User-Oriented, Secure, Trustful and Decentralized Social Media

April 21st, 2021 by

EUNOMIA’s partners Pinelopi Troullinou (Trilateral Research), Nelson Escravana (INOV) and Sorin A. Matei (SIMAVI) participated in a webinar organized by the Decentralized Series of the University of Nicosia. Soulla Louca (UNIC), also partner of EUNOMIA, was the moderator of the discussion.

The event took place on March 16, 2021 and was followed live by 200 people.  The discussion revolved around the following topics.

  1. The role of information trustworthiness and decentralization in social media
  2. Key technologies that enable the development of decentralized social media platforms
  3. The ethical and societal aspects of such platforms
  4. Use cases such as the EUNOMIA project

In this post, we summarize the main points discussed in the webinar.

Misinformation is not a new phenomenon.  Occurrences of misinformation have been reported from the pre-printing era.  With the rise of digital media and channels the spread of the news, whether fake or not is done at an accelerated rate. The information era has converted traditional societies into digital, resulting in an exponential increase of the rate at which misinformation is proliferated as well as the potential audience for consumption. Results may be devastated, ranging from simply destroying trust, to ruining businesses and people’s lives.

Technology does not only enable the widespread of misinformation but also provides innovative ways to produce false content including text, images, and videos with the intent to deceive people, leveraging powerful techniques from machine learning and artificial intelligence to manipulate or generate audio and visual content.  The use of blockchain technology in a social media platform supports transparency in the system in order for the people to determine if the news is false or not. In addition, it permits their traceability and immutability. Blockchain-enabled applications can trace the authenticity of news from the start till the present, preventing the readers to fall for the misinformation as it cannot be altered, changed or deleted.

Importance of trustworthiness

The word “trust” is usually perceived as something good.  Something that we need within our society and we expect from the technology we interact with.  Looking at it from the cyber security perspective, trust is actually the root of the problems that exist in security as the difficulties begin when you need to trust something and that something you trust is not working as expected. We are placing our trust on businesses, banks, regulators, on the member states, on the EU and many more.  When it comes to social media, trust is placed to mainly private companies that we believe they will handle our data correctly and that their technology is good enough to protect them.

Trust can be good and can be bad. Good trust is the one that gives you the opportunity to take good decisions based on data and bad trust is when you trust something and even when there are indicators that you should not, you still keep on trusting it. Decentralization on the other hand, enables trust between unknown parties. Trust is spread among a group and as long as that group is mostly honest it works.  So, decentralization in social media is not only a solution for the trustworthiness problem that we have today but also the future as social media consists of the centralization of opinions and the centralization of information sources.

If we have the ability to recognize what information we can trust, we can have the ability to act upon it so to slow down the spread of misinformation. It is equally important in terms of trustworthiness to move to platforms that support trustworthiness in its essence and address other pathogens that we can see now on social media like censorship privacy etc. Decentralized systems that are based on open source software they can play a key role as they allow users to assess the data in a network, giving more control and autonomy to them while promoting transparency.  In that sense trust is enhanced and moved towards the community and the key technologies for enabling information trustworthiness and decentralization.

Key Technologies

One of the key technologies is open source social media platforms.  When we get out of the mainstream corporate social media, then we can actually decentralize. There is no reason for a corporate social media platform to be decentralized as it is managed and governed by a single entity. Another important technology is peer-to-peer communication networks and that allow us to exchange information without having a central hub where all the data is stored. In addition, we need a technology we can trust for authentication and integrity of the data, a technology that will enforce governance principles and protect the data that is stored on all these platforms. For that, blockchain plays a central role as it is like an entity you can trust but by nature, it is decentralized. So, trust is not placed on a single entity but a quorum of entities.   

Societal Dimensions

The vision around decentralized social media networks looks towards a utopian future that ensures users’ privacy to provide them total control over their personal data. It is like a network based solely on users’ votes and without a single authority to make changes. Trust is placed on the community. When we develop these decentralized networks, we need to take into consideration how the operation of decentralized social media platforms will ensure freedom of expression while at the same time they will protect the users from damaging the content. In addition, they need to promise advanced security and privacy without users having to reveal their personal data. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that new security threats might arise in this new era in social media like for example managing public keys.

Another social dimension to consider is that of transparency. This is probably one of the factors that need to be considered when you create a decentralized privacy system as there is a natural trade-off between transparency and privacy. 

A new trust model is required, a model that ensures transparency, accountability, without revealing the integrity of the users and safeguarding privacy. Such technology is available nowadays. The above properties can be achieved through decentralized systems that rely on cryptographic protocols but there are several debates in regards to back-dooring cryptography which is used by authorities, to intercept communications by terrorists and criminals. But this is the same technology that can protect us on a decentralized setting creating a trustful environment for us. There has to be a balance to the needs of the authorities with the needs of a decentralized mechanism for distributing media, or even other types of communication such as the protocols for e-voting, for our bank accounts or sending messages since the same cryptographic primitives are used.

