Censorship on social media: how blockchain could be the new norm for unfiltered communications

(Written by @ElliotHill of the Cardano Foundation)

In the age of social media, many of us have already learned to self-moderate our online communications, remaining cautious of what we say, share, and do online.

Our comments, tweets, and posts have far-reaching consequences, spanning geographic borders and transcending language barriers; and sometimes, clashing with other cultures.

Social media mishaps now frequently make headlines, especially for those in the public eye, and have prompted many to ask who—if anyone—has the ultimate authority to decide what is appropriate for us to share online?

As a result, censorship throughout online communities has become a hot topic, fiercely debated on both sides by pro-censorship advocates and defendants of free speech and net neutrality alike.

As proponents of decentralized technology, the worldwide blockchain community has a unique opportunity to help steer this narrative. Here, we explore whether blockchain really holds the potential to transform online communications, and we discover some of the deeper implications of total freedom of speech via decentralized platforms.

Big tech on censorship

Major social media sites have traditionally been quick to moderate and remove comments which breach their terms of service. Naturally, this is somewhat necessary to promote an inclusive online community, and comments which directly inflict or intend harm to other members of a platform’s community are removed.

But what happens when a social media site removes content because it conflicts with their business interests, or to serve an altogether different agenda?

This year, there have been numerous cases of social media platforms wielding their censorship powers to weigh in on political debates, or mute subjects that would normally be protected under freedom of speech laws. While the team members and owners of the platforms themselves are of course entitled to their opinion on these matters, should censorship be practiced on public social media platforms, especially when these online communities have so much power and influence worldwide?

In the U.S. an Executive Order from the Whitehouse in May 2020 claimed that “Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube wield immense, if not unprecedented, power to shape the interpretation of public events; to censor, delete, or disappear information; and to control what people see or do not see.”

While this debate is amplified and at the forefront of politics in the U.S. owing to the high adoption of social media across the country, it is an issue that extends worldwide.

As a result, critics often decry traditional social media platforms for numerous alleged abuses that border both the censorship and anti-trust debates—such as spying on users, data mining, and avoiding revenue sharing with their core participants.

Many now see the problem as a result of the innate biases which accompany centralization, which implies that regardless of the core principles of a centralized social media platform, they can only be as unbiased as the company who owns them. So, could blockchain transform online communications and social media communities?

Can blockchain protect freedom of speech?

Blockchain technology, by virtue of its decentralized nature, is not necessarily subject to the same centralized control as existing social media platforms. Instead, decentralized social media and content platforms focus on placing power back into the hands of users through a number of initiatives.

For example, blockchain-based platform Mastodon allows users to host a personal server on top of the blockchain using their own infrastructure and domain name. These servers are entirely under the control of the user, who may set rules and establish a direction for discussion.

While Mastodon operates a free API ecosystem, whereby reader apps are created and maintained by independent developers, Mastodon does claim to only list communities that are committed to active moderation. However, moderation preferences are set by the community creators themselves, not the Mastodon platform.

Some decentralized platforms also add a reward element through the use of blockchain-based tokens. For example, Steemit users can be awarded STEEM tokens by other users for producing popular content or leaving thoughtful comments, which have a secondary-market value.

This is in itself a simple and distributed form of community-led moderation, as users can incentivize content creators to publish articles which serve the interests of the wider community—much in the way ‘likes’ do on other platforms but with an extra and arguably more powerful financial element, and without a centralized authority.

Other solutions, such as the Ethereum-based Minds platform, is an open-source social media site that rewards users with tokens according to their engagement and time spent on the platform, rewarding the most active users.

Minds has also indicated that they are exploring a voting-based system where users can vote to remove content, with no central and direct moderation from the Minds team, which would make it one of the first truly decentralized social media platforms.

Serious considerations of completely decentralized communications

Libertarianism, a widely held philosophy among many early proponents of blockchain technology, frequently argues that for a truly equitable society where personal liberties are upheld, we must take the good with the bad.

Some supporters of total freedom of speech online extend this to our communications and online presence, and many net neutrality supporters argue that undesirable online content is an unfortunate consequence of protecting our rights to freedom of speech, even if some individuals choose to abuse it.

Despite this, social media sites need to be inclusive to flourish, and decentralized communities are no exception. Online communities that are totally unmoderated can often turn into places that the majority of web users will not want to visit, and it is not always possible to have a totally free online platform without some users feeling marginalized or targeted.

