New Bot Catches And Calls Out Politicians For Scrolling On Phones In Parliament

A digital artist created the software, which tags Belgian politicians and asks them to "pls stay focused!"
The Flemish Scrollers installation automatically tags Belgian politicians when they use their phone in Parliament.
The Flemish Scrollers installation automatically tags Belgian politicians when they use their phone in Parliament.
Dries Depoorter, The Flemish Scrollers

We’ve all been guilty of scrolling on our phones when we’re not supposed to, but a digital artist in Belgium is making sure his country’s politicians are held to a higher standard.

Dries Depoorter has created a program that automatically catches and tags members of the Belgian Federal Parliament when they’re seen using their phones during daily livestreams of parliamentary proceedings. He calls it “The Flemish Scrollers,” referring to the Flemish region of Belgium where he’s based.

The bot, which started running on July 5, uses machine learning to detect phones and facial recognition to identify the politician, Depoorter said on his website. It then posts clips from the recording on Twitter, tagging the distracted politicians with friendly reminders to “pls stay focused!”

The bot’s installation comes nearly two years after Flemish Minister-President Jan Jambon prompted an uproar after he was caught playing the game Angry Birds on his phone during a parliamentary debate.

Depoorter, whose work focuses on privacy, artificial intelligence, surveillance and social media, told HuffPost he has done many projects using CCTV footage and was inspired to do something when he discovered the parliamentary livestream. His other projects include a 2015 installation that automatically catches jaywalkers on surveillance cameras and gives viewers the option to report them, a chat app called Die With Me that only works with less than 5% battery life and a range of clocks that show what percentage of your life has been completed.

Depoorter said most of the politicians who had responded to the Flemish Scrollers project claimed they were using their phones for work purposes. However, there’s no way to determine if that was the case ― the bot doesn’t ascertain what politicians are doing on their devices. And it’s true that lawmakers routinely use their phones during hearings for a variety of reasons that don’t necessarily involve Angry Birds.

That being said, lawmakers in the U.S. and abroad have come under fire for using their phones during important proceedings. Earlier this year, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was criticized for fiddling with his device during testimony about the Jan. 6 insurrection. And in 2018, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) was caught playing that game Candy Crush during the State of the Union address.

In Australia, a ban on phones during daily parliamentary question time is on the table amid concerns about public perception of politicians glued to their devices.

Other politicians abroad may soon have to worry about being caught by Depoorter’s software, too. He’s considering making his code open source, meaning it could be used elsewhere, including in the U.S.

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