The 2023 Social Media Summit@MIT Event Report

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SOCIAL<br />

MEDIA<br />

How to make platforms<br />


<strong>2023</strong> SOCIAL MEDIA SUMMIT@MIT

Panelists Offer Solutions<br />

to <strong>Social</strong> <strong>Media</strong>’s Ills<br />

In order to save platforms, we may need to fundamentally<br />

blow up the model and start over<br />

It’s been more than a decade since social<br />

media platforms have transformed our lives in<br />

unimagined ways. During that time, social media<br />

has become intertwined and synonymous with<br />

all media—a dominant force for information flow<br />

and a major channel for social interaction, political<br />

communication, and commercial marketing.<br />

This rise has fundamentally changed the world’s<br />

information landscape from a comparatively small<br />

number of producers (such as news networks) to a<br />

world where everyone is accessible, everyone is a<br />

content receiver, and everyone is a producer. It’s also<br />

an environment where content can be influential,<br />

regardless of its source.<br />

But along with the massive volume of information<br />

and access comes growing concern about how to<br />

tame it. While the “democratization” of content can be<br />

celebrated for its reach and global resources, social<br />

media has advanced far faster than most people<br />

realized or wanted. Misinformation has become so<br />

commonplace, gatekeepers and content moderators<br />

are required. But now—with the gradual removal of<br />

these gatekeepers—the misinformation and malicious<br />

actors that were starting to decline may be on the rise<br />

again and hard to stop.<br />

<strong>Social</strong> media’s core circuits need rewiring.<br />

Global citizens seem to be collectively waking up and<br />

asking questions: How did we get here? How do we<br />

dial back the speed and strength of this proliferation<br />

of misinformation, hate speech, addictive behavior,<br />

and privacy invasions? Whom do we trust, if there are<br />

no guardrails and gatekeepers? In short, can social<br />

media be saved? And if so, what will the new social<br />

media environment look like?<br />

In response to these and other questions, the <strong>2023</strong><br />

MIT IDE <strong>Social</strong> <strong>Media</strong> Summit (SMS@MIT) was held<br />

virtually on May 23, attracting an audience of more<br />

than 17,000 live viewers. Session topics included the<br />

role of AI, combating misinformation, and achieving<br />

the promise of social media.<br />


4 Platforms at a Crossroads<br />

6 <strong>Social</strong> <strong>Media</strong> Drills Deep<br />

8<br />

Is the Tide Turning for<br />

Misinformation?<br />

10 Ethical AI: A Work in Progress<br />

12 Tomorrow’s Platforms Today<br />




2<br />


Platforms at<br />

a Crossroads<br />

<strong>Social</strong> media still<br />

rules, but players<br />

are shape-shifting daily<br />


Sinan Aral<br />

Director, MIT IDE; David Austin Professor of<br />

Management and Professor of Information<br />

Technology and Marketing, MIT Sloan School<br />

of Management<br />

“From public health to teen entertainment, from<br />

finance to education, social media platforms<br />

are shaping opinions and our understanding of<br />

everything,” Sinan Aral, director of the MIT Initiative<br />

on the Digital Economy (IDE) and professor at MIT<br />

Sloan School of Management, told attendees of<br />

the <strong>Social</strong> <strong>Media</strong> Summit. We may have heard that<br />

before, but now, Aral noted, the rules, dominant<br />

players, and business models are a moving target.<br />

Twitter of a year ago isn’t the Twitter of today. Meta,<br />

Google, TikTok, and Spotify, among others, are<br />

shape-shifting to accommodate more sophisticated<br />

algorithms, AI, ChatGPT, and decentralized<br />

communities. New ecosystems are forming to<br />

counter established networks.<br />

<strong>The</strong> stakes have never been higher. <strong>The</strong>y include<br />