This prompts some incredibly difficult ethical questions. Some could argue that should content on a particular social media site become offensive or derogatory to an individual or group of people, they of course have the option not to participate or create their own inclusive online community.

Others would lobby for the removal of more problematic online communities and censorship of controversial individuals completely, arguing that they pose a risk of causing harm, and looking to platform owners to remove associated accounts and content on users’ behalf—in other words, to engage in active censorship. This can in turn lead to over-zealous moderation within online communities.

Through blockchain, there could be a better solution—a distributed and community-led moderation process which relies not on censorship from a centralized custodian wielding absolute power, but careful moderation via a democratic process empowered by each and every user through decentralized technology. In this way, the entire social media ecosystem could decide the direction of their community and empower good actors to participate.

In theory, such decentralized social media platforms could place power back into the hands of the users, by allowing them to set the direction and rules of their own online communities, and decide what kind of content they publish and read according to community-chosen preferences, rather than that approved by centralized authorities.

What are your thoughts on social media, the blockchain and censorship? Does a decentralized system make for a better outlet? What about the risks of spreading fake news, extreme views and misinformation? Inversely, a decentralized platform can allow for more voices to be heard, so that the powerful media channels are not always the ones in control of the narrative. Tell us what you think - where do you see the future of social media and how can we address current challenges?

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Congratulations for the article. This is an extremely important issue. I was censored from the Telegram channel and from the Twitter page of a well-known Cardano explorer just for expressing my concerns about his pool ranking system, althought the discussion was concluded peacefully (personal revenge?). Anyone who knows me knows that I certainly am not a danger to the cohesion of the great family that is Cardano. Blockchain technology is certainly a great starting point for revolutionizing social media. I find the idea of users ​​being able to vote to remove content (or to keep it) very interesting, I hope to see these tools on Cardano very soon.

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I’ve heard this from you before, I checked the logs now and your ban was from combot for including link in your first message (in two different groups). Had you used report to admin group am sure it would have been sorted (it probably is already). But unless it was before Oct 2019, you weren’t censored for expressing concerns.

Hi Priyank. We are talking about two different things. What I reported happened on an unofficial channel, but the owner of which collaborates with Emurgo.

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Ah cool, thanks for clarifying, and apologies for confusion then :slightly_smiling_face:

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No problem. Thank you for your interest. :blush:

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It’s a good topic for the everyone to start to discuss now so that it doesn’t become another instance of technology surpassing societies understanding of its consequences. To me it’s an exceedingly difficult problem and, as with most things, I think the trick is in finding how to maintain a good balance. If we have no moderation (call it “censorship,” call it whatever you will) then we leave ourselves vulnerable to becoming infected with bias and/or misinformation, as social media has made abundantly clear. The calm ‘truth’ that lies somewhere in the middle is generally less appealing than inflammatory polarization. Is it really the Libertarian ideal if anyone can say what they please, but any useful or truthful nugget of information is drowned out? It’s virtually impossible to create certain tools, such as a search engine, without having a ‘moderator’ of sorts decide what information takes precedence (i.e. a search engine is loosely a form of censorship itself).

Hate speech and misinformation are counter-productive, but on the other hand, in a decentralized world, how do you go about moderating content and where is the line drawn? How many people would it require to censor a hateful post, a hateful person, or a hateful group? How do you prevent ‘censorship warfare’ where two opposing parties constantly try to censor each others content? How do you prevent abuse of bots and AI for censorship purposes? This is all before even bringing up the nuances of speech, reasonable doubt, dogwhistling, etc. Is all speech equally ‘free’ or should there be stronger restrictions for certain speech or people in positions of power?

There are a lot of fundamental questions that individuals need to ask themselves before they even broach the question of censorship on a decentralized platform. I imagine that the only way to really answer the question by trial and error with enough time. Much like with cryptocurrencies or programming languages, a few initial experiments will survive and flourish until they become too large and rigid to adapt and another comes along to solve one problem only to highlight two more…lather, rinse, and repeat.

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Meanwhile, IOHK themselves are also busy censoring small stake pools in the Daedalus 2.4 and 2.4.1.

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Please do not confuse a ban with censorship. If one gets banned on a channel this is not censorship. Then this person simply broke the rules of the group. (even if the ban was unjustified it is not censorship)

Censorship on Telegram would mean that you are not allowed to create your own groups/channels on Telegram.

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Please don’t use sophistry. I have not violated any rules of the group I refer to, nor have I received any pre-warnings that I was doing so. I was permanently blocked because I said something inconvenient for the owner. This is censorship. I might as well accept it from a private group, but not from a group that is influential in the community and that have the support of Emurgo.

