Can blockchain fix social media?

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, we’ll discuss why social media is broken and what people think we can — and can’t — do about it. Apple is all over the newsletter as it fends off multiple legal challenges, and a Microsoft whistleblower claims the company ignored his concerns about corruption in the Middle East and Africa.

A debate-themed video game

Like just about everyone else in this profession, I spend way too much time on Twitter. I’m what “normies” might consider Extremely Online and what Ted Kaczynski would call “oversocialized.” Marc Andreessen would probably label me a “wordcel.”

In February, I managed to log out of Twitter for an entire week. The experience confirmed my suspicion: Life is better offline. I spent more time reading fiction and less time worrying about nuclear war. I felt compelled to organize social outings in real life (IRL, as the Zoomers would say). I baked three heads of broccoli and ate them while watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a show I didn’t have the patience for in my Twitter days.

Most Americans share my uneasy relationship with social media. Conservatives (83%) are more likely than liberals (54%) to feel that social media has a negative impact on the way things are going in the US, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center poll. That partisan divide helps explain why so many of the attempts to launch new social networks come from the right. But none of those upstarts, whether Parler or Truth Social, pose a real threat to the dominant platforms.

Clearly, something is wrong with the status quo. Social media demands ever more of our lives despite a growing unease with the bargain. Is there another way forward? If so, what is it?

Techno-optimists believe more tech — in particular, blockchain — can address the ails of social media.

  • Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel answer to shareholders, not voters. Social media is undemocratic. And despite the best efforts of the Facebook Oversight Board to appropriate the aesthetics of democracy, it is still just that: an aesthetic performance that ultimately exists to serve shareholders.
  • Blockchain proponents see decentralization as a means of democratizing social media and making it more transparent.
  • Minds is the most prominent attempt at creating a blockchain-based, open-source alternative. Users contribute to the governance of the site and are rewarded in Ethereum tokens that can be used to buy ads or promote posts on the site. Content moderation is performed in part by a jury of 12 randomly selected unique active users.
  • Minds CEO Bill Ottman claims this model can decrease polarization, contrary to what proponents of misinformation labels might think. “You cannot change someone’s mind if you do not give them a platform to communicate,” Ottman told Protocol.
  • Ottman believes Big Tech understands this dynamic and intentionally avoids the issue. He claims dominant social media platforms are “pushing the problem under the rug and just letting the rest of the internet handle it.”

Even the blockchain has limits. While I can understand some of the theoretical benefits of Minds, I don’t see how it poses a threat to the dominant centralized platforms. TikTok is addictive precisely because it’s guided by an extraordinarily complicated, black-box algorithm beyond human comprehension. Ottman likened transparent algorithms to food labels, and I think the analogy works in more ways than one — knowing fast food is unhealthy doesn’t make it any less addictive or pleasurable.

True change can only come from “a total destruction of the current economic model,” according to Justin EH Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris. (I interviewed Justin about his recent book, “The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is.” A full Q&A will be out later this week.)

  • “What we have right now is a digital pseudo-public space,” Smith told me. “It allows people to play as if they are exchanging ideas, when in fact, what they’re doing is playing a video game — racking up points in the form of likes and followers, based on figuring out how to game the algorithm.”
  • Smith added: “As long as that’s the only game in town… we’re all doomed. Whatever side you defend, we are all doomed because it’s not actually a forum for debate: It’s a debate-themed video game.”

As for me, I’m still trying to spend less time online. At the risk of sounding like a doomer, I don’t anticipate we’ll break free of the debate-themed game in my lifetime. Then again, I’m not trying to upend the system; I just want to eat broccoli and ponder.

— Hirsh Chitkara (email | twitter)

In Washington

Administration officials repeatedly raised ethics concerns about Eric Schmidt’s ties to employees at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, according to POLITICO. Among the links to the former Google CEO were two OSTP officials who did part-time work for a biotech initiative where Schmidt chairs the board. A separate pair of officials also “had their salaries paid through a fund with the Federation of American Scientists that Schmidt Futures pays into,” although Congress has mandated the use of consultants at the office.