fair elections, free speech, global currencies, and<br />

personal privacy. <strong>The</strong>re’s new urgency and public<br />

awareness, but so far, neither the tech industry nor<br />

the U.S. government have taken strong leadership<br />

roles, despite recent testimony from OpenAI and a<br />

statement from AI experts that something needs<br />

to be done.<br />

Aral noted that in many ways, social media is at a<br />

crossroads. “Large platforms have gone private,<br />

policy changes are underway at Twitter...and new<br />

Generative AI, and deep learning—in development<br />

for many decades—have burst onto the scene for<br />

public use last year,” Aral said.<br />

“<strong>The</strong>se changes,” Aral added, “have an immense<br />

impact on text, images, video, and synthetic<br />

generation of information that influences how we<br />

think about our world.”<br />

Aral said that the IDE is conducting scientific research<br />

into social media, AI, decentralization and Web3 to<br />

assess political, social, governmental and business<br />

fallout, and how to stay ahead of the curve.<br />

We can’t put the genie back in the bottle, as Renée<br />

Richardson Gosline of MIT said during her AI Ethics<br />

panel. But speakers throughout the day pointed to<br />

three key remedies to revive the ailing social media<br />

environment: responsible AI, interventions against<br />

misinformation, and new platform ecosystems.<br />

Panelists disagreed about centralized versus<br />

decentralized platform design, about content<br />

moderation techniques, and about the role of<br />

laws and regulation. <strong>The</strong>y said the race by platforms<br />

to implement ChatGPT, prediction algorithms, and<br />

advanced AI ahead of competitors could cause<br />

further harm. Yet in many ways, the day’s speakers—<br />

coming from legal, behavioral science, technology,<br />

and economic perspectives—were each essentially<br />

saying, “We can and must do better.” In this report of<br />

the day’s discussions, we offer concrete action items<br />

and recommendations.<br />

Users also have to be rewired to relinquish the<br />

comforts and crowds of their social platforms in favor<br />

of more discerning, open platforms, such as Mozilla,<br />

T2, and Mastodon. And if they do, tomorrow’s social<br />

media may offer decentralized, shared, and safer<br />

spaces for public discourse.<br />

We know what to do. It’s time to act.<br />




Educate programmers and the<br />

public about AI bias; regulate<br />

platforms, and penalize offenders.<br />



Disincentivize click-bait, keep content<br />

monitors on platforms, and add<br />

friction or nudges to encourage truth<br />



Revamp the business model<br />

to include decentralized, open<br />

platforms that protect users.<br />

4<br />


Christopher Graves, the keynote speaker at the <strong>2023</strong> <strong>Social</strong><br />

<strong>Media</strong> <strong>Summit@MIT</strong>, offered a revealing look under the hood<br />

of social media marketing tools. He described the growing<br />

danger of what he calls “personality-based marketing,” a<br />

rising—and somewhat disturbing—approach that matches<br />

individual personality traits to social media habits.<br />

How Behavioral Science<br />

Can Decode Us<br />

Graves knows more about digital marketing than most. <strong>The</strong><br />

founder and president of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral<br />

Science, part of Ogilvy Consulting, he pointed out that<br />

companies are now correlating users’ online behavior—<br />

even photographs of their faces—with specific personality<br />

characteristics. Organizations then use these sophisticated<br />

results to build a data “genome” and deliver content aimed at<br />

encouraging specific actions.<br />

Personality Traits<br />


People have a series of filters that either sharpen or distort<br />

their beliefs, preferences, and decisions, Graves told<br />

SMS@MIT attendees. “I can now test individuals at large<br />

scale to better ‘decode’ them,” he added.<br />

“When you use this for good, it could possibly lead to<br />

rapprochement or resonance,” Graves said. “But if you use<br />

it for ill will, it could be very malicious manipulation.”<br />


While marketing has long used personality-driven<br />

techniques to find, segment, and sell to customers,<br />

today’s AI-based approaches are far more sophisticated<br />

and accurate. Also, where earlier approaches attempted<br />

to change or convert ideas, today’s behavioral approaches<br />

focus on changing behavior.<br />

Graves said that personality inference can be done in six<br />

distinct ways, all of which can be accelerated with AI for<br />

pattern recognition: eye tracking, text parsing, images<br />

(especially photos of faces), music and sound, behavior<br />

on a mobile phone, and social engagement.<br />



Olgivy’s cognitive scientist<br />

Christopher Graves describes<br />

sophisticated new marketing<br />

tools to ‘decode’ online behavior<br />


Christopher Graves<br />

President & Founder, Ogilvy Center<br />

for Behavioral Science<br />

“Companies have<br />

great interest in<br />

figuring out who you<br />

are based on your<br />

digital footprint.”<br />

Christopher Graves<br />

President & Founder, Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science<br />

