Twitter founder says ‘free speech debate’ a distraction

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The founder of Twitter made some insightful remarks this week in a discussion about the future of social media and its power over billions of users around the world.

Jack Dorsey, who spoke at the Oslo Freedom Forum in slippers and a seemingly intentionally torn baseball cap, is clearly no ordinary billionaire.

After leaving the helm of one of the most powerful social media platforms of all time, Dorsey has intensified his criticism of the major players in the social media space.

In addition, he is an ardent supporter of open source software, which at its core promises more freedom and rights for Internet users around the world.

Speaking to macroeconomics expert Lyn Alden, Dorsey shared his thoughts on the current social media model, which tailors content to individual users by constantly gathering information about their likes and dislikes.

“This is going to sound a little crazy, but I think the debate about free speech is a complete distraction right now. I think the real debate should be about free will,” he said.

“We are feeling it right now because we are being programmed.

“We are programmed based on what we say or what we are interested in.

“And through these discovery mechanisms, we are told what is interesting. And as we engage and interact with this content, the algorithm builds up this bias more and more.”

The technology behind social media companies’ insatiable desire to keep you on their platform is massive, and a little scary if you believe in age-old principles like privacy.

Everything from the average watch time of each video to how often you share things with friends, even when your eyes wander off the screen while content is playing, is at stake for the social media giants.

Now open Instagram and go to the Reels tab.

Your feed may resemble that of your friend next to you, but not quite. Just like a fingerprint, your algorithm is unique and expands every second you spend on the platform.

This data is regularly sold to the highest bidder in order to sell you products that, depending on the app, appear randomly every ten videos you scroll through.

It’s incredibly convenient, almost like a shopping mall made just for you and your (hopefully) impulsive buying habits.

But the fact that we have moved so quickly into this brave new world of data collection dominated by a handful of tech billionaires is something humanity needs to rethink, according to Dorsey.

Although the economic benefits are enormous, the 47-year-old believes that our right to understand how we are manipulated by algorithms outweighs even our right to freedom of expression.

“But the algorithm, even though it’s open source, is practically a black box. You can’t predict 100 percent how it will work or what it will show you,” he said.

“And it can be moved and changed at any time – and because people become so dependent on it, it actually impacts our freedom of action.

“I think the only answer to this is not to work more on making algorithms open source or more explainable, but to give people a choice.”

In recent years, there have been cases of groups with nefarious interests using social media algorithms to influence elections. In 2021, MIT Technology Review published a report revealing that foreign troll farms had reached 140 million Americans every month in the run-up to the 2020 election.

This happened after the platform began serving users content from pages they had not initially followed.

This phenomenon opened up a wealth of opportunities for those who took the time to understand exactly what the algorithm was prioritizing.

The larger the organization, the more resources it can devote to working out the finer details to further advance its content.

“Instead of users choosing to receive content from these actors, it is our platform that chooses to [these troll farms] an enormous reach,” wrote Jeff Allen, a former senior data scientist at Facebook.

Therefore, Dorsey said, future technologies should be developed with the dignity of each individual user in mind.

“We need to give people the choice of which algorithm they want to use, from a party they trust,” he said.

“Also give people the ability to develop their own algorithm that they can plug into these networks to see what they want.

“(It would) give people the opportunity to have a marketplace around an algorithm of their choice.”

There has also been a lot of debate about whether social media apps are listening in on your conversations, with users sometimes reporting that they are shown advertisements for things they just started talking about just a few hours later.

It could be a new barbecue you’ve been discussing with your partner or a pair of boots you’ve been meaning to buy on sale. The next moment, ads for those products will appear in your feed.

But Meta, the company that runs Facebook and Instagram, insists it is not eavesdropping.

“No. We understand that sometimes ads can be so specific that it seems like we need to listen to your conversations through your microphone, but we don’t. We only use your microphone if you’ve given us permission to do so and are actively using a feature that requires the microphone,” Meta said.

“If you want more control over how your information affects the ads we show you, there are a few ways to do that. You can view some ad-specific settings in your Ads Settings, or view your information and remove things you don’t want us to use.”

What is open source?

Open source refers to software that is made available to the public free of charge and whose source code is openly accessible so that anyone can view, modify and improve it. The term open source goes beyond software and includes any project or product where the design and implementation details are accessible to anyone.

Dorsey has long been an advocate of open source software, arguing that the online world would be a far more unified environment if the tools to create software were freely distributed without any restrictions.

This ensures that the software reaches a wide audience and can be used in different contexts, allowing developers to study how the software works and make changes to it.

This philosophy is strictly against patents and argues that monopolization of software as we move online is not in the best interest of humanity.

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