Launches ambitious cross-disciplinary effort to build healthier social networks
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The MIT Center for Constructive Communication (CCC) and closely affiliated non-profit Cortico today announced the launch of a broad-based effort that draws on expertise in face-to-face human dialogue, digital networks, and machine learning to develop safe and trusted spaces for meaningful, non-polarizing human connection and civic impact. This effort has attracted commitments of $21 million from philanthropic individuals and organizations, including a foundational gift from the international nonprofit Project Liberty. Of the total commitments, $8.5 million is directed to research conducted by CCC in collaboration with MIT’s Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC), and the remainder to Cortico.
The goal is to develop and deploy technologies and methods to accelerate more trusted and meaningful communications within and across communities. Initial projects will research and experiment with new forms of social networks grounded in small group dialogue and decentralized social network designs, including the open-source Decentralized Social Networking Protocol (DSNP) that was released by Project Liberty in 2021. Other planned projects include the development of AI-powered sensemaking tools for community listening, as well as hardware to integrate real-life conversations with digital networks. These combined efforts focus on providing healthier alternatives to the current social media platforms controlled by dominant tech companies.
“With growing evidence that social media is weakening our social fabric and threatening our democracy, it’s critical that we find new ways forward,” said CCC Director Deb Roy, MIT professor of media arts and sciences and co-founder and CEO of Cortico. “While we acknowledge that whatever new platform we develop won’t be able to compete with social media platforms for entertainment value, they can provide alternative scalable spaces for trusted and civil public discourse that is so critical for rebuilding a healthy democracy.”
The work enabled by this gift will advance CCC’s research in sensemaking, machine learning, and digital design through a close collaboration with Cortico, which will work with CCC to develop prototypes that can then be translated into scalable solutions. These efforts involve launching pilot programs with a wide network of community organizations to evaluate which tools offer the greatest potential to create more trusted, less divisive communication.
Research is based at the Media Lab with growing collaborations with the Sociotechnical Systems Research Center (SSRC), another recipient of this gift along with the CCC, and the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS).
“This effort will draw on MIT’s strong cross-disciplinary research tradition to address the increasingly divisive nature of today’s social media culture. I look forward to seeing how this collaboration’s in-depth research in AI, sensemaking, machine learning, and digital design will come together to help create more trusted social networks that will foster more meaningful and constructive dialogues,” said Maria T. Zuber, E.A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and vice president for research at MIT.
This initiative will leverage a longstanding cooperative agreement between researchers at MIT and Cortico that enables collaboration on intellectual property, prototyping, and field pilots. In addition to Project Liberty, the effort is supported by Reid Hoffman, the Quadrivium Foundation, Yat Siu, the Knight Foundation, and Ray Chambers/MCJ Amelior Foundation.
Frank McCourt, founder and executive chairman of Project Liberty, sees support for this new initiative as “a critical investment to strengthen democracy” that will highlight the importance of comprehensive, collaborative action. “If we do this right,” said McCourt, “the dominance of a few Goliathan social media platforms will give way to a thousand Davids that support healthier digital communities and serve society at large.”
“We at Project Liberty are committed to developing and delivering cutting-edge technology designed for the public good and helping to build an internet that puts people over platforms and enables constructive civic discourse,” said Martina Larkin, CEO of Project Liberty. “The work under way at MIT’s CCC and at Cortico, in collaboration with Project Liberty, will be critical to advancing this effort.”
Fostering collaborations across the MIT campus and beyond, the MIT Center for Constructive Communication (CCC),based at the MIT Media Lab, leverages data-driven analytics to better understand current social and mass media ecosystems and designs new tools and communication networks to foster constructive dialogue, listening, and bridging across divides. To achieve this, CCC brings together researchers in AI, computational social science, digital interactive design, and learning technologies with software engineers, journalists, political scientists, designers, and community organizers. An important aspect of the center is its commitment to designing new models for more trusted and less toxic social networks.
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Cortico maintains a long-term cooperation agreement with MIT that enables close collaboration with the MIT Center of Constructive Communication (CCC) on intellectual property, prototyping, and field pilots. It is through Cortico that CCC deploys scalable projects into the field and works closely with experienced, locally based organizations and trusted influencers in underserved, marginalized communities across the country to help facilitate face-to-face conversation and surface diverse voices and nuanced perspectives needed to advance a more constructive and trusted public dialogue. To date, Cortico’s growing network has involved more than 10,000 participants throughout 38 US states, working with more than 70 local and global organizations.
Project Liberty is an international nonprofit accelerating the world’s transition to an open, inclusive data economy that empowers people over platforms by working to mobilize the foundation of a new internet for the common good. Project Liberty is building a global alliance for responsible technology and bringing together technologists, academics, policymakers, civil society and citizens to build a safer, healthier tech ecosystem.