Graves described three lenses that marketers use to<br />

gain insights into individuals: personality traits, cognitive<br />

style, and worldview/identity. <strong>The</strong>se factors come into<br />

play when a social media platform—or a user or advertiser<br />

on a platform—wants to persuade others to take a specific<br />

action. People with different personalities, cognitive styles,<br />

and worldviews will respond better or worse to different<br />

kinds of messages.<br />

‘Decoding’ Personality Traits<br />

In the past, personality profiling was typically done with<br />

surveys and tests. But today’s social media platforms can<br />

remotely “decode” people by observing their preferences<br />

and behavior online.<br />

One approach claims to correlate personality types with eye<br />

movement; another purports to do the same through your<br />

use of language. Yet another technology claims to use a<br />

photograph of faces to determine personality types or even,<br />

according to one researcher, a person’s sexual orientation.<br />

It’s not clear whether this kind of tracking is being used<br />

now by the leading social media platforms, Graves said.<br />

But patent applications around personal inference have<br />

been filed by companies that include Facebook, Google,<br />

Microsoft, and Spotify. <strong>The</strong>se companies, Graves added,<br />

“have great interest in looking at your digital footprint and<br />

digital breadcrumbs to figure out who you really are—not<br />

who you say you are.”<br />

Getting to Know You<br />

<strong>The</strong>se analytics could also be used to empower AI chatbots<br />

for good purposes. For example, in the case of vaccine<br />

resistance, an empathetic approach might hear out the<br />

person’s reasons for concern and then match a pro-vaccine<br />

storyline to that person’s personality type.<br />

Another example: People could also opt-in to use personalityinferring<br />

chatbots to help them quit smoking. “If you know<br />

how somebody’s wired and respectfully approach them on<br />

their terms in ways that make sense to them, you probably<br />

have a slightly better chance at helping them,” Graves said.<br />

Despite the promise, personality-aware AI could make the<br />

spread of misinformation even more pernicious. “Imagine<br />

I’m trying to whip you up into anger, into further polarization,”<br />

Graves said. “I will have better tools and a much more finely<br />

nuanced understanding of your hot buttons.”<br />

6<br />






Truth is making progress on social media.<br />

But with platforms regrouping and facing<br />

tough times, can the gains continue?<br />

Tom Cunningham<br />

Economist<br />

Kate Klonick<br />

Associate Professor of Law, St. John’s University<br />

David Rand (Moderator)<br />

Professor, MIT Sloan, and Research Lead,<br />

Misinformation and Fake News, MIT IDE<br />

While the threat of online misinformation remains serious,<br />

some experiments with intervention seem to be working<br />

and turning the tide. <strong>The</strong> proliferation of fake news peaked<br />

in 2016, and since then, growing concern has kept online<br />

misinformation in check. This panel, led by IDE leader David<br />

Rand, considered what should—and should not—be done to<br />

keep it there.<br />

Greater awareness and vigilance are helping to keep social<br />

media truthful. Still, it seems unlikely that misinformation and<br />

fake news can be eliminated entirely, especially as platform<br />

companies face earnings pressure, panelists said. Debates<br />

now center on how social media platforms and others should<br />

combat the spread of misinformation and prevent backsliding.<br />

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, social media<br />

platforms have experimented with interventions to flag or<br />

remove false information. This type of content moderation<br />

has been effective and represents the best way forward,<br />

said Tom Cunningham.<br />

Cunningham, who previously worked as an economist and<br />

data scientist for Facebook and Twitter, believes that content<br />

moderation can reduce misinformation. But there are tradeoffs,<br />

he added, such as inadvertently taking down accurate<br />

information and infringing on free speech. Identifying<br />

misinformation isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.<br />

Rand agreed, noting that when fake news first began to<br />

spread on Facebook, he believed it would be easy to tackle.<br />

“<strong>The</strong>re are things that are true and things that are false,” he<br />

