Trolling, hate speech and fake news have become a staple of the current online media diet.
What should we do about it?
A common insistence, in particular from online newspapers, is that people sign with their full name. That is a poor solutions for the following reasons:
- There is presently no easy way to enforce that people actually write using their full name.
- It does not seem to improve people’s behavior.
- Anonymity is something to actually cherish about the online world. Without anonymity, people can not easily voice their opinions in oppressive regimes, or simply say something which risk getting you fired from your job.
Hence any solution to the vulgar state of online discussions, has to find a way to accommodate anonymity. To come up with a solution it is useful to analyze exactly why people behave so much worse online than in the meatspace (otherwise known as face to face, in real life).
Reputation Doesn’t Matter
If I decide to be a terrible person online, I put nothing at stake. If I get banned from every possible forum for bad behavior I can simply create a new online personality in minutes.
In real life, you only got one presence. If you insult people and act like an asshole in your local community, there is no easy way to undo the damage, besides perhaps changing jobs or moving to another city or neighborhood. That is a significantly more costly affair than registering a new online presence.
There are no Rewards for Good Behavior
People can click thumbs up, hear, +1 and do a number of other things to signal their appreciating of a comment, message or post online. However this system is severely limited in a number of ways.
Each post is an island. People don’t really accumulate points.
People are voted up or down, but there is no distinction between:
- An argument you agree with.
- A well reasoned argument.
- Civility towards opponents.
- Who up-votes you. Being vouched for by someone of high respectability ought to matter more than being vouch for by somebody of poor reputation.
Reputation has to be made to matter. An online profile with an accumulated good reputation has to carry some value.
It means we cannot let people keep creating new identities which carries none of the accumulated bad reputations of the past.
Until a few years ago there was no good way of handling trust based information like user identity without a trusted third party like a particular news site. This made using IDs across sits difficult as it involves trusting one particular third party service. Google might not want to rely on e.g. Facebook for their identification schemes, just as Facebook would not want to rely on Google.
Using an Independent Service to Define Identifiers
Blockchain technologies such as Bitcoin shows a way around this problem. The most obvious example in this case of a system suitable for IDs would be the Ethereum network. It is like a large distributed database, where individual entries can’t be arbitrarily changed by a third party. People can only change data belonging to them through the usage of Ether crypto currency. Alternatively they can change state by invoking API calls on services/programs stored on this distributed database referred to as smart contracts. Anybody can create smart contracts and store them in the Etherium distributed database (blockchain) as long as they pay Ether for it. No single entity controls this purchase however. The cost of a contract is calculated from its complexity by the software running on the Etherium nodes.
An Etherium smart contract could thus be use to create and store identities.
Vouch System of Identity Creation
Anybody could create an identity online by invoking a smart contract. However this will create a low starting reputation.
The creators could start by identifying public personalities with good reputation. That means people who are known to stick to facts or making reasonable arguments and who avoid insults and ad-hominem attacks.
These could then hand out reputation to applicants. If they know you, and hold you in high regard they can boost your reputation through a smart contract transaction. This could be a cascading system so that anybody could raise the reputation of others but only proportional to their own reputation.
Hence this would work a bit like Google search. Not every hit gets equal weight. Rather they are weighted according to how many other sites point to them. Likewise a person could gain high reputation by being vouched for by many other people of high reputation.
Reputations could be linked, so if you reputation is boosted by being vouched for by somebody with a high reputation, however should that person fall in disrepute, the reputation boost you got from that person would get diminished.
To avoid that the system gets exploited, getting vouched for by many people of average reputation should matter more than getting vouched for by a single person of outstanding reputation.
And we should avoid the mistake of reducing a person to just a single numbers. Rather it should be possible to rate people along several axis:
- Knowledge. Does the person usually show a high level of insight in discussions?
- Manners. One could behave badly in discussion online even if one is both knowledgable and honest.
- Bias. To what degree is the person always favoring one side in a debate?
These are just suggestions. We could have fewer, more or different aspects which people can get rated on.
Various news sites could devise systems for rewarding people commenting on e.g. their news articles or videos. They could for instance have quizzes which people can take to prove that they read an article properly before commenting. Those who score better will get rewards or better weighting of their comments.
Anonymity and New Personalities
To maintain anonymity it is useful to allow people to create different personalities in different forums. One use-case is that a person might have accidentally revealed their identity. Hence an ID should work somewhat like cryptographic certificates. You can use an online ID to create new ones. This ID will inherit the reputation of parent ID. And actions which cause damage to the child ID would also damage the parent ID. However other users should not be able to see that these two IDs are related.
This way you can show or prove the reputation of an ID you own, without revealing what you have written, liked or encourage with another ID. Hence you can live in a dictatorship and speak out against it online, while at the same time proving to the regime that you have a high reputation without revealing that you are critical of them.
For people to actually care about accumulated reputation or rating, it has to actually provide some sort of benefits. Otherwise people have no stake in maintaining and keeping an identity.
Discussion forums could e.g. offer users filters, so that low ranking commenters are commented out.
High ranking could give increasing levels of moderator powers. E.g. somebody who has proven themselves to behave very well and balanced could automatically on a new site have the power to ban or kick people out from a discussion forum. That means you have a sort of de-facto police force in the online world which can keep order.
Companies or Universities could e.g. ask to see online reputation. As stated earlier this doesn’t mean giving away what you have uttered online, unless you specifically want to. Maintaining a good online ID then becomes a bit like maintaining a good credit score. It gives you an opportunity to prove something about your character to somebody who doesn’t know you.
This creates an incentive to be a good citizen online.