EUNOMIA

EUNOMIA is a multidisciplinary ongoing EU-funded project that proposes a new paradigm that utilizes information trustworthiness and decentralization. It is the first social media environment designed to prioritize trust over likes. It is supported by a unique peer-to-peer and blockchain infrastructure. 
EUNOMIA uses a federated social media platform, currently mastodon, but it is independent from the actual platform. Decentralization is supported by a distributed and decentralized peer-to-peer file system where data resides and access control is enforced by cryptographic primitives that are backed up by blockchain. Blockchain plays the role of the trusted entity to store keys and manage permissions as well as implement the network governance principles. An open-ended e-voting protocol allows users to vote on the trustworthiness of posts while preserving their anonymity.

Challenges Ahead

Some of the open challenges that exist include the adoption by critical mass along with a technology that will address ethical and social concerns while keeping the diversity.

In EUNOMIA, our aim is to address all of the above issues and provide society with at user-oriented and trustful decentralized platform that will mitigate misinformation.

EUNOMIA’s blockchain engine acts as a trust machine

April 14th, 2021 by

Data integrity is a term that refers to the reliability and assurance (validity) of data. One of the main challenges of social media is how to create assurances of data validity, at the same time safeguarding that the data have not been tampered.

In EUNOMIA, all posts are annotated with a “magic” icon (see the image below). When this special icon appears on a post, it means that its blockchain technology guarantees that the integrity of the data e.g., number of trusts, the number of followers and other information related to the post have not been tampered by any administrator or cyber attacker. However, it does not validate whether the post is trustworthy or not. This is for you to decide!

But why is data integrity so important? In cyberspace, online data are likely to be exposed to data manipulations by malicious actors that could use this to their advantage. Especially in social media such actors are distributing compromised pieces of data to their advantage, either to make others act on such data by spreading misinformation (e.g., propagate rumors) or by leveraging on the credibility of other people to claim authorship on certain pieces of digital work (either in plain text or in some visual form).

From the other hand, the actual content creators of such digital artifacts would like to guarantee data integrity towards their online communities (i.e., consumers) of such data. Lastly, and most importantly, they would like to be ensured that there are safeguards in place preventing such manipulation events from happening by other online users.

But how can one certify and prove that the data being presented are free from any data manipulation? EUNOMIA is using a trust engine which builds on a blockchain backbone to provide integrity assurance of the information stored. In addition, the blockchain layer of EUNOMIA creates audit trails of the information to log all the state changes or revisions made to the data.

But isn’t this the same as logging data in some database? Audit trails stored in the same way as the application data are equally vulnerable to tampering and manipulation attacks. There is no mechanism to make hard assertions about data integrity or validate the integrity of such data. In EUNOMIA, we are using a blockchain backbone to make such assertions that can validate the integrity of arbitrary data, and provide for traceability.

But how is this ensured? Blockchain technology builds on a peer-to-peer network where clients (aka nodes) maintain replicas of a distributed data structure (i.e., the blockchain). This data structure organizes pieces of information in the so-called blocks that are linked together with the use of a cryptographic hash function. In brief, the cryptographic hash function is used to create hashes of the information from each block that are linked with each other; since the hash of a block encapsulates the hash of the previous block as a pointer, thus forming a reversed linked list (aka the chain).

This unique characteristic of this data structure is critical for ensuring data integrity. If an attacker attempts to change any piece of information within a past block then the hash of the block changes, resulting in an unresolved pointer breaking the chain. This unreferenced block will not be accepted by the rest of the network.

In addition to cryptographic hashes that build a unique data structure, a blockchain network employs a safeguard mechanism (so-called consensus) that allows independent nodes to, coordinate, approve, and agree on which data should be appended on the data structure. Since the consensus algorithm operates under a distributed environment this ensures that there is no single point of failure, and no central control of the information that could be compromised.

EUNOMIA’s blockchain backbone leverages on the unique characteristics of: blockchain-based hash validation, and consensus offered by the technology to safeguard data attestations and guarantee the integrity of the data.

Exploring political bias in false information spread on social media

February 24th, 2021 by

Social media has become a key source of online news consumption. However, at the same time, social media users are not passive news consumers. They can further distribute online information to their networks and beyond. It is easy then to understand how information that is not always factual or information that promotes hate and violence can be amplified on social media.

This use of social media has an unimaginable impact on the real world as many recent events have shown. One such example is that of the Capitol deadly attack in January 2021, in which social media had a major role to play. Misinformation regarding the transparency of the election process had been spread through social media generating distrust and anger against the newly elected president. Riots are also said to be organised through groups on social media.

