“We would like to propose a new paradigm.” That’s how Klitos Christodoulou, assistant professor at the Institute For the Future, an institute hosted and operated at the University of Nicosia (UNIC) in Cyprus, summarizes the bold ambitions of the EUNOMIA project, an international consortium funded by the European Commission, who proposes a decentralized and open-source social media platform.

In an interview with BlastingTalks, Christodoulou explains how EUNOMIA is using blockchain technology to create a platform that protects users’ data and give them the tools to self-verify the trustworthiness of the content they see.

What are the differences between the mainstream social media everybody uses today, like Facebook or Twitter, and blockchain-based social media?

We have all been experiencing social media and its impact – they are a catalytic part of our modern society. However, these platforms are very centralized, and also non-transparent. These characteristics are their main weak points. They have issues with transparency and - to be frank with you - they are not very much democratic with their users’ participation either, which means that they can decide to block you or enable or disable any action that you can take on the platform.

They even have the power to filter or generate the content that you choose to see.

So the main drawback of current platforms is that they are very centralized. And because they do hold all the users' data in terms of actions, their habits, their preferences, their connections, and even their behaviors within the social media platform, they do have access to precious data for them.

It is privacy data for the user, but it is like gold for them. Because they can leverage on users’ data in order to train their models, to train their clever algorithms, and from there, they can push or drive marketing campaigns, advertising, etc. So they are actually using users’ data to do what we call in the world of computer science profiling and then using intelligent algorithms to influence people.

They could also manipulate the behavior of people. This might sound extreme, but we have al seen evidence on how this was successful in the case of Cambridge Analytica.

Eunomia follows an approach that is centred around the user not only in terms of data handling but it allows the crowd to think what piece of data is misinformation or what is not.

How is the EUNOMIA project applying the principles of blockchain and how is this beneficial to users?

What we are trying to achieve with EUNOMIA is to repurpose the idea of a social media platform. And what I mean by repurposing the idea of a social media platform is that we would like to propose a new paradigm. We are actually designing a paradigm shift based on trust and a user-centric approach on fighting misinformation.

Two properties that by default are missing from traditional social media platforms. And the most exciting part is that users can perform both these actions.

We are expecting to see these properties paving the way towards the evolution of social media platforms.

So how can I trust a piece of data or a source of information? How can I self-verify that the piece of the story or whatever I’m reading, a post or any piece of story, comes from the original source and it has not been manipulated or changed? We believe that blockchain could be helpful in providing this kind of features. To summarize my thoughts, I think the most important part where blockchain could be truly useful is that we are aiming to shift the focus back to the user and give the power of controlling the data to the user.

So, we are not storing anything centralized. Everything is distributed and decentralized in what we are referring to as the EUNOMIA Service Node – a peer-to-peer network. To give control back to the user and provide transparency, all the data is guaranteed by our blockchain backbone.

So the main idea is that you're not going to have your data stored in a database from Facebook or Google, for example, companies that we know analyze our data and sell it to marketing companies in order to make money.

We are encrypting the data, we are publishing the data, we are pushing this data to the distributed environment and only the user has access to that data. Only the user can unlock the information. And not only that, we are providing proofs of the data by anchoring these pieces of data in our blockchain backbone.

Do you believe that in the upcoming years the mainstream social platforms can make the transition to a more decentralized and democratic model or only new blockchain-driven platforms will be able to change the current landscape?

Taking a close look at how these platforms work we can see that their profits are focusing on advertising and analytics on their social network platforms. This is their main business proposition, “data is gold”. Because their business model is focused on advertising, on analytics from the actual network. So I think that they have to change their business proposition to something which is more friendly to the user. I think this would be a challenge for them because I find it very difficult, unlikely for them to defend a new paradigm shift.

