Last week President Donald Trump accused Twitter of stifling his speech after it accused him of spreading misinformation.
In an escalating series of actions, Twitter took the unprecedented step of fact-checking the U.S. President and then shielded another presidential tweet for “glorifying violence.” In response, Trump pushed out an executive order taking aim at a longstanding law that minimizes liability for most content published to online platforms.
This tit-for-tat between the U.S. government and a big tech firm seems likely to bubble on for months and could have long-term ramifications for the nation’s democratic processes. At stake is how people communicate online, and the role of public and private institutions in enforcing moderation.
As political conversations become more web-mediated, and the presence of misinformation grows, trust – the basis for effective communication – becomes eroded. And questions arise over the legitimacy of centralized authorities – be it the government or Facebook – to unilaterally influence civic life.
For online platforms, there are two sides of the coin: either they “censor too much content, or they let lies and misinformation run wild,” Bloomberg editor Joe Weisenthal writes. Heads or tails, Twitter and Facebook lose.
Ironically, if Trump somehow gets social media platforms categorized as publishers, he will limit his (and everybody else’s) ability to speak what comes to mind: no matter how dubious.
The problems of centralization
It didn’t start with a coin toss. Partisan infighting, conspiratorial posts and fake news are all accepted parts of this presidential election cycle, as in the last. But a video of the age-old Iowan political tradition – taking the human arena of politics into the realm of chance – didn’t help.
At stake in the 17-second clip, published last February, were three delegates and a razor thin margin of victory. The video shows a young adult wearing a pressed blue blazer flipping a coin to settle a split district during the contentious Iowa caucus. Posted to Twitter at 10:23 p.m. Iowa time from a BBC journalist, the footage received weeks worth of watch time by the next morning.
“As for how it was received, Trump retweeting it gave it a lot of attention on the right, who saw it as an example of Democratic incompetence,” Andrew Zurcher, the seasoned reporter who filmed and tweeted the moment, said in a direct message. “After the Iowa results ended up so close and controversial, I’ve found a lot of Bernie [Sanders] people pointing to it and saying it was part of a conspiracy against their guy.”
Neither of the candidates – Sen. Bernard Sanders and Mayor Pete Buttigieg – involved in the controversy are in the running. But the fallout represents the unending problems of divisive, attention-grabbing online political discourse.
Like a Rorschach test, a viewer takes along his or her prejudices and biases into the frame. For some, it’s a video of a Florida student flipping and fumbling with a coin. Seen another way, it’s a caught-on-tape moment of party officials colluding against an outsider Democratic candidate. In the words of podcaster Joe Rogen, at the time, a tepid Bernie Sanders supporter, it was “hilariously rigged.”
“He looked at it, and he turned it. Manipulated it with his hands,” the YouTube personality said, referring to the out-of-state student, chosen to carry this weight for his perceived impartiality. Rogan’s candid appraisal directly contradicts Zurcher’s, who believes it was a “somewhat awkward teen who hadn’t done a lot of coin-flipping, and certainly not under that kind of pressure,” he said.
But first-hand accounts, even from “blue checks” representing legacy outlets with decades or centuries of clout, don’t carry the same currency anymore. Truth is no longer or a matter of top-down consensus, but produced through the crowd.
High levels of polarization and low levels of media literacy, have heightened the general level of paranoia and conspiracy surrounding this election, said Ray Serrato, a Berlin-based freelance disinformation researcher.
Serrato looks at the Iowa debacle as a case study in a new form of “sense making.” The easy spread of fake news is baked into the fabric of the internet. Distortive algorithms equate engagement with profit, prioritize clicks over facts, and lead to the promotion and production of emotionally charged content. In turn, this sharpens divisions, confirms biases, and ultimately leads to a never-ending battle over perceptions.
For many in the blockchain community, the problems of a highly concentrated, ad-driven web model have their solutions in decentralization and open source tech. Take away the secrecy under which algorithms are given free rein to run, and you’re halfway there. Add in internet-wide reputation-layers and new economic models to produce and disseminate content, which blockchain can achieve, and “the forever war” is won.
It’s a solution to which Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square and Twitter, has given some thought. He said last week that if Twitter is to fact-check, then its fact-checking procedures should be “open source and thus verifiable by everyone.”
This move towards accountability follows plans to move Twitter to a decentralized standard, announced late last year under the code-name Blue Sky. “[W]e’re facing entirely new challenges centralized solutions are struggling to meet. For instance, centralized enforcement of global policy to address abuse and misleading information is unlikely to scale over the long-term without placing far too much burden on people,” he said at the time.
Neither Dorsey nor Blue Sky representatives have responded to a request for comment.