recalled. “If the platform wanted to do something about it, it<br />

could just get rid of the false stuff.” However, Rand said that<br />

once he started working in the field, “I changed my mind.<br />

This is way more complicated than I’d appreciated.”<br />

Rand now sees online information as a “continuum” of truth<br />

and falsity, with most content somewhere in the middle.<br />

“That doesn’t mean we’re in a post-truth world,” he said.<br />

“It’s just that accuracy is hard to measure with certainty.”<br />

Research shows that most social media users don’t actually<br />

want to share misinformation, Rand explained. Instead, many<br />

are either confused or not paying enough attention.<br />

Gold Standard<br />

Professional fact-checking by dedicated employees is “still the<br />

gold standard,” Rand said. But even fact-checkers don’t always<br />

agree on what’s true or false.<br />

Cunningham suggested that decentralized social media<br />

platforms accelerate the spread of misinformation because<br />

they’re “bad at assessing the quality of content...people<br />

tend to click whatever is shiny, whatever looks good, but not<br />

what is good.” This can amplify sensational and superficial<br />

ideas. By contrast, centralized media—newspapers, radio,<br />

and television—have traditionally been more cautious, fearing<br />

they’ll lose readership and ad revenue, or risk litigation.<br />

[Read more about decentralization on page 12.]<br />

Kate Klonick noted that Facebook and Twitter are mostly<br />

centralized, which may be good for creating what she<br />

called “one place for intervention.” But over the next couple<br />

of years, she expects to see more decentralization, where<br />

“misinformation is breeding, and it’s going to be very difficult<br />

to track.”<br />

Cunningham noted that while misinformation is still too<br />

prevalent, it has declined by a factor of five or 10 since<br />

peaking in 2016. <strong>The</strong> reason? Platforms, he said, have<br />

“added friction on politics, on sharing, on viral content, on<br />

certain types of reactions, on content from new producers,<br />

on content from fringe producers, and on content that looks<br />

like clickbait.” While this has significantly decreased the rate<br />

of misinformation, Cunningham added, “Anything that looks<br />

a little bit like misinformation is going to get suppressed<br />

as well.”<br />

Platforms Under Pressure<br />

Cunningham also maintained that social-media companies<br />

should strive to be platforms that distribute high-quality<br />

“In a free society, the law does not necessarily have a<br />

role to play in trying to determine truth.”<br />

Kate Klonick<br />

Associate Professor of Law, St. John’s University<br />

content, not just platforms that maximize retention, likes, and<br />

time spent. And yet, in the current cost-cutting environment,<br />

many social media companies have been laying off their<br />

ethicists and fact-checkers.<br />

Klonick said that while “lots of work has been done to raise<br />

awareness about malicious actors and misinformation,” the<br />

tradeoff may be increased public skepticism about what is<br />

or is not fake news.<br />

She doubts that legal interventions will help to clarify online<br />

truth. “One of the very unpopular things that I have said over<br />

the last five years, but I think is ultimately true, is that in a<br />

free society, the law does not necessarily have a role to play<br />

in trying to determine truth,” Klonick explained.<br />

Sometimes, she added, it’s best to let the private sector be<br />

the gatekeepers. Platforms know how to create friction and<br />

slow things down. “Markets,” Klonick said, “respond faster<br />

than the law to changing norms.”<br />

For these reasons and more, Klonick doesn’t see legislative<br />

remedies coming to the rescue anytime soon. Policy<br />

proposals, she said, are “a disincentive, a stick...but they’re<br />

not that helpful.” What’s more, she said, substantial bans on<br />

certain types of content, based on subjective judgments, are<br />

“not going to be in line with First Amendment principles at all.”<br />

<strong>The</strong> Cost of Regulation<br />

In many countries, social media platforms already comply<br />

with content regulations, Cunningham noted. Much of that<br />

content would be removed anyway, he said: “<strong>The</strong>y’re going<br />

to take down terrorist stuff, child porn; they’re going to take<br />

down hate speech.”<br />

Before the current layoffs, platforms were aggressively<br />

addressing the problem. <strong>The</strong>y were spending 5% of their<br />

overall costs on data scientists, content raters, and different<br />

structures for moderating content, Cunningham said, even<br />

when they were not legally required to do so. <strong>The</strong> reason<br />

wasn’t altruism or free speech, but pressure from advertisers.<br />

Cunningham isn’t confident that most platform companies<br />

