The Decentralized Web Has Plans, if Not Solutions, to the Misinformation Nightmare

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Daniel Kuhn The Decentralized Web Has Plans, if Not Solutions, to the Misinformation Nightmare 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 people pointing to it and saying it was part of a conspiracy against their guy.” READ MORE: Letter From New Hampshire: The Dangers of Disinformation Neither of the candidates – Senator 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 reign to run, and you’re halfway there. Add in internet-wide reputation-layers and new economic models to p...