Opening Twitter’s architecture could lead to a more durable form of social media, where posts aren’t subject to censorship and companies aren’t in control of who uses the platform or how it’s used. While Dorsey notes the process could take years to accomplish, a number of firms have kicked off the process.
In the years since many consensus-driven efforts hit the servers, these aspirational solutions to defanging fake news through decentralization have been far from successful. Projects launched with the express aim of revitalizing online discourse have sputtered out, and outlets creating new economies to pay for quality journalism are faltering.
The limits of these platforms point to a nascent industry attempting to find its footing. Although many projects are doomed to fail, each is a step in the right direction: towards a more secure, censorship resistant internet, where all users are stakeholders in a platform’s success.
It’s no longer news to say Civil has flopped. After a high-profile launch, disastrous initial- initial coin offering, and reports of journalists going under-compensated, many interested observers lost faith in the project that’s attempting to restore trust in the business of news-making.
Matthew Iles, CEO of Civil Media, doesn’t disagree with the sentiment. Responding to Modern Consensus editor-in-chief Leo Jacobson’s “objective take” (Iles’ phrase) last February that “Civil never got off the ground,” Iles said, “I’m not disputing that.”
Now, months later, Iles said the project is shutting down.
Founded by industry professionals from Politico and NPR, the project quickly drew the attention of mainstream and crypto trade publications alike, for its lofty ambition to steer journalism from the perils of “advertising, fake news, and outside influence,” Iles wrote in an early blog post.
The idea was simple. Disintermediate journalism from the machine. What this looks like in theory is a consortium of media self-organized around a constitution – that outlines their journalistic ethics – and protocol. A token ecosystem allows readers and sister publications to hold outlets accountable. Further, blockchain and wallet tech can create novel ways of funding hard-hitting journalism.
In practice, however, Civil executives failed to court major media partners including New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. It’s most notable partner, The Associated Press, seemed to be a deal any media company can strike: an arrangement to reshare content.
Additionally, the token economic system that was to spur independent journalism by reducing the reliance on advertising and subscriptions failed. CVL, the native token of the Civil ecosystem, was worth essentially nothing at launch. And the platform it powers hadn’t “made product market fit,” Iles said. (The interview was conducted last February. Iles has not responded to recent requests for comment.)
“We’re not going to be dogmatic,” Iles said about keeping the token, “The only thing that drives what we do next is whether or not we think it will advance our mission.” This was the same mission that captured the media’s attention in the first place, when Civil made resolute to “kill the term fake news,” by decentralizing the news business.
Under radio silence, following a barrage of bad press, Civil’s project hadn’t changed. In fact, it’s ambitions grew larger. To decentralize media, Civil, and it’s lead investor ConsenSys, planned to decentralize the web.
Speaking to a number of former and current executives, CoinDesk learned that Civil was throwing its weight behind a highly ambitious initiative to reinvent identities online and track media distribution. Categorized under the bandied-about Web 3.0 moniker, these tools may have had the power to crack the monopolistic hold that Big Tech has on internet users.
That is, if the project hadn’t run out of money.
Speaking anonymously, a high-ranking ConsenSys executive called the initiative a drive towards a “multipronged reality.” Civil planned on releasing software that would have made decentralized online identities and content verification tools commonplace. This wasn’t a departure from Civil’s initial business model, the executive said, but a new emphasis on its software-as-a-service effort.
However, Civil’s track record with in-house design had been spotty. A former editor with the Civil consortium said, who requested anonymity, “the development team originally planned to have their own CMS, but ultimately went with a WordPress-based interface.”
“They squandered money on that. They could have saved time, trouble and money. There were all kinds of delays and problems,” they said. Additionally, in the past year, several key executives have disembarked from the project beset by a sense of misdirection and shifting goalposts.
Matthew Iles confirmed the company was unable to solve its problems with funding and management – though had hopes the company’s new direction would have been profitable. Now, he and his seven person tech team will join ConsenSys directly, to develop new product strategies, Iles told Poytner.
To be sure, Civil had notable successes, over its more than three year run including growing to 100-odd members, attracting millions of readers (myself included), and instituting technical breakthroughs. In 2018, Popula, an early member, became the first publication to append a full-text copy of an article on the Ethereum blockchain. An occasion Popula journalist and editor Maria Bustillos says was marked with tears in her eyes.
She said today: “Civil was a great first step in realizing the promise of fully distributed blockchain technology as a safeguard of press freedom and speech rights. I’m very grateful to Matthew Iles, Joe Lubin and everyone at Civil and Consensys for starting so many great ideas rolling, and for founding so many great publications, Popula included.”
Sludge editor David Moore, a founding Civil partner, continues to build Web. 3.0 tools that will enable micro-tripping and identity solutions.