It is evident, that social media and misinformation can be harmful and from a political perspective it can threaten democracy. Through our work in the EUNOMIA project, we adopted an interdisciplinary approach to examine political bias in the engagement with false information.

EUNOMIA, a 3-year EU-funded Innovation project, aims to shift the culture in which we use social media focusing on trust, nudging social media users to prioritise critical engagement with online information before they react to it. To this end, it provides a toolkit that supports social media users to assess information trustworthiness. In developing effective solutions, it is necessary to understand the human and societal factors of misinformation.

Our interdisciplinary approach

Within the project, our interdisciplinary team at Trilateral Research leads the work of understanding the social and political considerations in the verification of social media misinformation, and the findings directly feed into further development of the tools. Our approach involved three key stages:

  • Stage 1 – TRI’s social scientists undertook desk-based research to understand the political challenges associated with verifying social media information. This provided insights on how political affinity can influence engagement with misinformation
  • Stage 2 – 19 interviews were conducted with citizens, traditional media journalists, and social media journalists by social scientists. The interviews highlighted how the language used on social media can indicate political bias. Furthermore, information and sources which are politically biased or radicalised are not perceived to be trustworthy.
  • Stage 3 – Building on the findings from stages 1 and 2, Trilateral’s technical team undertook a social network analysis to gain insights on the role of political bias in the engagement with misinformation on social media.

Stage 3 involved the team examining a network of 579 influential Twitter accounts of UK Members of Parliament and a sample of 49 false information accounts. Using UK politics as a case study, enabled the technical team to contribute to the existing heavily US-focused research.

The analysis was conducted using a step-by-step approach.

Within the UK context, the findings suggest that most of the accounts engaging with false information have a Conservative leaning. This can be explained in two ways:

  • False information can be generated and spread mainly by Conservative-leaning accounts, or
  • There is bias in the way fact-checkers label the false information accounts.

The insights emerging from Trilateral’s interdisciplinary approach can be used in the design and development process of relevant tools for tackling misinformation. It also invites fact-checkers and data scientists to explore potential bias when they label accounts as sources of false information. Furthermore, it contributes to media literacy, raising awareness of social media users regarding trustworthiness assessment and further engagement with online information.

The findings encourage social media users to examine the characteristics of accounts that generate and promote content especially with regard to political bias.

Disclaimer: This post was first published on Trilateral Research website

EUNOMIA brochure on information hygiene

February 17th, 2021 by

EUNOMIA has published its first brochure, which presents our guidelines for information hygiene. Information hygiene is the practice of following daily routines that reduce the risk of acting upon and sharing misinformation to one’s network. While other recommendations such as “check the source”, “check how the information reached you” and “check whether the account is a bot” are certainly useful, they are vague, often time-consuming, complicated or difficult. Information hygiene, on the other hand, are practices that can simply become part of one’s routine.

Based on thorough research, we have elaborated 9 guidelines:

  • Be cautious of information forwarded to you through your network.
  • Be wary of popular posts.
  • Be wary of language that is making you feel emotional. It is designed to become viral, not to inform.
  • Be mindful of your emotions when reading a post. Anger makes you susceptible to biases.
  • Refrain from sharing based only on a headline.
  • Take a moment to think when provided with a nudge, such as some form of a flag.
  • Be wary of resharing information for its high novelty.
  • Repost to refute with evidence.
  • Use a dedicated tool or button to flag misinformation.

Following these guidelines, it becomes easy to stop misinformation before it gets viral – to flatten the curve of the infodemic.

The brochure is available for download here.

Klitos Christodoulou EUNOMIA’s partner from UNIC in an interview with Blasting News

January 30th, 2021 by

Klitos Christodoulou, assistant professor at the University of Nicosia, in his interview with Blasting Talks illustrates how EUNOMIA plans to repurpose the idea of a social media platform. Klitos presents the differences between the mainstream social media, like Facebook or Twitter, and blockchain-based social media to explain EUNOMIA’s potential in changing the culture of social networks.

Read the full article here

EUNOMIA’s project coordinator Prof. George Loukas on Blasting Talks

January 10th, 2021 by

Prof. George Loukas, EUNOMIA project coordinator and Head of Internet of Things and Security Research Group, featured on Blasting Talks. He talked about EUNOMIA and the project’s approach in tackling misinformation placing the user in the centre of toolkit’s design and development.

