Why we need a publicly funded social network

Jordan Guiao

I almost bore myself when I start to write about issues with Facebook. The revelations of privacy scandals, data breaches, hate speech, and violence-inducing disinformation by Facebook has become such a regular occurrence in our news feeds that we are almost inured to its coverage.

It may be a symptom of how we’ve over-relied on Facebook and outsourced so much of our communication and community that we can overlook their recurring transgressions.

Ghosts of social networks past may provide a glimmer of doubt or hope in Facebook’s continued dominance. After all, bygone platforms like MySpace, Friendster and Flickr once ruled the internet.

It may surprise many that LinkedIn is actually older than Facebook, and continues to succeed to this day, albeit not at the same level.

Contact tracing social network
Social network: There is a role for a publicly funded and publicly run alternative to Facebook and others

Diverse attempts at credible alternatives, like Ello, Diaspora, NextDoor and WT.Social have been met with mixed success, either finding loyal niche audiences to service, or suffering from scaling to a stable threshold and benefitting from the network effect.

However, many alternatives remain commercial, and the profit alternative is often powered by a harmful surveillance advertising model which plague the most successful social networks and creates harmful unintended consequences.

The reality is the Facebook ‘public square’ is more like a private mall, trapping consumers in an engagement frenzy that has resulted in a distorted and polarised public discourse.

So perhaps the issue is with the commercial model of social networking that surveils its users and monetises their attention.

In reimagining an alternative, what we might need is a model that is designed for public benefit and to serve community interests.

There are a small number of players that have attempted public/non-profit community-based networks that were explicitly designed for the public good and they are worth considering.

Vermont-based Front Porch Forum is essentially an actively moderated email list around local community issues and discussions.

It has been slowly and carefully managed over the last 20 years (eons in Internet time) with some very tightly managed rules of engagement, and an actively controlled culture. To this day, many residents use and enjoy the forum.

In Taiwan, Digital Minister Audrey Tang took inspiration from citizen hacktivists and put online collaboration at the core of its digital governance.

The official national online platform, called Join has over four million citizens participating and is a central platform to discuss official government policy. It is used to harvest feedback from citizens, and organise collaborative meetings where stakeholders are asked to find solutions to policy and local issues.

There is also the vTaiwan (virtual Taiwan) platform focused on grassroots citizen engagement, with debates on the platform influencing real-world policy like the legal status of Uber in the country. At a time when the public square is being threatened in developed democracies, new democracies like Taiwan is paving the way in rethinking governance with a digital system at its core, empowering new ways of civic and public engagement.

It is not just communities that have begun to over-rely on Facebook either, increasingly government and public services are using infrastructure from Big Tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon to reach citizens and as platforms for governance.

A desire for a secure, encrypted communication tool that was only available to French government agents led to the French messaging app called Tchap. Tchap is restricted to French officials but is built using open source code available to the public.

Amsterdam-based Public Spaces Coalition is a network of public broadcasters, filmmakers and the Dutch arm of Wikimedia on an ambitious project to enable community discussion and engagement using open source technology with a public model. Their mission is to provide “an alternative software ecosystem that serves the common interest and does not seek profit”.

The coalition defines its contribution as a “component provider” – providing online functions like user accounts as an alternative to Google and Facebook logins, content rating systems, and content management systems.

Majal is an Arabic social network that fulfilled the heady promise Facebook and other platforms have claimed over the years – that is, Majal has successfully connected and empowered marginalised communities.

Based in the Middle East and Africa Majal members include Kurdish civic groups, women and the queer community.

In a region that’s highly surveilled and persecuted, Majal allows anonymity, security and a platform to connect and organise, focusing on “amplifying voices of dissent” throughout the region.

Different organisations and public bodies around the world are pushing back against Facebook’s harmful surveillance model and has demonstrated that there are better ways forward.

It is time we start to reimagine our public square online, and consider real alternatives to harmful platforms that have usurped our public square, like a publicly funded social network.

‘The Public Square Project’ is a new report by The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology.

Jordan Guiao is a Research Fellow at The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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