Bill Ottman is the CEO and co-founder of Minds.com and one of a select group of people invited to President Donald Trump’s Social Media Summit on July 11, 2019. Minds is an open-source Facebook alternative that is rapidly growing in popularity. Ottman talked with Heavy about the summit, Trump, censorship, and the future of the platform.
What Is Minds?
Minds is a “Facebook clone” of sorts, but it’s encrypted, open-source, and focuses extensively on free speech. While there are many fundamental differences, Minds looks very similar to Facebook. Each user has a profile page with a header and a profile photo. You can add stories or status updates just like on Facebook, and users can leave comments, share your posts, or vote them up or down. There’s also a newsfeed, where you can see what other people you’re following have posted. You can also create your own blog or group. (In fact, the author of this article is on Minds right here if you want to check the site out.)
Getting invited to the Social Media Summit was a good opportunity for Minds, Ottman said.
“It was overall a positive event,” Ottman told us. “It was the first time censorship on social media has ever been focused on at the White House. The first time they’ve advocated for more transparency and privacy and free speech in such a formal setting.”
He added that the event was a bit unbalanced, with more conservatives attending.
“It may have been a bit unbalanced in terms of being more conservative than liberals in attendance,” he said. But, he added, the guest list was understandable because conservatives tend to find themselves censored quite a bit on social media platforms.
“Put it this way, people on the left do get censored on social media, but typically they are the anti-war, anti-authoritarian left, not the mainstream left,” he said. “People like Lee Camp, Abby Martin, David Packman, Tim Pool, these progressive voices who are anti-authoritarian and pro-free-speech… (But) I think conservatives do typically get more of the bulk of censorship.”
Minds Was Invited to the Social Media Summit After Ottman Wrote a Letter about Transparency to the White House
If you were following news coverage when the Social Media Summit happened, you may have seen a number of outlets asking how Minds got an invitation. Ottman said it was simple: he wrote a letter to the White House. Interestingly, while he can’t get Facebook to respond to his letters (more on that later in this story), the White House did.
Ottman wrote the White House about the need for social media algorithms to be transparent, and they responded with an invitation.
“And that made its way into Trump’s statement,” he added. “He was asking for transparency from the companies. I think he might have read it – I don’t know. I didn’t get a chance to directly have a one-on-one with him, but I felt good about what they were advocating for…”
There was a bit of over-speculation, he said, but that’s understandable when the algorithms that are censoring so many people are shrouded in mystery.
“It’s reasonable for people to be speculating when what other option do they have?” he asked. “They won’t show us the code. All we can do is speculate, there’s no other option.”
Minds, he added, is completely open-source and transparent with all their codes and algorithms, which means they are already practicing what they preach.
So Why Weren’t Facebook & Twitter Invited?
How did Minds, which is a relatively new Facebook alternative, get invited to the summit when Facebook and Twitter were not? Ottman clarified that the idea of Facebook and Twitter not being invited mischaracterizes the summit. The purpose of the summit, he explained, was to let those who have been censored and those who don’t always have a voice on Capitol Hill get a chance to speak. Besides, he added, those platforms are invited to the White House in a couple weeks.
This summit was meant to feature some of the voices who have been censored, some alternative networks. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are hanging out on Capitol Hill all the time, they can get a meeting whenever they want. So to say they’re not invited, it doesn’t make sense. They are invited again in two weeks and Dorsey was just there two weeks ago…”
“That whole narrative is just a joke because … none of us have ever been invited before and you only have so much time to hear from so many people,” he said. “They’re not going to just invite them and have them not talk.”
Ottman Doesn’t Think the Social Media Summit Influenced Trump’s Tweets about Bitcoin & Libra a Few Hours Later
Just a few hours after the Social Media Summit, Trump took to Twitter to tweet his concerns about Bitcoin and Libra.
A couple days later, Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin had a press conference emphasizing that the administration would be watching crypto more closely. When asked if the Social Media Summit influenced Trump’s tweet about cryptocurrency, Ottman said he didn’t think that was the case. (This interview was before Mnuchin’s press conference.)
I don’t have any evidence that (his tweet) was because of the summit, but I think that his approach is just a little bit uninformed about crypto. There are good reasons for lawmakers to be skeptical of Facebook and Libra, but they’re conflating Libra with Bitcoin which is a mistake.”
“Bitcoin and Ethereum are fully open, permissionless, decentralized blockchains where anyone can participate,” Ottman explained. “Libra is a permissions-closed system with a $10 million buy-in for financial elite institutions to be able to run those, it’s not censorship-resistant. But I understand why they’re concerned about Libra. It’s Facebook and they have so much power, and giving them that degree of financial power is scary… Trump’s saying they need banking licenses and whatnot, I think that’s probably true. Libra probably does need to get licenses and play by the rules.”