“There’s a lot of opacity that exists in various distribution channels,” he said. By creating a decentralized ID system, “you’re solving for the fake news problem and you’re solving for the revenue model, ensuring creators are paid for the value they produce.” As a grantee, Sludge has always been independent of Civil and will be unaffected by Civil’s closure.
“Civil will always hold a special place in my heart. It was a grand experiment – a moonshot – and we knew the odds were long,” Iles told Poytner.
“Civil is one of a handful of companies pioneering radically new models for an industry that’s over 200 years old,” Elena Giralt, a former project lead at Civil, who is no longer aware of the day to day goings-on, said. “There was a lot of pressure to get it right the first time. A token curated registry and governance tool and means of exchange, it’s a lot of moving parts and some things aren’t going to work right out of the box.
“These initiatives should get credit for exploring new spaces, with the caveat that not all of these approaches will prove successful.”
TruStory's trial with token economics
Partisan infighting over a suspect coinflip, or so-called censorship of the president, is precisely the sort of discord that TruStory was designed to quiet. Founded in 2018, the debate platform leverages a token-economy to crowdsource consensus making, and hopefully arrive at the truth by staking it to an economic outcome.
Instead of fractious and fraught debate led by anonymous or self-serving identities without “skin in the game,” TruStory users bring contentious ideas to the table to be met with fact-based, reasoned arguments. Interlocutors are motivated by their own financial interest, as their claims are staked with TRU coin. A reputation layer further ward against users making bad faith or purposely misleading arguments.
“Twitter creates unnecessary factions among people. It’s an environment where you’re not trying or incentivized to understand the other person, but only to respond with a hot take. That’s what drives engagement,” Preethi Kasireddy, TruStory’s founder, said in a phone call in February.
The USC alumni and rising Silicon Valley star, dreamt up the project after watching countless videos of Balaji Srivassan on YouTube, she said. She realized the best parts of blockchain – its ability to form consensus, record events, and motivate participants of an ecosystem – were also applicable to the variegations of discourse online.
It was a model that others believed in. Even before having a clear business plan, Kasireddy was able to raise $3 million dollars from the likes of True Ventures, Pantera and TechCrunch editor Alexia Tsotsis’ Dream Machine fund, among others. Alex Van de Sande, the ethereum guru known for his hesitancy to sign on to projects, joined as a technical advisor.
Together with a team of experienced designers, Kasireddy built a beta platform where free speech reigned. “Dangerous ideas” were brought forward, and the conversations – ranging from the legitamacy of polygamy to proof-of-work – sometimes spilled into the surrounding crypto community. It was the beginning of a seachange Kasireddy believed the world was waiting for.
But now, the project is mothballed.
Stalled by a lack of growth, and a weakening crypto economy, Kasireddy decided to shut down the project and return investor funds. In a farewell blog post, she said the market wasn’t ready for an application like Trustory.
“We’re the Myspace to Facebook,” she said. “Something like TruStory will exist, but the number of people that know about crypto or that want to use it for anything isn’t there.” Despite Kasireddy’s significant social following, and much positive press, Kasireddy said the application “struggled to get even 1,000 active users.”
Ideas to continue the project, like abandoning the token layer or raising an additional blanket of funding to cover them during the crypto winter were rejected. “We didn’t want to do another Quora or Reddit,” she said.
The Coinbase alum is now taking an indefinite leave from crypto, and is convinced 90 percent of token projects will shut down.
“A lot of crypto projects are too intellectual and academic and not something a real person could use on a daily basis,” Kasreddy said. “They make sense on a theoretical standpoint but not a social standpoint.”
Problems with decentralization
As Civil and Trustory show, operating a decentralized platform aiming to combat fake news is operationally difficult. But problems may exist at the theoretical level too, beginning with the ill-defined notion of decentralization.
Decentralization is dependent on context, Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor in media studies at the University of Colorado, said. “The rhetoric around decentralization implies technical systems, though is often more about social configurations,” he said. And it’s this rhetoric that often conceals the centralized social structures that technology was supposed to eradicate.
When Facebook and Twitter were first gaining traction, they were lauded as forces for democracy. Social media, critics bellowed, disintermediated information from power, while connecting the world. In some sense, they were the public internet’s first experiments with mass-decentralization – if not at the protocol level, then in their missions.
At heart, decentralization is about power, and where power should lay. Trump bemoans that internet platforms have the power to stifle conservative speech, while social media companies are gradually moving towards the conclusion that the powerful shouldn’t be able to spread misinformation to millions. The solution of disempowering both, by letting people control their internet experience has proven wooly.
A lack of user interest is part of the problem, but as Ray Serrato, the disinformation researcher said, “There is no technological solution, it’s why social media firms struggle to tackle the problem. You have to understand the political and social context of speech.”