4Q4 Podcast, Interviews

A New Approach to Solving the Paradox of Platform Neutrality

Two architects of Ethos, a suite of tools from GlobalGiving, explain how empathy can help to address the paradox of platform neutrality.

Digital Impact 4Q4: Alison Carlman and Alix Guerrier on the Paradox of Platform Neutrality

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00:00 CHRIS DELATORRE: This is Digital Impact 4Q4, I’m Chris Delatorre. Today’s four questions are for Alix Guerrier, CEO of GlobalGiving, and Alison Carlman, Director of Evidence and Learning at GlobalGiving. In 2019, the global crowdfunding platform introduced a research program and long-term discovery process to address what it calls the “Neutrality Paradox,” a phenomenon experienced by platforms moderating user-generated content. Operating under the guise of neutrality, platforms like GlobalGiving are often forced to take a stand on various issues, which presents an inherent paradox of neutrality. A year later, the project has taken a surprise turn. Today, two of the architects are here to talk about what this could mean for platforms and the future of content moderation.

00:55 CHRIS DELATORRE: Alix, one of GlobalGiving’s core values is being “always open.” The platform was designed to be neutral, to give everyone a voice. Which, as we see perhaps most vividly with social media platforms, ultimately requires making value judgements—deciding what is and isn’t allowed, for instance. Now it’s 20 years in, and you’re seeing a problem with neutrality, specifically for philanthropy intermediaries like GlobalGiving. Your new strategy, Ethos, could change all of that. Why the shift and why GlobalGiving? And how new is this concept? Should private sector platforms be following suit?

01:37 ALIX GUERRIER: Well first, Chris, I just want to thank you for giving us this chance to talk about the work. It’s great to have a chance to talk to you live and I know that Alison and I are pretty proud of the work that she’s been leading and that we’ve been doing on this topic. So it’s great to have a chance to share a little bit more about it. And I also want to thank you for starting with one of our core values, one of our four, “always open.” And that is the idea that great ideas can come from anywhere. Among our corporate values, it really is quite a foundational one for us.

“Not all the right approaches are known. And so you want openness to allow for new ideas, new approaches that you’ve never heard of.”

When our founders started GlobalGiving at the World Bank, when they were executives at the World Bank, the idea for this crowdfunding platform and this giving platform really grew out of this knowledge that no one person holds all the answers. Right? Even for the super smart people working at the World Bank, not all the answers are known. Not all the right approaches are known. And so you want that openness to allow for new ideas, new approaches that you’ve never heard of, to see the light of day and get funding and perhaps scale. So, openness is core to our identity.

If you’ll forgive me for making this analogy. You know, I studied physics when I was an undergrad and there’s this fact in physics that at the very beginning of the universe there were many forces—magnetism, the forces that hold atomic nuclei together—that actually were the same force, that they started out being the same thing. And then as the universe evolved they sort of split off and differentiated. And actually, I think that that can be true—if it’s a little bit of a forced analogy—about the idea of openness and this other concept that you introduced which is neutrality. That, for a small scale, they start to look the same. But then as we grew that’s when it became clear that although it’s critical that we hold onto the idea of openness, this idea of neutrality really started to fall apart.

And what happens as you grow is that, even though we can be neutral for 90% or 99% or 99.5%, that small fraction of cases where neutrality fails starts to take over much more time — much more of our time. And so that’s what we’ve experienced as we’ve grown as a platform, that those cases where it really is impossible to maintain neutrality. And I’ll just give you one example. And the example is, let’s say a nonprofit partner wants to come onto GlobalGiving to promote a project that is founded on an idea of vaccine hesitancy. Well, that’s a topic where, regardless of what you decide, even a sort of hands off, “let the project stand” approach, you’re actually not being neutral. You’re making a stand, either proactively or implicitly, on the validity of this idea of vaccine hesitancy. And so that’s just one example of where neutrality fails. And so, as you grow, those cases, although they take their small percentage, start to demand more and more attention.