Ottman added that some Congresspeople are now offering Trump good advice about how America can’t fall behind the rest of the world in something so innovative.
“If you try to resist it too much, we’re going to lose,” he said. “We need to embrace it while we still can harness it and be at the forefront. … I think he has people in his ear who really aren’t educated about it.”
But, Ottman added, simply talking about crypto is a good thing.
“The fact is: he’s talking about Bitcoin and no other president has talked about Bitcoin before,” Ottman said. “…He is unpredictable. One second he’s talking about free speech, the next second he’s saying if you burn the flag you should not be protected. He has little quirks like that. But what I appreciate about him and the summit is just that the conversation is happening. I like the fact that he communicates. It’s not always done particularly well, but at least it’s happening.”
But as for whether Trump’s administration will push for more free speech regulations is unclear, he said.
“There were some people advocating for market solutions and alternative platforms (at the summit) and how that’s a really important solution,” he said. “…Yes, people are considering maybe speech should just be protected, and platforms should have to abide by free speech in line with the First Amendment. … (But) it did not make me feel like anyone was rushing into regulation.”
Facebook Has Been Warning People Not To Share Minds Links & Ottman Can’t Get Them To Talk to Him
Ottman talked with Heavy about the censorship issues that Minds has faced from other social media platforms, especially Facebook.
“Minds was kicked off Google Play for six months and we’re actively being blocked by Facebook, so there are serious issues,” he said. “They make you do a captcha (when sharing a link.)”
I sent them a letter, an actual snail-mail letter because you can’t email them and I got no response. What are you supposed to do with that? That is unbelievable. In some of the messages, they were calling us unsecure, in other messages, they were saying it’s harmful. And it’s like, why can’t you just communicate with us? Let’s talk. Let’s figure this out.”
Here’s what happens on Facebook with Minds links. If you try to post about Minds.com on Messenger or on your Facebook status, you’ll typically see a message that reads: “Security check. It looks like this link is unsecure: minds.com. To protect your account, we recommend not posting the link.”
If you try to just hit Submit without the CAPTCHA you’ll get:
If you fill out the CAPTCHA, then your post or status will go through successfully.
(You can read more about the captcha issue on Facebook that Minds is facing in Heavy’s story here.)
Ottman Says He’s Been Burned with Past Media Interviews & How Minds Was Later Portrayed
Ottman shared with Heavy some of his frustrations about media interviews where Minds is portrayed inaccurately, such as reports that insinuate that Minds supports fringe extremists. In fact, Minds supports free speech, not extremism. Ottman said he believes that extremists can only be reached through civil discourse and not by being completely shut down. (On a side note, a great example of this is Daryl Davis, a black musician who befriends members of the KKK and has convinced more than 200 to turn away from their extremist lives.)
Ottman cited one example where he was interviewed by Vice and then discovered that the article’s feature photo had Minds’ logo next to saluting Nazis. The headline read: “Minds, the ‘Anti-Facebook,’ has no idea what to do about all the Neo-Nazis.”
Ottman said they reached out to Vice about Minds’ new Jury System that lets users vote on adding NSFW tags to content.
“On the phone the guy was agreeing with me, and then suddenly they literally photoshopped an image of our logo with a bunch of Nazis saluting and made that the thumbnail,” Ottman told Heavy. “And they go around saying Minds has this huge Nazi problem. Ok yes there are some Nazi accounts, but guess what, it’s legal to be a Nazi unless you’re inciting violence. There are Nazis on every social media network. You’re never going to get them off, you need to engage them in different new, novel, honest ways.”
He said he felt like they weren’t trying to have an honest conversation. Tim Pool, an independent journalist, later tweeted the reporter trying to show how unfair he and Ottman felt the characterization was.
Ottman clarified that Minds has indeed banned Nazi accounts in the past – when they were advocating violence and acting in illegal ways.
“We clearly are moderating within the law, but … they’re still going to call us a ‘fringe’ site where Nazis exist,” he said. “It’s literally a misinformation campaign because then that language gets picked up by other outlets, and that is how misinformation campaigns spread.”
He said that in contrast, Gab executives tend to be pretty disrespectful when they speak to the press, so he understands how their coverage ends up so combative.