What is the scope of work that will be supported through CCC’s and Cortico’s engagement with Project Liberty?
CCC’s and Cortico’s engagement with Project Liberty will be focused on developing and deploying technologies and methods to accelerate more trusted and meaningful communications both within and across communities. This includes, but is not limited to, a social dialogue app designed to scale participation of individuals; a sensemaking platform to be used by a range of participating community, educational, and civic organizations; listening hardware to support in-person engagement; and explorations of new distributed social network protocols. Through this work, CCC and Cortico will seek to provide healthier alternatives to the current social media platforms, a goal that is a critical part of Project Liberty’s missions.
How does this work expand the current focus of CCC’s and Cortico’s agendas?
The funds commitment by Project Liberty and others will permit an increased commitment to – and accelerated pace for – research and experiment with decentralized social network designs, including the open-source Decentralized Social Network Protocol (DSNP), that was released by Project Liberty in 2021.The resources will also support the launch and scale of a youth-oriented social dialogue platform. This includes work that catalyzes a network that draws on three areas of youth social life: education (within and outside of schools); youth-led organizations; and social organizations designed for youth. Most importantly, this effort will support and build a network of youth leaders who are already active in civic life but currently lack the tools our platform will provide.
When this work is sufficiently far along to support the necessary functionality, CCC will add an identity layer of its social networking app into the network and thus unlock the ability for other applications to tap into the communities formed through field deployments. Furthermore, DSNP applications could draw from the app’s privacy and consent features and provide the ecosystem with a richer set of tools to facilitate healthy dialogue. In time, this social network would be a prime example of how a healthy system can be built on top of DSNP.
What is the relationship between CCC and Cortico?
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Cortico maintains a long-term cooperation agreement with MIT for collaboration on IP, prototyping, and field pilots. This agreement, renewed for 10 years in 2022, enables CCC researchers to efficiently transfer research from the lab for deployment into scalable projects in the field. CCC benefits from access to tools and data from Cortico, as well as the opportunity to involve MIT students in on-the-ground social impact work. Cortico, in turn, benefits from access to the full scope of CCC’s research in areas such as creating technologies to facilitate face-to-face human dialogue, developing large-scale language models to aid sensemaking, and designing communications spaces that preserve identity and promote equity.
What is Project Liberty?
Project Liberty is an international nonprofit accelerating the world’s transition to an open, inclusive data economy that empowers people over platforms by working to mobilize the foundation of a new internet for the common good. Project Liberty is building a global alliance for responsible technology and bringing together technologists, academics, policymakers, civil society and citizens to build a safer, healthier tech ecosystem. It was founded by Frank McCourt and publicly launched in 2021 and is currently led by CEO Martina Larkin.
How will CCC and Cortico work together on this initiative? Will there be areas specific to CCC and others that will be specific to Cortico?
CCC research staff and graduate students will conduct the majority of research and development of new technologies as an interdisciplinary effort across MIT. The Cortico team will work alongside CCC researchers to push this research out into the world. This includes developing and deploying listening hardware to support in-person engagement, and calling on its years of experience to engage diverse communities across the country in facilitated-listening activities.
What is the relationship between Project Liberty’s McCourt Institute and MIT?
Project Liberty support establishes the Project Liberty Constructive Communication Fund at MIT. Project Liberty’s McCourt Institute, established in 2021 with founding partners Sciences Po and Georgetown University, supports a wide range of activities to advance technology for the common good, including its support for cutting-edge research.
Will there continue to be CCC and Cortico projects outside the scope of the social dialogue network initiative?
Yes. While the work on a new decentralized social networking platform will be a major focus of this initiative’s research, CCC and Cortico will continue to conduct research in additional areas. Examples include developing data-driven, AI-powered tools to aid institutions and people seeking to communicate effectively across divides; socially aware language models for community understanding and constructive dialogue; and the development of new tools for visualizing community dialogue data.
Will the launch of a new social dialogue network initiative change the focus of the CCC Consortium? Will there be an opportunity for Consortium members to get involved in this expanded effort?
The launch of the new social dialogue network initiative will not change the focus of the CCC Consortium, but will give Consortium members the opportunity to contribute to the initiative’s research and eventual deployment.
Why is developing new social network protocols deemed so important for “fixing” social media?
The key importance of building and developing decentralized network protocols is to move control of content away from one central company – the model of current major social media platforms – and give control back to the data’s owners. Such a decentralized network would create more of a peer-to-peer and community-to-community interaction, where you are free to build apps or provide services that can all work together, free from the centralized control of large, for-profit companies.