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Just how broken is our political information ecosystem, anyway?
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Aug. 21, 2017, 12:01 p.m.
Audience & Social
LINK: dci.mit.edu  ➚   |   Posted by: Shan Wang   |   August 21, 2017

While platforms like Facebook have empowered users around the world to publish and browse the web and convene with friends online without any technical knowledge, they’ve also amassed unprecedented gatekeeping powers when it comes to the news and information sources people come across online.

(In the aftermath of Charlottesville in the U.S., for instance, web infrastructure company Cloudfare, booted The Daily Stormer after public pressure, but its CEO expressed concern over his own decision decision in a memo to staff: ‘‘Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.”)

Can new decentralized systems with no single point of control — think how Bitcoin transactions are controlled — be a remedy? A new report out this month from the Digital Currency Initiative and the Center for Civic Media at MIT considers the pros and cons through several case studies on alternatives such as the open-source Twitter competitor Mastodon and blockchain-enabled social publishing service Steemit:

In this report, we explore two important ways structurally decentralized systems could help address the risks of mega-platform consolidation: First, these systems can help users directly publish and discover content directly, without intermediaries, and thus without censorship. All of the systems we evaluate advertise censorship-resistance as a major benefit. Second, these systems could indirectly enable greater competition and user choice, by lowering the barrier to entry for new platforms. As it stands, it is difficult for users to switch between platforms (they must recreate all their data when moving to a new service) and most mega-platforms do not interoperate, so switching means leaving behind your social network. Some systems we evaluate directly address the issues of data portability and interoperability in an effort to support greater competition.

Competing with the ruling “mega-platforms” is an uphill battle. Mastodon, which received a good amount of press this past year, was able to grow

“in no small part due to controversial subcommunities being evicted from centralized platforms and relocating to decentralized alternatives. It is possible that Mastodon could grow significantly in the short term, but face long term barriers to growth if its key users are associated with highly controversial content.”

The report offers no easy answers, but the authors conclude that

“protecting the future of speech online involves not only these ambitious experiments in decentralization, but the cultivation of an ecosystem of competing publishing platforms, diverse in governance strategies, interoperable and connected by a diversity of federated clients.”

The full report by Chelsea Barabas, Neha Narula, and Ethan Zuckerman is available here.

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