Read the full interview here

EUNOMIA at the Industry Forum of GlobeCom 2020

December 22nd, 2020 by

In the era of COVID-19 pandemic, social media have become a dominant, direct and highly effective form of news generation and sharing at a global scale. This information is not always trustworthy as exemplified by the wide spread of misinformation that proved dangerous for public health. Prof. Charalampos Patrikakis from the University of West Attica -partner of EUNOMIA project- co-organised an event focusing on “Fighting Misinformation on Social Networks” at the Industry Forum session of the Global Communications Conference 2020. GlobeCom2020 is one of the IEEE Communications Society’s two flagship conferences dedicated to driving innovation in nearly every aspect of communications.

The event included presentations by academics and industry representatives followed by an open discussion. Prof. Patrikakis delivered a presentation on “EUNOMIA project: a decentralized approach to fighting fake news”. His presentation referred to the concept of EUNOMIA on the adaptation of information hygiene routines for protection against the ‘infodemic’ of rapidly spreading misinformation. Moreover, EUNOMIA presentation included a more extensive graphic description of the project’s toolkit with its four interrelated functional components: The information cascade, Human-as-Trust-Sensor interface, Sentiment and subjectivity analysis and the Trustworthiness scoring. Participants were also invited to register on EUNOMIA in order to see how this works in real-time.

Pinelopi Troullinou EUNOMIA’s partner from Trilateral Research on Blasting Talks

December 20th, 2020 by

Pinelopi Troullinou, Research Analyst at Trilateral Research, in an interview with Blasting Talks, explains the importance of end-users in the project. Through co-design methods, they provide their needs and preferences feeding into the development of EUNOMIA toolkit. Furthermore, Pinelopi explains that the project adopts a Privacy, Ethical and Social Impact Assessment (PIA+) making sure that it respects ethical and societal values. EUNOMIA aims to shift the social media culture of “like” to “trust” triggering users to reflect when engaging with information online. In this context, EUNOMIA provides the tools to support social media users to adopt an “information hygiene routine” protecting themselves and their network against misinformation.

Read the full interview here

The pathway to trustworthiness assessment; Sentiment Analysis identification

December 14th, 2020 by

As the amount of content online grows exponentially, new networks and interactions are also growing tremendously fast. EUNOMIA user’s trustworthiness indicators provide a boost towards a fair and balanced social network interaction.

Sentiment analysis is one of EUNOMIA’s trustworthiness indicators assisting users to assess the trustworthiness of online information. It relies on the automatic identification of the sentiment expressed in a user post (negative, positive, or neutral). A sentiment analysis algorithm employs principles from the scientific fields of machine learning and natural language processing. Current trends in the field include AI techniques that outperform traditional dictionary-based approaches and provide unparalleled performance.

Dictionary-based techniques work as follows:  A list of opinion words such as adjectives (i.e. excellent, love, supports, expensive, terrible, hate, complicated), nouns, verbs and word phrases constitute the prior knowledge for extracting the sentiment polarity of a piece of text. For example, in “I love playing basketball” a dictionary-based method would identify and consider the word “love” to infer the positive polarity of the expression.

Figure 1. Sentiment Analysis of user opinions

Unfortunately, these methods are unable to grasp long-range sentiment dependencies, sentiment fluctuations or opinion modifiers (i.e. not so much expensive, less terrible etc.) that exist in abundance in user-generated text.

Figure 2. Demo of how the core of the sentiment analysis component works in EUNOMIA.

We use two models that process user generated content in parallel. The first model relies on sentiment patterns to extract polarity. For example in “not so much expensive” the model would identify the relation between “not” and “expensive” and would assign positive polarity in  comparison to a dictionary-based method that would only rely on the negative word “expensive”.

The second model is an advanced machine learning model, that relies on a trained neural network and it can identify sentiment fluctuations of longer range. Therefore, the first model (pattern-based) relies on sentiment patterns to extract the sentiment orientation, while the second, relies on a neural network that is trained on labeled data and is capable of distinguishing between positive/neutral/negative text with high accuracy.

The output of both models is processed by an ensemble algorithm that decides on the final sentiment classification and the degree that the models are confident about their predictions.

The results of the sentiment analysis process provide one of EUNOMIA’s indicators. Sentiment and emotion in language is connected quite frequently with subjectivity and on many occasions with decietful information. EUNOMIA raises an alert and then the user, by consulting additional meta-information like EUNOMIA’s other indicators can investigate the content further and decide if it is valid and can be safely consumed or shared further to the community.

Pantelis Agathangelou, PhD Candidate, University of Nicosia

The featured photo is by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash

EUNOMIA’s partner Sorin Adam Matei from SIMAVI in an interview with Blasting Talks

November 29th, 2020 by

Sorin Adam Matei EUNOMIA’s partner representing SIMAVI and professor at Purdue University featured at Blasting Talks. He highlighted the project’s approach encouraging social media users to reflect on their engagement with information online. EUNOMIA does not dictate which information to be trusted or not. Instead, we encourage users to deliberate on online information providing tools to assist this process.

You cab read the full article here