“have a super-clear North Star; they’re responsive to half a<br />

dozen different constituencies.” Those include the media,<br />

governments, advertisers, users, employees, and investors.<br />

“All of those,” Cunningham added, “have very strong opinions<br />

about what content should be on the platform.”<br />

Ideally, social media platforms will discover new ways to keep<br />

the good content while eliminating the bad. But, Cunningham<br />

warned, “I don’t think that we should be crossing our fingers<br />

for that business model in the very short term.”<br />

8<br />




A WORK IN<br />


Panelists explored tough challenges<br />

raised by new content-generating tools<br />

and urged awareness and regulation<br />

Anthony Habayeb<br />

Co-founder and CEO, Monitaur Inc.<br />

Paris Marx<br />

Newsletter and book author, and host of the Tech Won’t<br />

Save Us podcast<br />

Kalinda Ukanwa<br />

Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Southern<br />

California Marshall School of Business<br />

Renée Richardson Gosline (Moderator)<br />

Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management and<br />

Human/AI Interface Research Group Lead, MIT IDE<br />

Like most tools, generative AI can be put to use for many<br />

purposes. It can create impressive new text and images from<br />

existing content. But it also lacks oversight, and is guilty of<br />

bias and hasty corporate rollouts.<br />

<strong>The</strong> opportunities as well as the risks of new AI tools were<br />

discussed by the Responsible, Human-First AI panel at the<br />

<strong>Social</strong> <strong>Media</strong> <strong>Summit@MIT</strong>. <strong>The</strong> discussion, moderated<br />

by MIT’s Renée Richardson Gosline, offered perspectives<br />

from a business leader charged with implementing ethical<br />

AI, an academic who is developing systems and future<br />

programmers, and an outsider critiquing it all.<br />

“Generative AI models have gained widespread adoption,”<br />

Gosline said, citing reports that ChatGPT gained 100 million<br />

users in just two months after its November 2022 launch. “But<br />

what does this mean?”<br />

AI in the Spotlight<br />

AI isn’t actually new, noted Kalinda Ukanwa. “Whether we’re<br />

selecting a movie from Netflix or using a GPS app to find our<br />

way around a city, we’ve been interacting with AI all along,”<br />

she said. “Yet people did not perceive that as AI. It was always<br />

this thing that was running in the background.”<br />

That’s changed with the advent of generative AI tools.<br />

ChatGPT is now part of the “kitchen-table conversation,”<br />

said Anthony Habayeb.<br />

Concerns over the potential harms of generative AI have<br />

extended to governments. Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI,<br />

the company that created ChatGPT, recently told the U.S.<br />

Congress that AI needs more regulation. U.S. President<br />

Biden, speaking to recent graduates of the country’s Air Force<br />

Academy, worried aloud about AI’s ability to “overtake human<br />

thinking.” And the European Union is considering a new<br />

legal framework, known as the AI Act, that would regulate AI<br />

development and use.<br />

While Ukanwa doesn’t expect “to get to a place where [AI] is<br />

not going to harm anybody,” she asked, “How do we minimize<br />

that harm in an intelligent way?” Ukanwa’s recent research<br />

paper, Algorithmic Fairness and Service Failures:<br />

Why firms Should Want Algorithmic Accountability, makes<br />

the case for third-party monitors of AI development, who<br />

don’t have skin in the game.<br />

Paris Marx sees a darker motive behind both the spread of<br />

generative AI tools and the explosion of interest they’ve<br />

generated. “<strong>The</strong>se technologies are inherently political, less<br />

in the sense of party politics and more in the term’s broader<br />

meaning,” he said. “When these technologies are developed<br />

and deployed, there are certain goals and desires.”<br />

Marx views the hype over ChatGPT “getting the venture<br />

capitalists excited again,” spurring investment, and getting<br />

Microsoft to challenge Google so that responsible AI isn’t a<br />

priority. But while platforms are publicly saying they’re going to<br />

implement ChatCPT responsibly, “they’re laying off and firing<br />

all of the AI ethicists,” Marx said.<br />

AI bias is baked in by its human programmers, panelists noted,<br />

whether consciously or not. In addition, generative AI tools rely<br />

on already existing content, and they have no way of filtering<br />

that content for bias or inaccuracies.<br />

Responsible Solutions<br />

Yet Habayeb sees solutions. “AI is built by people and it can<br />

be managed,” he said. For instance, insurance company data<br />

may be biased against a certain cohort causing higher rates.<br />

“<strong>The</strong>re might be other data that we can bring into an AI system<br />

