Calls for an ABC-run social network to replace Facebook and Google are misguided. With what money?



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Fiona R Martin, University of Sydney

If Facebook prevented Australian news from being shared on its platform, could the ABC start its own social media service to compensate? While this proposal from the Australia Institute is a worthy one, it’s an impossible ask in the current political climate.

The suggestion is one pillar of the think tank’s new Tech-xit report.

The report canvasses what the Australian government should do if Facebook and Google withdraw their news-related services from Australia, in reaction to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s draft news media bargaining code.

Tech-xit rightly notes the ABC is capable of building social media that doesn’t harvest Australians’ personal data. However, it overlooks the costs and challenges of running a social media service — factors raised in debate over the new code.

Platforms react (badly) to the code

The ACCC’s code is a result of years of research into the effects of platform power on Australian media.

It requires Facebook and Google to negotiate with Australian news businesses about licensing payments for hosting news excerpts, providing access to news user data and information on pending news feed algorithm changes.

Predictably, the tech companies are not happy. They argue they make far less from news than the ACCC estimates, have greater costs and return more benefit to the media.

If the code becomes law, Facebook has threatened to stop Australian users from sharing local or international news. Google notified Australians its free services would become “at risk”, although it later said it would negotiate if the draft law was changed in its favour.

Facebook’s withdrawal, which the Tech-xit report sees as being likely if the law passes, would reduce Australians’ capacity to share vital news about their communities, activities and businesses.




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ABC to the rescue?

Cue the ABC then, says Jordan Guiao, the report’s author. Guiao is the former head of social media for both the ABC and SBS, and now works at the institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology.

He argues that, if given the funding, ABC Online could reinvent itself to become a “national social platform connecting everyday Australians”. He says all the service would have to do is add

distinct user profiles, user publishing and content features, group connection features, chat, commenting and interactive discussion capabilities.

As a trusted information source, he proposes the ABC could enable “genuine exchange and influence on decision making” and “provide real value to local communities starved of civic engagement”.

Financial reality check

It’s a bold move to suggest the ABC could start yet another major network when it has just had to cut A$84 million from its budget and lose more than 200 staff.

The institute’s idea is very likely an effort to persuade the Morrison government it should redirect some of that funding back to Aunty, which has a history of digital innovation with ABC Online, iView, Q&A and the like.

However, the government has repeatedly denied it has cut funding to the national broadcaster. It hasn’t provided
catch-up emergency broadcasting funds since the ABC covered our worst ever fire season. This doesn’t bode well for a change of mind on future allocations.

The government also excluded the ABC and SBS as beneficiaries of the news media bargaining code negotiations.

The ABC doesn’t even have access to start-up venture capital the way most social media companies do. According to Crunchbase, Twitter and Reddit — the two most popular news-sharing platforms after Facebook — have raised roughly US$1.5 billion and US$550 million respectively in investment rounds, allowing them to constantly innovate in service delivery.

Operational challenges

In contrast, over the past decade, ABC Online has had to reduce many of the “social” services it once offered. This is largely due to the cost of moderating online communities and managing user participation.

Illustration of person removing a social media post.
Social media content moderation requires an abundance of time, money and human resources.
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First news comments sections were canned, and online communities such as the Four Corners forums and The Drum website were closed.

Last year, the ABC’s flagship site for regional and rural user-created stories, ABC Open, was also shut down.

Even if the government were to inject millions into an “ABC Social”, it’s unlikely the ABC could deal with the problems of finding and removing illegal content at scale.

It’s an issue that still defeats social media platforms and the ABC does not have machine learning expertise or funds for an army of outsourced moderators.

The move would also expose the ABC to accusations it was crowding out private innovation in the platform space.

A future without Facebook

It’s unclear whether Facebook will go ahead with its threat of preventing Australian users from sharing news on its platform, given the difficulties with working out exactly who an Australian user is.

For instance, the Australian public includes dual citizens, temporary residents, international students and business people, and expatriates.

If it does, why burden the ABC with the duty to recreate social media? Facebook’s withdrawal could be a boon for Twitter, Reddit and whatever may come next.

In the meantime, if we restored the ABC’s funding, it could develop more inventive ways to share local news online that can’t be threatened by Facebook and Google.




Read more:
Latest $84 million cuts rip the heart out of the ABC, and our democracy


The Conversation


Fiona R Martin, Associate Professor in Convergent and Online Media, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Parler: what you need to know about the ‘free speech’ Twitter alternative



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Audrey Courty, Griffith University

Amid claims of social media platforms stifling free speech, a new challenger called Parler is drawing attention for its anti-censorship stance.