“The way they (Gab executives) communicate I don’t think is effective and I think they’re very polarizing,” he added. “…I respect Gab’s right to do what they’re doing; I think their policies are better than Facebook or Twitter, honestly. But they don’t try to communicate respectfully with the press, they are totally on the offensive… I get why they (the press) go hard on Gab because Gab is really mean to them. But unfortunately, even when you’re nice it doesn’t matter.”
He was surprised when Fox News covered him the most fairly, he added.
“This is how sad the state of journalism is right now: Fox News covered our Jury System; it was a very fair piece,” he said. “What does that say? When Fox News is more fair than others when covering these issues… Because typically Fox News is pretty hyperbolic. I just don’t know what the solution is… I think ultimately the media outlets that are really dedicated to truth and accuracy are going to stay alive and the ones that fall into ideology are not going to survive.”
Ottman Said Trump Is Acting Out of Self-Interest Regarding Censorship & Social Media, But Everyone Does the Same Thing
Yes, Ottman said, Trump is likely acting out of self-interest when he takes action regarding censorship on social media. But this isn’t unusual, he clarified.
“I don’t think Trump wants left-wing ideas silenced at all,” Ottman said. “I do think he wants free speech. … I think the message I felt from not just him but everyone else speaking (at the summit) was let’s align with the First Amendment. We spent hundreds of years figuring it out and guess what, it works pretty well, so might as well adopt that on our major global communications platforms…”
“I do think he has self-interest obviously because it’s his voice and he wants his voice heard by more people,” Ottman added. “He’s seeing his likes going down; he doesn’t like seeing his growth going down. So yes he’s acting in self-interest, but he should be and so should everyone else….”
Censorship on Social Media Is a Big Problem, Ottman Said
Censorship is more than just silencing illegal voices these days, Ottman said. Facebook may not be required to follow the First Amendment since it’s not a governmental entity, but it’s breaking a contract with its members. He said Diamond and Silk talked about this in particular during the summit.
“They brought them in under the assumption that when you post, your followers see your post,” Ottman said. “Then two years later, they took away everybody’s reach and started doing all this weird stuff with algorithms… They changed the game midway and that was actually a contract with users; it was a bait and switch… And that is actually predatory. That doesn’t feel legal because there was a contract and then that contract was changed after they got the critical mass and the whole planet on their network.”
Minds Approaches Censorship By Encouraging Conversations & Letting the Users Decide
So how does Minds approach censorship? Minds only bans users for illegal content, and then leaves the rest up to the community. The site encourages civil discourse and filters content people may not want to see with an NSFW tag. Users have granular control and can choose what types of NSFW content they want to see on their feed and what they don’t want to see. Meanwhile, if a post is flagged as needing to be NSFW, the creator can appeal the flag and the ultimate decision is then given to a randomly selected jury of Minds users.
“We all want less extremists, but the question is how do you deal with them … in a First Amendment environment,” Ottman said. “We’re rolling out a jury system and trying to facilitate civil discourse with extremists so over time they can potentially change their minds…”
We’re really focused on facilitating civil discourse between the left and the right. Our research points out that censorship doesn’t even work… If you think you’re making places safer, you’re not… it just causes them to grow. It’s like the Streisand effect, you whack it out somewhere and it pops it up somewhere else or it gets more attention because everyone wants to know what’s happening… In the U.S. we know that censorship doesn’t work, that’s why we have free speech… When you look at the data, it shows that when you limit speech or limit people’s access to certain things, it causes a psychological effect to happen where people want that thing.”
Minds Has Big Plans for the Future
Minds now has seven or eight full-time developers and is going to make new 2.0 versions of all their features, Ottman told Heavy. This includes video chat, video infrastructure, decentralization, blogs, multicurrency support, analytics, better boosting and targeting, and more.
“We’re going to bring back in dollars and we’re going to bring in Bitcoin and Ethereum,” he said. “Right now it’s just the Minds token which is an Ethereum token. We’re going to bring in a bunch of monetization features.”
He said one plan is to let users run boosts on their own pages so they can earn money similarly to how they do on YouTube.
“I think monetization is really important,” he said. “That’s what everyone wants.”
Trump Is Going To Join an Alternative Media Site Soon
Ottman said that during the Social Media Summit, Trump mentioned plans to join an alternative social media network in the near future. He’s not sure if that network will be Minds, but he believes that by the end of the year, Minds’ new features will be in place and they’ll be ready if it happens.
“Trump did also say he’s going to be joining multiple alternatives,” Ottman said. “He didn’t say us, but he did say he’d be joining multiple alternatives, which is great. Will he join Minds? I think it’s definitely a possibility. … We’re a small team but we’re moving much faster and recently we hired a bunch of new people. By the end of the year, we’re going to have the app in a whole new state.”