This is a profile of Julie Ricard, a Mozilla Fellow in the Tech and Society Fellowship program.
Julie Ricard watched the 2018 election unfold in her native Brazil with concern, realizing the country was heading into new, unsettling territory. Far-right candidate Jair Bolsanaro won in a runoff after a tense campaign season marked by large protests against his homophobic, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric. The election was also likely influenced by widespread disinformation on social media and messaging platforms that mostly favored Bolsonaro. “That weaponization of disinformation is something that caught my attention,” says Ricard.
In the spring of 2020, Bolsonaro’s administration started to spread and endorse disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, which Ricard and other critics argue endangered Brazilians’ lives by worsening the virus in their country. It was during this time that Ricard got the idea to build a new kind of social media forum — one where people could have in-depth, civil conversations without the fear of encountering disinformation, trolling, or other types of toxic content that increasingly appears on the largest platforms. “I was looking for a place like that, and I couldn’t find one online,” Ricard says.
I was looking for a [non-toxic] place online, and I couldn’t find one.
Julie Ricard, Mozilla Fellow
Ricard’s idea led her to create Eureka, which uses books and movies to spark conversations or “cycles” of engagement to help promote critical thinking and spur people to activism. Mozilla’s Tech and Society Fellowship program, which embeds technologists within civil society organizations in the global majority, provided Ricard with the crucial resources she needed to build Eureka to “a much better level of usability” after she started work on it. Ricard has often turned to books and movies herself to approach countries and cultures she wants to get to know better, so she set out to build a site at scale that would allow people to have deeper - and more focused - conversations inspired by those materials. The site is still in its early days, but Ricard is hoping it can provide an alternative model for both corporations and users who share her values.
Eureka is designed for both individuals and groups, and one of the first groups to use the site was her host organization EQUIS Justicia Para Las Mujeres, a feminist non-profit in Mexico that works on gender-based violence and discrimination issues. Ricard worked with EQUIS to curate content, collaborate on the cycle design, and create an initial set of content moderation guidelines. Ricard thoroughly studied and considered different approaches to content moderation, and this participatory model of inviting users to help make the rules of the site was an important element of her project.
One of EQUIS’s cycles on Eureka is dedicated to content moderation from a feminist perspective. The cycle includes two documentaries - 15 Minutes of Shame and The Cleaners, the non-fiction book Pics or it Didn’t Happen by digital artists Arvida Byström and Molly Soda, and the report #LibertadNoDisponible: Censorship and removal of content in Mexico by Clayre Isabel Álvarez Pinzón and Laura Noemi Herrera Ortiz. The two-month cycle was divided into two-week segments that include focused questions and discussion topics and an in-person event in Mexico City.
Ricard has identified several major problems with content moderation that need improvement, especially at the world’s largest and most popular sites, like Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok. She says the Santa Clara Principles provide a roadmap for companies to set standards for stronger transparency and accountability in content moderation policies. She also believes it’s essential that companies put more resources into hiring content moderators who are fluent in both the language and cultural contexts of the content they review. Research has shown that both algorithms and human moderators are much worse at catching misinformation in languages other than English. Many content moderators are exposed to some of the most violent, disturbing online content, but they often lack proper pay and mental health supports, which Ricard argues also needs to change.
“We have to acknowledge it’s not an easy topic, because, as Jillian York puts it, what we’re really talking about is a form of censorship,” Ricard says of content moderation. “Some forms of censorship we generally agree on, like banning images of child abuse, but some censorship we don’t agree on, like banning someone because they said something critical of the president. But there are clear improvements that could be made as a start,” she says.
Another problem Ricard is tackling with Eureka is establishing a sustainable business model for a site that doesn’t monetize user data or sell advertising. Ricard and her team are considering a subscription model, or some arrangement of co-financing by foundations or donors. Ricard says the ubiquity of business models that generate revenue from users’ data and ads makes it all that harder to break away from these patterns. “It’s a real challenge, because those business models have become the standard for any online activity,” she says.
For now, most of the cycles on Eureka are devoted to gender and feminism, technology-related issues such as content moderation, and climate change and environmental issues. At the end of each cycle, Ricard’s team conducts a participant survey, and the early results have been encouraging. Ricard says many respondents have reported that they’ve learned new things, deepened their prior knowledge of given topics, and are inspired to take action around their issues. “Part of our theory of change is that this type of experience could foster more empathy and engagement in certain key, sometimes urgent areas,” Ricard says. “This is what I would love to see.”