On Wednesday, September 5, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified in congressional hearings, one by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and another by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. These hearings come amid controversy over – and distrust of – Twitter from both sides of the aisle. There has been much ado about the role the platform played in misinformation campaigns leading up to the 2016 presidential election that sowed partisan divisions and spurred hate speech.
These misinformation campaigns spread false reports supporting both liberal and conservative ideologies, but stories supporting conservative ideologies allegedly had a much wider reach. In reaction, platforms like Facebook and Twitter have made attempts to block the spread of misinformation and related hate speech. However, some have voiced concerns that this has led to censorship of conservative voices on the platforms.
Throughout both hearings, Dorsey emphasized his view of Twitter as a platform for the "open and free exchange of ideas." In his opening statement to the Senate intelligence committee, Dorsey referenced "more than 30 policy and product changes designed to foster information integrity." In a statement read to the committee, and simultaneously posted on Twitter, Dorsey emphasized Twitter's nonpartisanship:
However, there is evidence to suggest concerns over censorship of conservative voices are legitimate. On July 25, Vice News reported that "Twitter is limiting the visibility of prominent Republicans in search results – a technique known as 'shadow banning' – in what it says is a side effect of its attempts to improve the quality of discourse on the platform." This report, along with a number of other instances of Twitter censoring conservative voices, was cited in the pre-committee meeting memo sent out on August 31.
In response to these concerns, Dorsey pointed to algorithmic bias. He argued that these biases do not reflect Twitter's values and that the company does its best to address and erase these biases as they are recognized.
Dorsey's response highlights an important fact in the blockchain world. Many proponents of decentralization and automation point to human error and bias as primary motivating factors. The thinking seems to be that people are the issue and computers could do it better. But the Twitter algorithm bias shows that's not necessarily the case (because people write the algorithms).
And this brings me to Dorsey's comments on blockchain. California Democratic congresswoman Doris Matsui brought up the question of blockchain to the room, referencing Dorsey's past remarks about the technology as a potential means "to verify identity to fight misinformation scams." Congresswoman Matsui asked Dorsey, "What potential applications do you see for blockchain?"
To which he replied:
"We need to start with the problems that we are trying to solve and the problems we're solving for our customers and then look at all available technology in order to understand if it can help us or accelerate or make those outcomes much better. So blockchain is one that I think has a lot of untapped potential, specifically around distributed trust and distributed enforcement potentially. We haven't gone as deep as we'd like just yet, in understanding how we might use this technology to address the problems we're facing at twitter, but we do have people within the company thinking about it today."
Jack Dorsey's comments are sufficiently vague to make exacting analysis impossible. He's clear that Twitter does not, at least yet, have any active plans to deploy blockchain solutions to any of it's problems. But which problems is Twitter attempting to solve exactly? If it's to identify misinformation, then any distributed enforcement mechanism would rely on people. And it seems pretty clear that the public is not great at identifying false information. At the same time, Twitter's algorithm has shown itself to be plenty capable of censorship and bias.
Still, distribution of enforcement responsibility across a decentralized network could at least remove the metaphorical target from Twitter, particularly if the rules were decided by public consensus. Dorsey's best hope may be that combining two flawed systems – algorithms and decentralized networks – under a distributed enforcement strategy allows for a more perfect approach.