to make the pricing outcome more equitable,” Habayeb added.<br />

Gosline said that while we can’t put the AI genie back in the<br />

bottle, we can use AI more critically and deliberately. Ukanwa<br />

sees the need for greater awareness, too. She recently<br />

participated in a town hall meeting on AI, sponsored by a<br />

Los Angeles radio station, that addressed generative AI<br />

and its potential impact on society. “Afterwards,” Ukanwa<br />

recounted, “people said, ‘I didn’t know these were the<br />

implications of AI.’”<br />

Marx clearly favors government oversight. He’s skeptical of<br />

corporate motives for self-regulation that put profits over<br />

social good. “<strong>The</strong>re are many ways these technologies can be<br />

rolled out in a negative way,” he said. “Unless there’s pressure<br />

from the government,” consumer rights are not considered.<br />

Could the profit versus ethics argument be false? Ukanwa<br />

thinks so. “<strong>The</strong>re’s this narrative that if I do something ethical,<br />

I’m going to lose profits, and I can’t have both,” she said. “But a<br />

lot of research is building a case that you can have both.”<br />

<strong>The</strong>re are good business reasons to develop fair algorithms,<br />

Ukanwa said, adding, “This is what shareholders need<br />

to understand.” Habayeb agreed: “Proactive governance<br />

messaging is good for business.”<br />

“A lot of research is building the<br />

case that you don’t have to sacrifice<br />

profits for business ethics.”<br />

Kalinda Ukanwa<br />

Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Southern California Marshall School of Business<br />

10<br />





TODAY<br />

<strong>Social</strong> media pioneers share<br />

their visions for principled,<br />

decentralized platforms<br />







USE OPEN<br />




Mitchell Baker<br />

CEO, Mozilla Corporation, Chairwoman, Mozilla Foundation<br />

Michael Masnick<br />

Editor, Techdirt, and CEO, Copia Institute<br />

Sarah Oh<br />

Co-founder, T2<br />

Renée DiResta (Moderator)<br />

Technical Research Manager, Stanford Internet Observatory<br />

“To build any kind<br />

of user-generated<br />

content platform<br />

today, trust and<br />

safety have to be<br />

fundamental pillars.”<br />

Sarah Oh<br />

Co-founder, T2<br />

Some experts believe that if social media is going to survive,<br />

it needs a major overhaul. Panelists looking at future models<br />

said that by learning from yesterday’s mistakes, we can fix<br />

today’s broken systems. In fact, promising alternatives are<br />

already emerging.<br />

Renée DiResta moderated a provocative panel which<br />

focused on decentralized web networks—also known as<br />

Web3–and the rise of social media platform alternatives.<br />

<strong>The</strong>se emerging ecosystems include Mastodon, Mozilla,<br />

and Bluesky <strong>Social</strong>, all of which DiResta said are part of a<br />

federated universe, or “fediverse.” (<strong>The</strong> SMS@MIT event was<br />