With EUNOMIA we would like to be more honest, more transparent to the user, but also providing tools for identifying Fake News or misinformation. We do believe that, if there are platforms out there like EUNOMIA, then we would be pushing them to reconsider their propositions since users would be looking for these characteristics that we are currently defending or proposing with EUNOMIA in the platforms that they would be using. So you have a user community, which is more ethical in terms of the treatment of data, in terms of misinformation, in terms of transparency. Then, in order to stay afloat, to stay alive, you need to reconsider your model.

One of the biggest advantages of blockchain social media is the fact that the published content is not mediated by large corporations, avoiding any type of censorship or control over users’ data.

At the same time, we are currently seeing an abundance of fake news on social media, which has led these large corporations to apply measures that inhibit the sharing of this false information. How would a blockchain system behave in a situation like this? Couldn't its freedom create a more conducive environment for the spreading of fake news?

From my perspective, technology is dangerous because humans decide to use technology to do something which is beyond the purpose of good usage. As with any new technology, we need to find an equilibrium between having freedom and control of the user behavior. Just to come back to your question on whether this freedom with blockchain could incentivize the spread of fake news or illicit activity, I guess that the simple answer to this question is that the incentive is always the key element of how we are using the technology.

So the entire blockchain ecosystem per se is based on these incentives. It is a change of philosophy. It started from the idea of decentralizing finance and now we can see the application of blockchain in many other industries. We hope that users, with the use of the technology and the tools we would be providing with EUNOMIA, will have the tendency towards participating to prevent the spreading of fake news or misinformation. And this comes from having a community where the users who generate the content are also the ones that are participating in improving or filtering misinformation. I think that we need to find the right incentives so that we can promote ethical behavior.

So, in a blockchain-based social media, users will be the ones to flag if an information is wrong or not.

The ecosystem of EUNOMIA, is helping to identify trails of similarity with previous sources of information. And then, allow the social media users to make the decision for themselves.

One of the key elements here is that we are not enforcing any decision to the user, we just provide audit trails of the information to facilitate their decision making. Using the idea of crowdsourcing, we allow users to participate and make judgments, to identify which sources are likely to be pieces of misinformation or information that could be exploited for illicit purposes. This is the kind of power we aim to give to the users.

One of the interesting things blockchain-based social media allows users to create and handle is a reputation points system.

Do you believe that this system can play an important role against the spreading of disinformation?

Blockchain technology is often deemed as “the trust machine”, due to its transparency and immutability properties. Users are thus enabled with the ability to trace the pieces of information so that they can, themselves, take actions to prevent or stop digital fraud. We have a shift towards a more decentralized, user-centric, and if you like, user-respectful environment. By default, the ecosystem of participants will exclude any activity made by advertising boards or fraud activities that are coming from algorithms.

How do you think the social media market will be in ten years' time?

One of the main concerns of traditional social media platforms now is who is controlling them.

Usually is a big organization. I think that the next evolution of social media platforms will be governed by people, by the actual users of the platform. That is one of the basics, one of the fundamental principles of blockchain technology, which is an ecosystem sustained by multiple participants that do have aligned incentives. For these reasons, the ecosystem of the social media platforms will push towards having clear roles and responsibilities governed by the user, not by some central authority.

How much do you think people are prepared now for something like this?

People are now more conscious about the treatment of their data. They have seen how artificial intelligence has the potential to derive insights from their data and how these insights could be used for unethical purposes.

They are more conscious of privacy. They know that privacy is an important factor. I think that users are actually reacting to change, they are seeking change. The world wide web has grown to a large ecosystem which is often controlled by centralization. The aim of the blockchain community is to open it up. This is where the technology of decentralization is heading, to open up the technological stack. That’s why we are talking today about decentralization in blockchains, decentralized finance, even, let’s say, decentralized governments, the way they make their decisions, the way we are voting. It is an entirely new ecosystem, and I guess people have been asking for more.

Read the interviews with George Loukas, Sorin Adam Matei, and Pinelopi Troullinou, all part of the BlastingTalks series about EUNOMIA. Blasting News is one of the partners of the EU funded consortium that is developing EUNOMIA.