Is political extremism tarnishing blockchain by association?


The attack on the U.S. Capitol last month led to the deplatforming of former President Donald Trump from Twitter and Facebook. Amazon, Apple and Google stopped hosting Parler, a free speech app that had been the platform of choice for many sympathetic to extremist, far-right ideas. Gab, an alt-Twitter app that is home to right-wing incendiaries like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones, has been accused of enabling the attack by allowing violent-provoking speech on the platform.

Despite this, the Gab user base has surged since the attack. Other privacy-focused chat apps like Telegram — which reported gaining 25 million new users in the 72 hours following the Capitol storming — are also benefiting from the backlash against Twitter and Facebook, especially after Facebook’s WhatsApp changed its privacy policy to allow for the sharing of personal information with Facebook and Facebook-owned platforms. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, blockchain-powered chat and live-streaming decentralized applications (DApps) are gaining attention as well. Decentralized live streaming site DLive, for example, was used by some of the insurgents on Jan. 6 to share their videos of their takeover. It could very well be that the combination of the attack on the Capitol, deplatforming of former President Trump, and subsequent withdrawal of major hosting services for “free speech” apps appearing sympathetic to the attackers’ goals is the flame that lights the fire for mainstream adoption of DApps. 

The big question for the blockchain community is whether this adoption, led by extremists, is good or bad.

The adoption of DApps could follow a similar trajectory to bitcoin. Remember Silk Road? The black market site that used Tor to maintain anonymity and allowed users to buy and sell illegal drugs was one of the first platforms to demonstrate bitcoin’s usability. The early ties to Silk Road created a public relations problem for the then-fledgling cryptocurrency, but the dark marketplace proved that bitcoin was an effective digital currency for use in online transactions. 

See related article: Distribution strategy may be the key to blockchain adoption

With bitcoin prices now soaring above US$50,000, it seems the digital currency has mostly overcome its early negative associations. Even while many people continue to associate bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies with criminal activity, entrepreneurs, developers and millions of users are embracing cryptocurrencies and the power of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies to transform society. Like any tool, blockchain is merely a technology and isn’t responsible for the way people use it — whether for good or for ill. 

The question then becomes, how can we shape blockchain’s trajectory to support the positive values the technology promises?

By giving users control over their own data and value, blockchain supports privacy, censorship resistance, and community governance. The key to delivering on these values comes down to incentives.

We put a good deal of faith into entrepreneurs and developers designing the systems of finance, communications, entertainment and other sectors that will form the basis for our future society. Those creating these platforms and protocols must determine what values are reflected in the design of the underlying governance systems. Is it one token, one vote? Or does that give too much power to the token-wealthy? Should the wisdom of the crowd be responsible for determining which films, books, plays, and art gets made, or does that not leave enough space for independent thinkers? We know from history that the majority doesn’t always make the best decisions, and so incorporation of minority ideas and the knowledge of experts is something to consider. 

If DApp adoption continues to explode, will DApps be prepared for the mass influx of users? 

Scalability and user experience remain the two greatest challenges in this respect. Well before the events at the Capitol unfolded on Jan. 6, The Block Research group issued a report predicting that DApp scalability will begin competing with that of centralized services in 2021. Deployment of zk-SNARKs, an application of zero-knowledge proofs, could be the most notable development in scalability, as zk-SNARKs are privacy-preserving and can be used to reduce the amount of data needed to maintain records of the entire blockchain history for verification of state correctness. 

See related article: Data privacy is forever changed. Zero-knowledge proofs are enterprise’s solution

Blockchain platforms are infamous for user experiences that appeal first to developers, with ease of use for non-engineers as an afterthought. The more DApps resemble their centralized counterparts, but with better privacy, user controls and community-led governance, the faster DApps will supplant the types of social media sites that far right-wing sympathizers are revolting against. As much as blockchain technology has developed since its inception, DApps are a very long way from overtaking the 2.7 billion users on Facebook. 

As the scalability and user experience issues are addressed, DApps will become more mainstream, and the more moderate opinions of the majority could start to drown out the dangerous fringe views on the political extremes. Though no single DApp developer or team or community can ensure the Web 3.0 will be better than its predecessor, by focusing on incentivizing positive actions within decentralized communities and improving scalability and usability, we have a pretty good shot of getting there.