Last week, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter signed by 150 academics, writers and activists concerning perceived threats to the future of free speech.

The letter, signed by Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Gloria Steinem and J.K. Rowling, among others, reads:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.

Debates surroundings free speech and censorship have taken centre stage in recent months. In May, Twitter started adding fact-check labels to tweets from Donald Trump.

More recently, Reddit permanently removed its largest community of Trump supporters.

In this climate, Parler presents itself as a “non-biased, free speech driven” alternative to Twitter. Here’s what you should know about the US-based startup.




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What is Parler?

Parler reports more than 1.5 million users and is growing in popularity, especially as Twitter and other social media giants crackdown on misinformation and violent content.

Parler appears similar to Twitter in its appearance and functions.
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Parler is very similar to Twitter in appearance and function, albeit clunkier. Like Twitter, Parler users can follow others and engage with public figures, news sources and other users.

Public posts are called “parleys” rather than “tweets” and can contain up to 1,000 characters.

Users can comment, ‘echo’ or ‘vote’ on parleys.
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Users can search for hashtags, make comments, “echo” posts (similar to a retweet) and “vote” (similar to a like) on posts. There’s also a direct private messaging feature, just like Twitter.

Given this likeness, what actually is unique about Parler?

Fringe views welcome?

Parler’s main selling point is its claim it embraces freedom of speech and has minimal moderation. “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler”, founder John Matze explains.

This branding effort capitalises on allegations competitors such as Twitter and Facebook unfairly censor content and discriminate against right-wing political speech.

While other platforms often employ fact checkers, or third-party editorial boards, Parler claims to moderate content based on American Federal Communications Commission guidelines and Supreme Court rulings.

So if someone shared demonstrably false information on Parler, Matze said it would be up to other users to fact-check them “organically”.

And although Parler is still dwarfed by Twitter (330 million users) and Facebook (2.6 billion users) the platform’s anti-censorship stance continues to attract users turned off by the regulations of larger social media platforms.

When Twitter recently hid tweets from Trump for “glorifying violence”, this partly prompted the Trump campaign to consider moving to a platform such as Parler.

Far-right American political activist and conspiracy theorist Lara Loomer is among Parler’s most popular users.
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Matze also claims Parler protects users’ privacy by not tracking or sharing their data.

Is Parler really a free speech haven?

Companies such as Twitter and Facebook have denied they are silencing conservative voices, pointing to blanket policies against hate speech and content inciting violence.

Parler’s “free speech” has resulted in various American Republicans, including Senator Ted Cruz, promoting the platform.

Many conservative influencers such as Katie Hopkins, Lara Loomer and Alex Jones have sought refuge on Parler after being banned from other platforms.

Although it brands itself as a bipartisan safe space, Parler is mostly used by right-wing media, politicians and commentators.

Moreover, a closer look at its user agreement suggests it moderates content the same way as any platform, maybe even more.

The company states:

Parler may remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason or no reason.

Parler’s community guidelines prohibit a range of content including spam, terrorism, unsolicited ads, defamation, blackmail, bribery and criminal behaviour.

Although there are no explicit rules against hate speech, there are policies against “fighting words” and “threats of harm”. This includes “a threat of or advocating for violation against an individual or group”.

Parler CEO John Matze clarified the platform’s rules after banning users, presumably for breaking one or more of the listed rules.

There are rules against content that is obscene, sexual or “lacks serious literary, artistic, political and scientific value”. For example, visuals of genitalia, female nipples, or faecal matter are barred from Parler.

Meanwhile, Twitter allows “consensually produced adult content” if its marked as “sensitive”. It also has no policy against the visual display of excrement.

As a private company, Parler can remove whatever content it wants. Some users have already been banned for breaking rules.

What’s more, in spite of claims it does not share user data, Parler’s privacy policy states data collected can be used for advertising and marketing.




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No marks of establishment

Given its limited user base, Parler has yet to become the “open town square” it aspires to be.

The platform is in its infancy and its user base is much less representative than larger social media platforms.

Despite Matze saying “left-leaning” users tied to the Black Lives Matter movement were joining Parler to challenge conservatives, Parler lacks the diverse audience needed for any real debate.

Upon joining the platform, Parler suggests following several politically conservative users.
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Matze also said he doesn’t want Parler to be an “echo chamber” for conservative voices. In fact, he is offering a US$20,000 “progressive bounty” for an openly liberal pundit with 50,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook to join.

Clearly, the platform has a long way to go before it bursts its conservative bubble.




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Don’t (just) blame echo chambers. Conspiracy theorists actively seek out their online communities


The Conversation


Audrey Courty, PhD candidate, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.