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The reason that we started to work on this and how we came to Ethos was when we realized that we needed a more systematic way of thinking about this. In terms of novelty, you know, you asked how new is this concept. I think it’s based on tools that have existed for a long time. We’ve used human-centered design. We’ve incorporated ideas coming out of restorative justice. But putting them together on this topic is new. It’s showing that there’s actually quite a bit that we can do. And, you know, you also, I think, quite intuitively linked this to some of the challenges that are facing our for-profit cousins. You know, platforms that everyone out there is familiar with. And I very much do think that there are lessons here for those platforms to take away.

06:12 CHRIS DELATORRE: Alison, you explained the word “neutral” pretty well in a reflection earlier this year. You wrote, “Neutrality is, at best, a failed principle that has proved inadequate in practice, and, at worst, is a blunt tool used deliberately by those looking to avoid accountability and controversy.” In exploring neutrality, you identified a grounding concept that test groups agreed on. Can you tell us about that and how it influenced the shift to Ethos?

06:48 ALISON CARLMAN: Thanks, Chris. Yes, you’re right. So, you know, we’ve been working on this question for almost two years now. We’ve been working with our peers and stakeholders about basically how to create a framework for making these decisions. And so we co-developed some prototype tools earlier this year and I tested them with platform leaders in three countries, back when we could still travel, if you remember those days. And, you know, as we tested these tools, I actually watched some of them fail very publicly.

I won’t forget watching a workshop in London in February where participants sat around tables and they tested out one of the original tools which was the values prioritization exercise. So, small groups sat around roleplaying as platform leaders facing dilemmas. And, you know, one part of the exercise is simply to sort and prioritize cards that have — had these values words on them. And after 20 minutes, some of the groups only got through one or two words.

“We had to go beyond values. We had to move beyond the ‘why’ of working together because it wasn’t enough.”

So, I learned this wasn’t going to work. We were going to need something different. People would get into these drawn out debates about how we interpret the term “transparency,” for example, and what that means for the hypothetical dilemma that they were facing. So, talking about values alone wasn’t helpful for getting to a solution. And I think that may even be why platforms that have these very clear mission statements and clear corporate values are still facing these challenging dilemmas. Because values alone aren’t helping us get to decisions. Because if we can’t get small groups of like-minded people to agree about how to interpret values when they face a dilemma, there’s no way that we can get competing stakeholders to agree. So, we had to go beyond values. We had to move beyond the ‘why’ of working together because it wasn’t enough. Instead, we had to start talking about how we will work together. And that “how” is what we mean by Ethos.

08:49 CHRIS DELATORRE: Ok, so what exactly does Ethos look like in this case?

08:54 ALISON CARLMAN: Ethos is this set of guiding principles that came out of our research with our own stakeholders. So that was our non-profit partners, our corporate partners, donors, and funders. And it’s an agreement about how we’re going to engage with everyone at the table with empathy and curiosity in order to uphold everyone’s integrity. Because integrity was that grounding principle that everyone could agree on. Not just the personal integrity and individual’s integrity making a decision, but also the integrity of the business model in the organization, so it can continue to run.

So, the Ethos process is this how-to guide for helping groups engage in mindful inquiries through interviews and group conversations. And it’s designed to help them come to a creative resolution.

The actual process begins by exploring and really getting to understand the root cause of the problem. And stopping to understand what power dynamics are at play. So really naming the problem and framing it well. And that helps us identify and then speak with the right stakeholders so we can conduct interviews, analyze and synthesize our findings, and then we can present that to a group of five or seven stakeholders that we call the Ethos Council. So this is a group that then meets and makes a recommendation to our leadership team. And in doing this, in our testing so far this process has led to more creative, more confident decisions that better uphold individual people’s integrity and also the integrity of the organization.

“It’s an agreement about how to engage with everyone at the table with empathy and curiosity in order to uphold everyone’s integrity.”

10:32 CHRIS DELATORRE: Alix, for some, this all might seem counterintuitive, right? Sometimes remaining neutral makes sense. Journalists, scientists—these are professionals trained to observe and report, to avoid expressing opinions, to advance the objectivity of truth, if you will. Is neutrality dead or is there still a place for it on an intermediary platform like yours—or elsewhere?

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GlobalGiving established a collaboration of more than 100 peers and the verdict is in: neutrality doesn’t work.

