Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, sounded conflicted in his 13 tweet explanation of why he decided to boot Donald Trump off Twitter following the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol.
Dorsey rattled off the justification for the ban but also acknowledged the grand implications such an action causes.
We live in a moment in history where private companies like Twitter wield greater power than the government. The pervasive extent that social networks have permeated our lives has granted a few companies the capability to empower or silence individuals, groups, or movements.
The violent actions of a mob provoked by distortions of the truth compelled Twitter to silence the President of the United States. Relieving Donald Trump of his power to communicate instantly with the world was a monumental but necessary decision for the company.
As a public company, Jack Dorsey and Twitter are beholden to shareholders. Even though moderation decisions may come down to altruism, Twitter ultimately has a fiduciary duty to do what is best for the company and its share price.
Dorsey called the move to remove Trump a business decision but acknowledges that it is counter to the "noble purpose and ideals of the open internet."
But what are these noble purposes and ideals? Dorsey did not expound on the thought, but he did offer a glimpse into how Twitter may evade the responsibility of acting as the end-all-be-all moderator of speech.
Within the thread, Dorsey mentioned an initiative Twitter is funding called bluesky.
What is Twitter bluesky?
Bluesky is an open and decentralized standard for social media funded by Twitter. Jack Dorsey envisions that Twitter will eventually become one of many applications that operate on top of the bluesky standard.
Think about how we all agreed to use HTTP as the open standard and foundation of the Internet. HTTP allows us all to speak the same language when fetching resources to render webpages.
Like HTTP is a foundational standard for the Internet, bluesky would operate as the foundational standard for social media. However, it would go a step further in that it would be a decentralized protocol.
The closest comparison to make here is Bitcoin. Bitcoin is simply a protocol that a group of people mutually agreed to leverage. The killer feature of bitcoin is that it is decentralized, meaning no single entity can control it.
So while Bitcoin is a decentralized store of value, bluesky would be a decentralized store of social media content. Since it is decentralized, no single authority can control the content on the protocol. Platforms operating on the bluesky standard could remove content from their applications, but not from bluesky. No single entity would control bluesky.
Details on bluesky have been scarce since Dorsey thrust it into the limelight following the removal of Trump from Twitter. Only three minor developments have occurred:
- February 2020: Bluesky invited a group of people from the decentralization community to begin discussing the purpose of bluesky.
- January 2021: That same group released a review of the current decentralized social networking ecosystem and protocols.
- August 2021: Twitter appointed Jay Graber as project lead for Bluesky. Graber previously worked on the cryptocurrency ZCash and built a decentralized social network called Happening.
Twitter would offer components of its service as an application using the underlying bluesky protocol. The content consumed by Twitter would originate from the bluesky backbone, but the way Twitter presents that content would be up to them.
Many other companies could choose to build apps on top of bluesky, but the content, accounts, or networks presented could vary from app to app. The underlying protocol could inherently offer some features, like identity management and algorithmic sorting — but applications would be free to build any additional features on top of bluesky.
Companies utilizing bluesky would have to offer compelling features to entice users to their particular app. Twitter could offer their special sauce algorithm to sort Tweets that they think you would like as one of many features to encourage users to stay on their service rather than a bluesky competitor.
Why do we need decentralized social media?
The rise of Bitcoin came out of a distrust for central financial authority. The rise of decentralized social media has begun due to a distrust for central media authority.
Outside the banning of Donald Trump and a few other high-profile political voices, Twitter has managed to maintain some semblance of a positive reputation.
Facebook, on the other hand, has weathered a relentless barrage of bad press and negative popular sentiment in recent years as a result of controversy after controversy. Russian election interference, Cambridge Analytica data leaks, antitrust investigations, and even psychological torment of teenage girls, to name a few.
Fast Company even went so far as to call Facebook the worst brand of the year in 2020.
Facebook might even agree. Reports have surfaced that Facebook may change its company name and distance itself from the negative connotations associated with its social media business.
It turns out that connecting the entire planet and giving them an infinitely large metaphorical megaphone is a tough business to be in. Unfortunately, for Twitter, Facebook, or any social network, shitty people exist, and there are a ton of them.
