Vitalik Buterin Has Thoughts on Social Media Fact Checking

Ethereum's founder applauds Elon Musk's “Community Notes” tool for taking a crack at “credible neutrality.”

AccessTimeIconAug 17, 2023 at 7:13 p.m. UTC

When Vitalik Buterin calls something “the closest thing to an instantiation of ‘crypto values’ the mainstream world,” you’ve got to listen. In this case, the Ethereum co-founder was reviewing X’s Community Notes feature (originally called Birdwatch), a crowdsourcing tool for people to add context and rate the truthfulness of posts (RIP tweets) which launched​ back when the platform was called Twitter and before Elon Musk made the worst deal of his life. I’m not sure why VB chose now to write a 4,300-word blog about a pilot program that launched last year, but I’m glad he did.

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And so was Elon Musk, who retweeted the slightly esoteric example of software criticism — bringing Vitalik’s ideas about decentralization and user autonomy to new heights. It’s funny too because throughout the post, VB was not afraid of laying in to Musk, who is known for running companies like autocracies and was at least at one point the world’s richest man. Despite the fact that Musk, as a boss, basically represents everything crypto would dismantle if it could, he’s yet to dismantle Community Notes like he’s derailed much of what made Twitter special.

For Buterin, Community Notes is a case study in decentralized governance. In short, it’s a Wikipedia-like system that anyone can apply to join that can be written and voted on by anyone, and which is run and ultimately kept in check by an open-source algorithm. Buterin says the machine learning algorithm which surfaces posts is seemingly able to straddle the deep ideological divisions online to surface non-partisan, “impressively useful” and credible information.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s surprisingly close to satisfying the ideal of credible neutrality,” he wrote. Credible neutrality being the term of art used to describe things like blockchains, built to avoid discrimination of all kinds. Since the very beginning the goal for Ethereum, for Buterin, has been credible neutrality: a universally accessible machine that people truly believe is so trustworthy it transcends the category and becomes trustless. So when Buterin sees a Community Note, he can generally trust X isn’t giving him the runaround or information someone paid for him to see.

(Elon Musk, the self-described "free speech absolutist," also painted a picture of Twitter as a haven for all legal forms of speech but has fallen widely off the mark. As many people have already said, Musk's leadership at Twitter/X is like a walking advertisement for crypto, if only because he has shown that "good intentions" – if you want to grant him that – are not enough. "Neutrality" doesn't have to be hardwired to happen in the real world, but it helps establish credibility when you know an owner-investor can't just change the code on you.)

Community Notes is transparent and consensus-driven, but it’s not quite crypto. For instance, VB notes there’s evidence suggesting Musk may have mucked with a corrective note mentioning the Uygher genocide, given his vast business interests in China. Buterin doesn’t come down one way or another on the matter, but he does note after examining and not finding direct evidence in the source code that there are many technical and social ways to game public votes. It’s worth mentioning that crypto hasn’t exactly found a solution to Sybil attacks, brigading or the problem of money in politics.

The tool isn’t only important as a mainstream experiment with digital democracy. It also points to what crypto could be. VB has never been one to bite his tongue when it comes to crypto’s problems, and I’m thankful he never flatout suggested blockchain as a solution for X’s issues. But as a sober analysis of a “very-large-scale” application that will probably be the closest many come to interacting with “crypto values,” VB’s reflections on Community Notes are a reminder that some problems just cannot be solved.

That isn’t even defeatist. Perhaps the most lucid section of the blog is when VB addresses recent commentary suggesting Community Notes is not “brave” enough and doesn’t go far enough to address misinformation. Buterin flat out states that it should not be the goal for systems like these to catch every falsehood or lie. He’d rather see 10 “misinformative tweets go free” than for one to be judged “unfairly.” “The goal,” he writes, “is to remind people that multiple perspectives exist.”

Today it’s more common to see attempts to cure the problems of “public epistemology” by presenting expert opinion as the ultimate source of truth — whether that’s the CDC during Covid or Facebook interjecting Snopes-approved facts in a political debate. VB appreciates top down decrees, saying that experts rarely lie (and if they do, it’s usually by leaving facts out, aka a “sin of omission”). He sees Community Notes as a worthwhile experiment in spreading verifiable and credible information in an age of incredulity, but hardly the only solution (ahem, prediction markets).

This is worth bearing in mind in crypto, too. The aim shouldn’t be to solve all the world’s ills. Far too often blockchain projects are looking to disrupt and replace what already exists. It’s not out of the question to think this cockiness can have a negative backlash, feeding the general skepticism around blockchain and people’s anger when things inevitably go wrong — much like how social media fact checking has spurred distrust and the general collapse of the faith in institutions. Hopefully, open, permissionless crypto networks are already built for a world filled with many opinions — but perhaps they should be built for a world with many options, too.


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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.