priorities.

Interest rates are an option. If we’re open to nationalizing banking, we could remove the private interests from the Federal Reserve’s activity. It presents an excellent opportunity to design this incentive for our most disenfranchised. Including marginalized communities as stakeholders, we develop incentives based on the needs of the people. 

Impacting your dating website results seems pretty awful. The argument for it would be general support for public knowledge of social credit scores. It feels too much like life imitating art. Then again, we should consider that if Americans adopt a social credit score, the possibility exists that it may bleed into our personal lives as well.  

Additional small financial rewards might be waiving vehicle registration fees, more desirable parking spots, and free public transportation.  

American social credit scores could also function as an experimental tool to expand social consciousness and protections. Imagine we conduct a public vote on the question, “Is food a human right in the United States in 2019?” If “yes” wins, the social credit score could be a catalyst for implementation.

An incentive in support of the resolution could be free food from food banks. Coupled with additional public investment, we could ensure that every community has access to healthy and fresh food. The incentive requirement could be waived entirely for communities in need and something simple for others. Recycling correctly is one example.   

These are just a few examples of an incentivized social credit score that may be used to raise the floor for millions of Americans. By structuring our incentives in a way that provides the most significant impact for the low and middle-class American, we lay the foundation for a transformation of our national psyche. Thinking long term, rewards with the most frequent claims develop pathways to deeper social protections. The structure of our program continually evolves as new needs arise, and old ones fade.

Framing the details

Architecting a new social credit score requires a lot of effort unrelated to the fun part of deciding how we want to incentivize people. We have to answer how we would implement the program in an easily accessible fashion, how we would prevent abuse, and how we would fund the incentives. 

The platform that records score accumulation and provides access to incentives needs to be readily accessible through several mediums. The most obvious of which is a secure online platform with well-designed user experience. People will need unique identifiers to avoid abuse of the system. These could take the form of a social security number, a blockchain identification, or alternative methods focusing on personal security.

Access to the platform would be made available in the form of a website, app, and through direct human interaction where needed. People would be automatically registered for the process, triggering at an age the public could determine. 

Abuse preventing begins with design. Throughout this exploration, we’ve been suggesting incentives that are open to everyone but provide a higher degree of relative advantage to people in low and middle-income classes. Capping total points earned within a year may also serve to disincentivize people from trying to churn through tasks. Coupled with a no-rollover policy, we construct a system of small and moderate rewards that anyone can earn and spend within a year.

While the American social credit score breaks from the Chinese version in not being a system of punishment; laws punishing system abuse should move forward with the introduction of the policy. Every institutional project will have problems that designers and architects cannot see. People who are deliberately abusing the system for their gains, such as falsifying efforts or exploiting technology glitches, should lose access to the platform for periods and be personally responsible for paying back any ill-gotten financial incentives.

Exploitation provides us additional opportunities to encourage good behavior. Instead of focusing solely on the punishment of bad actors, we can reward exploiters who discover and demonstrate problems without abusing them. Any person who proactively reports system flaws should earn credit. It’s an approach that embraces our strive for continual improvement and rewards those with the abilities to enhance that effort.

Like every other aspect of the American social credit score, how we pay for it is ultimately up to the people. Success depends on convincing the public that investing in ourselves and our communities is a worthwhile effort. Funding for the incentives could take the form of new taxation, redistribution of existing spending, or alternatives. 

While it is true that the incentives we explored will reduce tax revenues from our lowest earners and increase spending on social programs, there are significant intangible benefits to social investment. By incentivizing small scale benefits in a wide variety of directions, we relieve burdens from many American families. The result is enhancing the freedom to experiment, grow, and self-actualize. Building better human beings requires work, but the rewards are exponential when viewed through the lens of the collective society. 

As the program would benefit the majority of working-class Americans, we can imagine that there will be conservative political pushback against “government overreach.” Progressives seeking to expand a social credit score would be well served by informational campaigns targeting rural and urban areas to ensure that those most benefitting from the system understand what it is and why it will help. 

An American Social Credit Score is a proactive approach towards decreasing social division. We recognize the problem for what it is and engage it head-on — incentivizing democratic citizenship in methods designed by the people, for the people.  

If social media has taught us anything, it is that we are trainable beings. Their behavior modification techniques alter us without consent. An American social credit score provides a chance to choose what we want to reinforce and reward. The process creates opportunities for learning, participating, and network building. Our only limitation is our imagination.

[1] The FOMO Is Real: How Social Media Increases Depression and Loneliness Healthline    

[2] Instagram Rich List 2019 Hopper HQ  

[3] Are Close Friends the Enemy? Online Social Networks, Self-Esteem, and Self-Control by Keith Wilcox & Andrew T. Stephen Columbia Business School, Oxford University 

[4] Is social media bad for you? The evidence and the unknowns by Jessica Brown BBC 

[5]  Most famous social network sites worldwide as of July 2019, ranked by number of active users (in millions) Statista  

[6] Internet growth accelerates, but Facebook ad engagement tumbles by Simon Kemp We Are Social  

[7] Inside Mark Zuckerberg’s private meetings with conservative pundits By Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman Politico 

[8] Planning Outline for the Construction of a Social Credit System (2014-2020) China Communist Party  

[9] The complicated truth about China’s social credit system by Nicole Kobie Wired  

[10] China has started ranking citizens with a creepy ‘social credit’ system — here’s what you can do wrong, and the embarrassing, demeaning ways they can punish you by Alexandra Ma Business Insider  


[12] U.S. trails most developed countries in voter turnout By Drew DeSilver Pew Research Center  

[13] How a Proressive White House Miht Handle the Amazon by Ron Rivers Medium   

[14] Third of early deaths could be prevented by everyone giving up meat, Harvard says by Sarah Knapton The Telegraph 

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