OSTP is also putting together a report that assesses whether digital assets “impede or advance efforts to tackle climate change.” The report is also supposed to explore any potential benefits of crypto and blockchain technology, like how it might improve the reliability of the electricity grid.

Contractors for Google Fiber successfully unionized last week, creating the Alphabet Workers Union’s first recognized bargaining unit. The National Labor Relations Board said the win came after “a continuous union-busting effort from management.” In a response on Friday, Google emphasized that these workers were contractors and employed by BDS Solutions Group.

A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP

If you’re a CEO these days, odds are that your CIO understands something you may not: your company’s cybersecurity strategy is fundamentally flawed, and has been ever since your organization began using cloud-based services.

Learn more

In the court

Apple challenge part of the Epic Games ruling that found it was enforcing anticompetitive steering restrictions under California law. Apple and Epic are gearing up for an appeals court hearing later this year, in which Epic will challenge the ruling that went largely in Apple’s favor.

Apple is also set to incur another fine in the Netherlands for not fully complying with the alternative payments order, officials from its authority for Consumers and Markets told Reuters. “As we understand it, Apple essentially prefers paying periodic fines rather than complying with a decision of the Dutch Competition Authority,” Margrethe Vestager remarked in a speech delivered in February.

On Protocol

A former Microsoft senior director has come forward alleging the company ignored his concerns about corruption in its government contracting in the Middle East and Africa — and eventually fired him. Yasser Elabd also says US authorities let an investigation into the practices wall because of resource and operational constraints during COVID-19.

Companies are offering AI-based data analytics tools that let their customers see if cargo ships have ties to sanctioned entities. — a role that’s becoming particularly important in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing penalties launched by other nations.

The popularity of WhatsApp would seem to explain why Russia has bent over backwards to keep it (and Telegram) running in the country, despite declaring Meta an extremist organization.

Around the world

Apple and Google are really darn grumpy about Europe’s readying of new competition rules for Big Tech under the Digital Markets Act.

Google-related web pages in Russia are avoiding the use of the word “war” regarding the country’s invasion of Ukraine. A memo leaked to The Intercept shows the company specifically steeded contract translators toward euphemisms once a new censorship law came down.

Apple reportedly plans to cut iPhone SE production by 20% due to expectations of increasing inflation and the war in Ukraine, sources told Nikkei Asia.

Japan will revise its foreign exchange law to stop wealthy Russians from evading sanctions through crypto. A few weeks ago, Japan’s financial regulators ordered around 30 crypto exchanges to block transactions with any sanctions targets.

Putin’s government has somewhat successfully censored an interview that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave to four Russians. The interview is available internationally, but threats by Moscow’s news regulator seem to have compelled reporters in the country not to publish.

In data

$100,000: That’s the low end of the estimated range for special “retention grants” Apple is reportedly giving some engineers, according to Bloomberg. The special bonuses are intended to help retain engineers in a hot job market. Over the past few months, Alphabet reportedly adopted a similar bonus plan that allowed “bonuses” of nearly any size for nearly any reason.” Amazon likewise is believed to have raised its cash-pay cap to $350,000.

A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP

As a business leader, you need to understand that zero-trust is not just another buzzword. It’s a fundamentally different mindset that you will need to embrace — and the sooner you do so, the better.

Learn more

Oil tracking

A group of data scientists at Greenpeace UK created an automated tracker that discloses the location of oil and gas supertankers leaving Russian ports. The locations are broadcast on a Twitter feed. Georgia Whitaker, an oil campaigner for Greenpeace UK, told Protocol that she hopes the transition away from Russian oil and toward renewable energy will be vital for “making sure that we’re not reliant on countries with human rightss.”

Thanks for reading — see you Wednesday!

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