If you allow humans to spread violence, hate, outrage, propaganda, and disinformation, some will seize that chance and run with it. At no point in history have we had the power to amplify outspoken voices to such an extent. Social media companies have had less than two decades to figure out how to make moderation decisions while balancing corporate policy, law, and free speech.
How do you decide what is and is not allowed on your platform? How about who is allowed on your network? Each social network has a predefined set of guidelines that establish who can use their platform and what they can publish.
But sometimes, the companies do not even follow their own rules. The Wall Street Journal exposed an internal list of famous users used at Facebook that grants its members exemption from company policies.
Brazillian soccer player, Neymar, was a member of this list and avoided being banned from the platform when he displayed nude photos of a woman who accused him of rape during a Facebook live stream. Neymar violated the Facebook policy of non-consensual nudity, more commonly known as revenge porn, but faced no consequences.
Neymar has 88 million+ followers on Facebook, which drives immense levels of engagement to the service. More engagement means more time spent viewing ads, which creates more advertising revenue. It is not a stretch to conclude that Facebook uses the internal list to ensure valuable users stay on the platform and continue to drive engagement.
After he spread false information about the election and incited violence, Twitter decided to ban one of its most popular users, Donald Trump.
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some people may believe the information was not false, and Trump did not directly incite violence. Trump himself certainly did not conclude he did anything wrong. His banishment from Twitter ultimately led to the creation of his Truth Social Network, which itself is a fork of open source social network software, Mastodon.
Instead of tweeting or posting, users of Truth post "truths" on the platform.
“I created TRUTH Social and TMTG [Trump Media and Technology Group] to stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech,” Trump said in a statement. David Gilbert of VICE quickly noted the irony of the statement in contrast to the platform's terms of service:
“As a user of the Site, you agree not to disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the Site.”
So you can bet your sweet MAGA hat that if you disparage Donald, your "truth" is coming down.
The problem with any social network is that a centralized company must ultimately decide to moderate the content posted by its users. Decentralized social media can relieve any central authority of their power to decide if content can exist or not. Decentralized social media would allow companies to remove content from their platforms — but not erase content from history.
With decentralized social media, individuals could use platforms whose corporate policies align with their personal ideals. Some users would choose to use Facebook or Twitter since they remove or flag provably false or dangerous information. Other people could use platforms that allow anything and grant them the right to discern the truth for themselves.
The future of decentralized social media
So this brings us back to bluesky. Imagine a world, dear reader, sometime in the near future. Perhaps we are cruising social media in the Metaverse, or casually browsing Twitter from our smartphone. All popular social networks have migrated over to the bluesky protocol by now, even Trump's Truth network.
The 2028 election is right around the corner, and Candidate A & Candidate B are gearing up for the final election publicity push. Suddenly, breaking news inundates your Twitter feed.
Audio of Candidate A surfaces, negotiating a backroom deal with China to hack newly released smartphone voting system.
This story is everywhere, and social media is blowing up with the news. Each tweet, Facebook post, and...Truth is posted directly to the bluesky protocol.
Millions of people, media pundits and politicians call for Candidate A to pull out of the race. But after a day passes, forensic deep fake researchers conclude that the audio is 100% fake. Twitter and Facebook have made the call to purge any reference of the story from their platforms.
However, since Twitter and Facebook have chosen to implement bluesky, users have the choice to leave their posts up on the underlying protocol. The content is still there on bluesky, but it is not accessible from Facebook or Twitter.
Meanwhile, the Truth Network decided to allow users to determine the truth for themselves. Truth does not filter out any content relating to the story, and Truth users can still freely exchange information about the damning evidence against Candidate A.
Does this sound like a nirvana of free speech or a dystopian hellscape of disinformation? Welcome to the future, where your agency to separate truth from fiction using informational literacy is of utmost importance.
Since bluesky is decentralized, the content is free to remain up permanently, and no central authority can remove it. The individual applications leveraging the protocol can choose whether or not to display it or prioritize it in their algorithms.
So depending on your interpretation, decentralized social media can either represent an astounding technological breakthrough to support freedom of speech or an existential threat to the foundation of truth.
Photos by Chris Barbalis & Raychel Sanner on Unsplash