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This statement from Mastodon’s creator suggests that platform-wide censorship is both possible and implemented on Mastodon:

I would think different Mastodon forks can each have their own policies about censorship. Anyway this is another example why not to assume anything blockchain based is decentralised, and to subject any claims of decentralisation to rigorous review.

Anyone following that rationale is going to find themselves back where we started, with the endgame (seen this year) of a media-reinforced liberal majority voting that everything against the prevailing point of view is dangerous. This “safety” is already a feature of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and every other censored media, so we don’t need blockchain unless providing an alternative. And the alternative is the original premise of blockchain: to provide permanence to every single statement that has ever been made.

Censorship by majority rule is still censorship… and even if conducted by blockchain vote, consensus against a minority point of view can be mounted, managed, manipulated, and reinforced off-blockchain. Any idea that people need to be protected from themselves, or from each other, is both philosophically and practically incompatible with decentralisation.

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I struggle to understand the absolutist argument against censorship, perhaps you can help. Do you mean here that in no circumstances should people be protected?

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no, it’s that deciding who needs to be protected, and how, is inevitably a centralised decision. There are abundant legitimate cases where solitary points of view are considered threatening by masses that are manipulated or misinformed… but since we can’t agree on what manipulation or misinformation is, we can only approximate this by preserving the statements of the outnumbered.

For a textbook example, try to find a picture of the guy standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989 anywhere on Chinese social media… or in a history book for that matter. I have it on good authority today that nobody of the recent generation in China has ever heard of that incident… but it took quite some time & effort for that consensus to be created.

I’m not saying that the Chinese were wrong to censor that person & the movement he may have represented, since it would imply a value judgement about the Chinese notion of social order… only that we don’t need the integrity of blockchain to support another system that can be subverted at any time over matters of opinion. We already have the conventional mainstream & social media for that.

p.s. (edited) to avoid going around in circles, I’m insisting that “censorship” is when anybody is able to censor what anyone says for any reason… e.g. in uncensored media, the offended public would comment below an offensive posting (perhaps to warn others of threats or perceived misinformation), while in a censored media they would be allowed to delete the original comment. In the latter case I support the “absolutist” definition of this process as “censorship.”

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I second that @COSDpool removal of posts or aggressive promotion of certain ideas by popular social media platforms is happening all the time. We need a completely decentralised media platform, there can be no mid ground here. Protection by a handful has never worked and it’s an affront to the ability of people to think for themselves.

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Hey COSDpool,

Thanks for reading our article. You raise some great and thought-provoking points. I agree that in truly decentralised and libertarian environments censorship wouldn’t exist in any form, and people would be able to both self-moderate and decide for themselves what content they interacted with. Hopefully, blockchain will give us the tools to make the current system fairer, and more transparent, even if it takes a while longer to design a perfect model of censorship or lack thereof :slight_smile:

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Just to clarify the principle: should a person be free to shout FIRE! in a crowded theater?

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Nice metaphor, but the reality is more complex. It is a demarcation problem with no obvious solution. I lean towards a voting system where users decide. We have new tools such as quadratic voting which are much fairer than the old systems even if not perfect. To use your metaphor, what if the fire in the theater is real?

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Here is the media analogy, especially relevant this year: when the crowded theatres of the world are full of irresponsible actors shouting FIRE! and capitalising on the people’s fear and gullibility, those who see that nothing is really burning must have a way for their own voices to be heard.

I was thinking of this since writing yesterday, and imagined architects could offer a “scoring” tab with all posts (and it would have to be all posts to be fair) with the results of modern voting relative to readers’ own standards of social and legal acceptability. Users themselves could read them as censorship metrics, and reading apps optionally could filter them based on the scores, rather than implementing statistical censorship outright.

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Maybe the metaphor could be better, but for the point intended the truth doesn’t matter, because panic is likely to cause, for instance, people getting trampled underfoot, while even if there was a fire everyone might get out safely by making a controlled, orderly exit. They might even get out faster.

Having now googled the phrase, it’s most complicated than I thought, for instance this is interesting:

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falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic

Highlights that speech that is dangerous and false is not protected, as opposed to speech that is dangerous but also true.

I understand your point of view, but control, even for a good purpose, can easily turn into abuse. The truth can be trampled with the freedom that comes from it. So, I think redistributing control is the best way to limit the abuse that someone can do of it.

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