11:00 ALIX GUERRIER: That’s a good question. It has a pretty straightforward answer. The answer is neutrality is dead and it has a place on our platform and others. I’m reminded of an exercise that we did in the process of working on this, where we had a bunch of folks in the room from different organizations. And we labelled one side of the room with the phrase “neutrality is essential.” And then on the other side, we put “neutrality is garbage.” And that’s the actual word that we used, “neutrality is garbage.” And we asked people to go stand in the place that represented their thoughts on this. And guess what? People went to both sides. And the way to make sense of this seemingly, sort of, contradictory result is to think about specificity.

You know, as an example, I used to be a classroom teacher—a math teacher, as a matter of fact. In the classroom when I was a teacher, I was very opinionated about the best way to teach math. I had a philosophy that developed over time and was based on evidence, and it was a certain perspective on the way that I thought was the right way to help kids learn. Now, here at GlobalGiving, we support a lot of organizations that are education-focused. And we are neutral—I think quite appropriately so—with respect to different pedagogical approaches. We don’t take a stand on them. This is where the idea of openness comes in. It’s, in fact, a critical part of our mission to provide a way for multiple approaches. Not just one, right? Not just my [inaudible] ideas about how to teach math, but multiple ideas to flourish. And so, we’re literally neutral with respect to pedagogical approach. So, there’s a place for it.

Now, where it falls apart is where a platform, its leaders, try to take that idea of neutrality—which does have an appropriate place in specific instances—and kind of stretch it to be a blanket or a shield to cover everything. Especially under the ultimately false hope that it protects them from criticism for some of the dangerous, bad ideas that come onto the platform. So, it’s really that approach which, unfortunately, is pretty common still today. This idea that, as a platform, it can be neutral and, in fact, we’re going to be so neutral that you don’t even have to bother us and we’re, you know, safe from any criticism for anything that happens on our platform. It’s really that idea of neutrality that we’re attacking here.

“As soon as we started talking about it to other platforms, people’s eyes lit up, they wanted to contribute.”

14:00 CHRIS DELATORRE: This question is for you both. Right now, you’re collaborating with peers and stakeholders to develop a library of tools that will be available to the public soon. How is GlobalGiving working with other platforms to make this available and how can organizations get involved?

14:30 ALIX GUERRIER: Well, so I’ll — I’ll let you in on a secret that when we first started to work on this, it seemed pretty risky because of the sorts of issues that we were tackling. And part of our thought process was let’s bring in some other partner, some other organizations to work on this. As protection, you know? To sort of widen the target in case we get criticism, or too much criticism for this. But as it turns out, that was pretty wise, even if we had this — a little bit of a protective motivation. Because the fact was that, as soon as we started talking about it to other platforms, people’s eyes lit up, they wanted to contribute. And we have such a better result now and such a better understanding through bringing this community of partners together. And it’s a partnership that we’re using to try things out, test things out, and improve the output.

15:42 ALISON CARLMAN: Alex is right. I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many people, including our friends at Candid and Charity Navigator, betterplace.org in Germany, I.G. Advisors hosted the event I talked about in London, and we’ve involved a lot of our nonprofit partners as well. Folks who work in Mexico and Kenya and Indonesia and Palestine, for example. And we’ve had a really brilliant design strategist, Eli MacClaren, who’s been helping us make sure that this process is really community-led and user-driven.

So we’ve involved more than a hundred people in developing this solution, so it’s not just for one of us and it’s not by one of us either. It’s for all of us. And you know, the folks at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have been involved from the very beginning as well. And just this fall, they helped fund this user research we’re conducting now. And they’re helping us develop a public-facing tool kit that we’ll hopefully launch next spring. So, it will be available to anybody who wants to try and implement a better way of addressing these high stakes dilemmas.

So, if folks that are listening are interested in getting involved in helping us test or be potential new users, we would love for you to get in touch with us. You can visit globalgiving.org or you could google “GlobalGiving Ethos” and you’ll get our contact information and more information on that page. And you can also follow us on social media @globalgiving.

17:10 CHRIS DELATORRE: Alix Guerrier, CEO of GlobalGiving, and Alison Carlman, Director of Evidence and Learning at GlobalGiving, thank you.

Digital Impact is a program of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Follow this and other episodes at digitalimpact.io and on Twitter @dgtlimpact with #4Q4Data.