held prior to Meta’s release of Threads, an app to rival Twitter,<br />

which has attracted millions of users.)<br />

Most of the new platforms are decentralized by design.<br />

This means that instead of accessing the internet through<br />

services mediated by companies like Google, Twitter, and<br />

Facebook, users own and govern sections of the internet<br />

themselves. <strong>The</strong> new communities, DiResta said, can teach<br />

us about alternatives to the more centralized ecosystems<br />

that are now dominant.<br />

For example, Mastodon describes itself as free and opensource<br />

software developed by a non-profit organization. It<br />

supports microblogging features similar to those of Twitter.<br />

Bluesky, a similar platform, is now being beta tested.<br />

But decentralization isn’t a prerequisite for alternative<br />

platforms. T2, a nascent online community represented on<br />

the panel, will be centralized. But T2 still promises it will<br />

provide the high levels of user privacy, security, and social<br />

dynamics that today’s platforms lack.<br />

Decentralized or not, these models promise changes for<br />

both users and developers disillusioned by social media’s<br />

misinformation, vitriol, and marketing focus. However, these<br />

new online sites will also find that reaching the scale<br />

of current global communities will be a long, tough climb.<br />

Mozilla Leads the Way<br />

DiResta noted that Mozilla pioneered many of these concepts<br />

years ago. Mitchell Baker, who became Mozilla’s CEO in 2020<br />

and has been with the company since its origins, said that<br />

“decentralization has been a part of Mozilla’s ethos from<br />

the very beginning.” Founded in 1998, Mozilla was the opensource<br />

developer of the Firefox browser, and it has long used<br />

protocols that support open, one-to-many social engagement.<br />

Mozilla’s new effort, Mozilla.social, will be a social site that is<br />

not neutral to all content. “We don’t want to be neutral to hate,<br />

we don’t want to be neutral to racism, we don’t want to be<br />

neutral to misogyny,” Baker said. “Mozilla is about inclusion;<br />

it’s in our identity and manifesto.”<br />

<strong>The</strong> big challenge for Mozilla and others is how to maintain<br />

their ideals while scaling up. “Operating at scale has its own<br />

set of problems,” Baker said. “We’re trying to be very, very<br />

intentional about [reaching] scale, while operating under a<br />

different set of principles.”<br />

In 2019, when conversations around content moderation were<br />

heating up, Mike Masnick wrote an essay, “Protocols, Not<br />

Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech,” for the<br />

Knight First Amendment Institute. At the time, people were<br />

asking how platform companies could achieve both content<br />

moderation and privacy. Concerns were also raised about trust<br />

in a market dominated by four large companies. Government<br />

regulation was a flashpoint then, as it is now.<br />

Decentralized, Open Protocols<br />

Masnick’s premise was that building open protocols for email,<br />

news, chats or searches—as in the early days of the Internet—<br />

would ensure integrity. “Indeed,” he wrote, “some platforms<br />

are leveraging existing open protocols but have built up walls<br />

around them, locking users in, rather than merely providing an<br />

interface.” Masnick hoped that decentralization “would push<br />

the power and decision making out to the ends of the network,<br />

rather than keeping it centralized among a small group of very<br />

powerful companies.”<br />

Masnick also anticipated that decentralization would lead to<br />

“more innovative features, as well as better end-user control<br />

over their own data,” adding, “it could help usher in a series<br />

of new business models that don’t focus exclusively on<br />

monetizing user data.”<br />

His earlier words seem prescient to many new ventures. <strong>The</strong><br />

pendulum seems to be swinging back to decentralized models<br />

that better protect both user privacy and free speech.<br />

Sarah Oh told attendees that she believes “the domination<br />

period” of the four large platforms “ended sometime last<br />

fall.” Oh is part of what she called a “small and mighty team”<br />

building a Twitter alternative with the familiar look and feel of<br />

a centralized platform.<br />

People want “to feel safer, less exhausted, have a higher<br />

quality product experience, really great UI, and have something<br />

that works fast,” Oh said. That’s why T2 won’t “diverge too<br />

much from the experience [users] had the last few years,” she<br />

explained. T2 is developing a short-text format that not only<br />

works well, but also upholds principles and values that mirror<br />

how users live and engage with information offline. “To build<br />

any kind of user-generated content platform today,” Oh said,<br />

“trust and safety have to be fundamental pillars.”<br />

Ethics vs. Profits?<br />

Moderator DiResta asked the panel about feasibility and<br />

tradeoffs: Can a social platform that upholds highly ethical<br />

values also be commercially successful?<br />

Oh replied that there’s “no playbook” for newcomers. In fact,<br />

she said, “there is pressure to build a business in a certain<br />

way, reach certain metrics, and raise the funding necessary to<br />

continue to grow your platform.”<br />

Masnick, while admitting “there is no silver bullet,” remains<br />

optimistic. Yet he acknowledged the difficulty of building trust<br />

and safety online, especially as a platform grows. “You always<br />

think there are easy solutions,” he said, echoing a comment<br />

made in another panel earlier in the day. “Just ban the bad<br />

people and help the good people. It turns out that it’s not<br />

easy...there is no perfect answer, no right way to do this.”<br />

Baker knows first-hand how difficult content moderation can<br />

be, especially at scale. It involves deciding what your audience<br />

wants, while also maintaining firm guidelines. For Mozilla, she<br />

said, “inclusion is not negotiable. And hate crimes, misogyny,<br />

stalking, and death threats...that is not inclusive.”<br />

Building a product that responds to both the market and<br />

philosophical implications can be a tough balancing act.<br />

As a pioneer, Baker said, “you have to be willing to take the<br />

arrows from all sides.”<br />

12<br />



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