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There is no question that social media has become one of the main sources of polarization in our society. Not least because censorship motivated by political bias happens so often we almost have to force ourselves to summon feelings of shock and surprise. Making this worse is the lack of transparency. As a result, there is a growing desire for alternatives.
I recently spoke with Bill Ottman, who is the CEO of the social network, Minds. We discussed the above problems, and the challenges going forward. As Minds vows to meticulously follow the First Amendment, journalists and free-speech advocates like Tim Pool have praised the site as a haven for free expression and openness.
Ottman’s goal is to put more power into the hands of people by sticking to a “decentralized governance model.” Users are given access to the website’s code for increased transparency. It has adopted the Manila Principles, a digital bill of rights emphasizing freedom of speech, privacy and due process. This is an enticing approach that would be conducive to maintaining a freedom-based environment.”
Ottman would also like to see less partisanship when it comes to free speech and was at President Trump’s recent Social Media Summit. He told me that it was a “historic day” since it was the “first time these subjects have ever been discussed in such a high-level setting.” He also said there were “a few liberals/progressives there, but not enough to avoid a media field day calling it a far-right event, which is too bad because I thought much of the testimony of censorship was valid.”
The site has been criticized for allowing white supremacists and neo-Nazis to link up and stay connected online. This is one of the problems any platform trying to uphold the First Amendment will face. An environment promoting freedom of speech might attract a flock of fringe idiots who’ve been banned elsewhere, but Ottman and I agree that censorship does not work. Oftentimes, it strengthens them since they can retreat to the “dark corners” where their views are only reinforced.
The content policy outlines offences that will be grounds for an immediate ban, which include terrorism and doxxing. The management of such content hasn’t been perfect anywhere, but this helps in making a distinction between content that’s harmful or just controversial.
But how do we balance freedom with the need for moderation?
Minds has a jury system wherein the community can have the final say on what posts are to be moderated. If a post is moderated (This means marked with a Not Safe for Work label. There is also a three strike policy explained here), its creator can appeal to a jury of 12 other unique users who will then review content and vote to overturn or uphold the moderation decision.
So far, Ottman tells me that the system has been “working well.” The idea of “digital democracy” is alluring, but there is the concern that this might enable people to take action against political opponents. He sympathized with such concerns. Nonetheless, he advised: “Ultimately, you have to choose between centralized or decentralized governance models. We think the benefits of a community jury system on appeals outweigh the risks of biased moderation teams by far.” One can’t deny that a community-based approach will potentially provide relief from the practices of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. But still, what could be done to ensure that there is an impartial jury? He explains: “Some preventative measures for bias and mobs we have initially put in place are that the jurors are unconnected to the reported content, and if they repeatedly are found to manipulate the system by not enforcing Minds’ free speech policy, they are unable to serve on juries.”
It’s an intriguing alternative to having a bunch of unaccountable woke administrators make the decisions, but there are still some kinks to work out. Having only been established recently, mistakes have been made. One example of which is the case of David Wood, a creator who got “dinged” for a video on Islam. Nettled by this, Wood castigated Minds for “having worse censorship laws than YouTube.” When asked to discuss this briefly, Ottman told me that this happened because of a mistake on the part of who flagged it and a miscommunication. What’s unfortunate, Ottman says, is that Wood did not reach out to Minds since he and his team “are always accessible.” “If people have concerns, they can always contact us directly.” They do provide users with the opportunity to give their suggestions on how to improve the system. Users can also help improve the code at https://gitlab.com/minds. This situation also speaks to issues with which those on all alternative platforms will have to grapple. One is how to assess content. There needs to be a clear method to evaluate what content should be marked, especially with something like Islam that needs to be discussed as openly as possible. With that said, creators also need to be patient with some of the things these new platforms are trying out.
Another issue is disinformation. This is where security needs and libertarian impulses can conflict. I am what you’d typically call a free speech absolutist, but that hasn’t nullified any concern over rogue regimes like Russia trying to undermine our institutions. This is a very real problem that needs to be dealt with; however, the panic over it has also caused governments and big tech to become even more domineering when it comes to online speech. Committed to “decentralized governance,” Ottman says that democratized platforms should be able to provide users the tools to discern what is true and what is propaganda. “Big tech takes it upon themselves to deem what is and what is not true which is backwards,” he says. “The network can act as a peer for helping provide context, but it should not be trusted with a handful of potentially biased think tanks.”
It seems as if we’re damned if we do or damned if we don’t. In a study on social media’s impact on democracy, historian Niall Ferguson examines how polarization on social media due to misinformation and ideological silos opens up opportunities for foreign rogues. Essentially, social media problems need to be remedied first to safeguard against this in a way that does not trample on innocent speech. How do we do that? Ferguson argues that one solution is reining in big tech through the law courts, by removing exemptions from content liabilities while imposing duties to uphold the First Amendment. The trouble is taking into account the perils of too much regulation or deregulation. As he writes: “it is not self-evidently obvious which is more dangerous: a regulated Internet, in which governments exercise at least some control over network platforms, or an unregulated one, in which private companies continue to gather and exploit the personal data of citizens for profit and without scruple.”
So are decentralized systems the answer? If the popularity of alternatives continues to increase, they may very well threaten the Silicon Valley monopoly. Ottman and I discussed the need for collaboration with others such as Jordan Peterson of Thinkspot. Asking him what he thought of Thinkspot, he said he would love to collaborate with them. “I think their intent is great and experimentation is important,” he says. Appreciating their strong stance on free speech (Peterson has proposed a policy of not removing anyone unless ordered to by a US court of law), he says that a court order policy is “great and essential in theory.” However, as you encounter edge cases, some content may “need to be taken down immediately.” Of course, this is an ever-evolving conversation that should take place on all platforms.
Despite the current climate, Ottman is optimistic. People are tired of the status quo, he says, and it’s becoming increasingly evident that “decentralized systems are better for everyone.” Maybe the Minds model will provide answers. As this issue will command our attention for a while, only time can tell.