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Berkman Klein Center Hosts ‘Future of the Internet’ Summit, Obama Cancels Due to ‘Covid-like Symptoms’

Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society hosted a summit Wednesday to celebrate the launch of its new Applied Social Media Lab.
Harvard's Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society hosted a summit Wednesday to celebrate the launch of its new Applied Social Media Lab. By Joey Huang

Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society hosted panel discussions on the problems affecting social media and potential solutions during a “Future of the Internet” summit at Harvard Business School on Wednesday.

Former President Barack Obama was initially slated to speak at the event’s keynote panel. At the start of the event, however, Jason Goldman — Obama’s senior technology adviser — announced that the former president had withdrawn after experiencing “Covid-like symptoms.”

This would have marked Obama’s first Harvard appearance since his presidency. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991.

The programming continued with Goldman participating on Obama’s behalf.

The event celebrated the launch of BKC’s Applied Social Media Lab, which aims to develop social media technology to serve the public good.

The keynote panel, moderated by BKC co-founder Jonathan L. Zittrain, featured Goldman, former Twitter Trust and Safety head Yoel Roth, Data Nutrition Project co-founder Kasia S. Chmielinski ’06, and Block Party CEO Tracy Chou.

“It’s a slightly different ‘block party’ today than we were expecting,” Zittrain quipped, referring to Obama’s absence. “But, we have a lab to launch. We’re going to launch it right now and can’t think of a better group or setting in which to do it.”

Wednesday’s summit also featured two other discussions on the challenges the Applied Social Media Lab hopes to address and the impact of social media on information dissemination. These panels featured faculty members from across Harvard, including Computer Science professor James W. Mickens, Kennedy School professor Latanya A. Sweeney, and Law School professor Lawrence Lessig.

The speakers at the keynote panel discussed their past and present experiences with the Internet and the changes they hope to see implemented in its future.

According to Roth, social media platforms have not been built “in a way that engenders public trust.”

“There’s communities of, in Facebook’s case, billions of people on these platforms, but there’s no real sense that there is legitimacy to the governance that these platforms are exercising,” Roth said. “The solutions to that are straightforward.”

“We know what builds trust in institutions. We know that that’s communication. We know that it’s being forthright about how you are governing things. We know it’s accountability with data that is externally auditable,” Roth added.

Roth encouraged “whoever owns Twitter or whoever is building the new Twitter” to consider “trust” as their primary goal.

Chmielinski said they believe that not all problems can be solved by technology.

“Something that I definitely saw when I was working in government — people would come and say, ‘We’d like you to make an app that’s going to fix this problem.’ And we’d say, ‘Okay, we’ll take that under consideration but like, why don’t you tell us about the problem?’” Chmielinski said.

“Often, technology is not the solution. It’s a people problem or it’s a process problem or it’s a culture problem or something like that,” they added.

Zittrain emphasized choosing “the concrete over the vague,” “action over complacency,” and “imagination over status quo-ism” when it comes to addressing the problems facing the Internet.

“It’s just a question of whether we close our eyes as the rollercoaster ratchets up the hill,” Zittrain said.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on X @neilhshah15 or on Threads @kne.els.

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